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Leo Edwards and His Giggling Pen
By Fredric Brewer
The Correll boys lived in a stucco house several blocks west of Lafontaine Street, and I got there, stamps safely in a pocket of my knickers, by crossing the sixth fairway of Solloway's miniature golf course, a depression enterprise that doomed a cabbage patch and that was soon doomed itself. Let me explain. The stamps were scissored off old envelopes I found stuffed in a box in our attic. The older Correll boy collected stamps, and for three stamps he would loan me one book; for six, three. If I didn't return the book or books within a week, he would send his younger brother to tell my mother. The deal seemed fair enough.
|"The magician left town with his loaded truck." From Jerry Todd Editor-in-Grief.
The year was 1930. The books were splendid in red cloth covers and bore titles that still set my pulse a-pounding: Jerry Todd and the Whispering Mummy, Poppy Ott and the Stuttering Parrot, each title calculated to whirl a boy's imagination to dizzying heights. The author was Leo Edwards of Cambridge, Wisconsin; the illustrator Bert Salg of Congers, New York, and the publisher Grosset & Dunlap of New York City. The Correll boys owned only a few of the Todd and Ott books, but of no matter. I borrowed them again and again.
We moved to West High Street, farther to the east where the rent was cheaper. The Correll house was now distant and in another time. But on my tenth birthday, Grandmother Sylvia gave me the Whispering Mummy book, which she purchased for fifty cents at Barnharts bookstore, and my mother increased my weekly allowance from a nickel to a dime. This meant that every five weeks I could transact business at Barnharts myself, if I kept to conservative economics.
I was born beneath good stars. My birthday is five days before Christmas; so if I was well behaved and if I hinted enough, December provided me with two gift books, and the allowance, if not squandered on jawbreakers and red pop, further benefited my library. In our two years on West High Street, I acquired all the titles the Corrells possessed and The Rose Colored Cat, The Oak Island Treasure, and The Waltzing Hen in the Jerry Todd series, and The Seven League Stilts and The Galloping Snail in the Poppy Ott series. In time, having moved in succession to Charles Street then to two different places on West Market and finally to Poplar Street, my holdings included Trigger Berg and the Treasure Tree, Tuffy Bean's Puppy Days, Andy Blake and the Pot of Gold, and other titles, all by Leo Edwards.
In almost all of Edwards's books there is a section called "Our Chatter-Box," which mainly consists of letters and poems sent to the author by his readers. If your poem was printed, you received a free book. I was not one with the muses. How could I possibly compete with Stanley Deck of Lebanon, Pennsylvania? His poem in one Chatter-Box begins:
A Freckled Goldfish is very neat,
And when you meet one upon the street
You will always get a cheerful reply—
And Freckled Goldfish never lie!
But for a pair of two-cent stamps mailed to Hi-Lee, Edwards's summer cottage at Wisconsin's Lake Ripley, I was inducted into the Secret and Mysterious Order of the Freckled Goldfish, sworn to a code of ethics I shall always respect though my yellow membership card and lapel button emblazoned with the oddly scaled fish, a high beaver hat set jauntily atop its freckled head, vanished years ago.
For a dime Grosset & Dunlap would send you a glossy photograph of Edwards. I regret never getting one. But once, keeping to a rigorous budget, I saved a dollar and got a book directly from Edwards, Jerry Todd's Up-the-Ladder Club, in which the author wrote, in black ink, "Autographed for my boy pal," and signed his name. To my dismay, this book was illustrated not by Salg but by a woman—Myrtle Sheldon. Up-the-Ladder Club (1937) was the last Edwards book that I acquired. It was not the new illustrator's fault, however. I was in my freshman year at Huntington High School and was developing interests in other writers. Also, I had a mournful, secret crush on a classmate named Natalie who loathed boys' books. She was a star pupil in Mrs. Robbins's Latin class. To this day, the only Latin phrase I can whip off without a fault is Puella est pulchra. Now you know why.
Leo Edwards was a pen name. The author's real name was Edward Edson Lee. He spent his early years in Utica, Illinois, where he was born in 1884. "I was born a poor boy," he confessed in a Chatter-Box. "So poor were we, in fact, that I had to give up school when I was thirteen and go to work. At that time my mother and I—the only two at home—moved from Illinois [in 1897] to Beloit, Wisconsin, where I found work in a factory."
Utica is a small town, around a thousand souls by the 1990 census. It straddles Illinois State Road 43 and is just north of the Illinois River. Buffalo State Park is only a few miles east. Much farther on is the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which connects with the Des Plaines River, and this waterway empties into the Illinois River. In his Jerry Todd and Poppy Ott stories Edwards used Utica as the fictional boys' home, renaming the town Tutter and moving it with literary license to alongside the canal. Tutter does not appear in his other books. Trigger Berg's hometown was Crocketville, Illinois, which I have not been able to identify. Andy Blake's escapades mainly occurred in Chicago, readily identifiable, and fictional Manton, "a typical Illinois manufacturing town" where Blake was sales promotion manager of a company that manufactured Comet coaster wagons. Trigger Berg owned a Comet coaster. On the other hand, Tuffy Bean—a dog, belonged to no specific Midwestern place other than having been born on a farm near Funny-Bone Lake, which probably was Lake Ripley.
At the age of twenty-five Edwards married and shortly thereafter subscribed to a correspondence course in advertising. This led to advertising work in Beloit followed by similar employment in Detroit, and finally in Ohio where for four year she was the advertising manager of a manufacturing concern. In his mid-thirties, Edwards began writing about Jerry Todd. Some of his early books were serialized in The American Boy and in religious magazines for children, The Target, The Classmate, and The Pioneer. He quit his job to return to Wisconsin where he began writing full time. "It takes me about ten weeks to plan and complete" a book, he revealed in the Chatter-Box.
Of Edwards's thirty-nine books, my favorites were those about Jerry Todd and Poppy Ott. Certainly they were re-read often enough. I was too old for the Tuffy Bean and Trigger Berg books, although the adventures involving Tuffy and Trigger did provide giggles. As for the Andy Blake books, I was simply dulled by Blake's Horatio Alger drive. He was unlike any boy I ever knew unless it was the youth we called Junior and whose ambition, which he explained matter-of-factly in his prairie-flat voice, was to be mayor and attend Rotary Club luncheons. We often attempted to get Junior to join us in our Wild West recreations when we banged away with cap pistols at imaginary cattle rustlers. We even offered him first choice to be Bob Steele or Ken Maynard or Hoot Gibson, our cowboy movie actor heroes, but he never showed up on the vacant lot where we played. In later years, he became a grade school teacher. I do not know if he ever got to a Rotary luncheon. Likely he did.
Jerry was the son of one of Tutter's leading businessmen: he owned a brickyard. Jerry's pals were Red Meyers, a fiery tempered lad given to over-eating and prank-making. He lived next door to Jerry; his father operated Tutter's movie theater. There was Scoop Ellery who lived on Oak Street and whose dad was a grocer. Scoop was the brains of the gang. And there was Peg Shaw, hefty, quiet, strong, and ever faithful. He lived with his dad, a paper hanger and house painter, in a small house at the corner of Grove and School streets. In some of the tales, an English youth named Rory Ringer and a young fellow labeled Horse Foot (actual name was Samuel Horace Butterfield Rail) occasionally attached themselves to the Jerry Todd adventures. Most of these characters also appeared in the Poppy Ott tales, for these were told from the perspective of Jerry who became Poppy's bosom buddy.
Poppy was christened Nicholas Carter Sherlock Holmes, the name provided by his father, Horatio Calabash Ott, a mail order detective with a six-dollar tin badge. Poppy was born in Tennessee. When his mother died, he and his father took to wandering, the elder Ott practicing his sleuthing, his son selling popcorn, hence the nickname. They arrived in Tutter in a "ramshackle bungalow built on a rickety four-wheeled wagon" pulled by Julius Caesar, an ancient, sway-backed horse. Horatio Ott was on the trail of a stolen black parrot whose name was Solomon Grundy. Poppy, weary of his dad's unsuccessful detective pursuits, directed Julius Caesar to kick the wagon's wooden wheels into smithereens. Thus immobilized, Poppy and his dad stayed on in Tutter, the father getting employment in the Todd brickyard. It was Poppy who came up with wild money-making schemes, selling pedigreed pickles, or prancing pancakes, or raising freckled goldfish, or constructing seven-league stilts, or operating an interior decorating company.
Save for a few ill-fated stabs at the business world—for example, an attempt to entice Tutter kids to take a bath, at a quarter a shot, in a zinc bathtub in which Buffalo Bill Cody presumably had once bathed—Jerry Todd and his pals were principally involved in spooky, rib-tickling adventures: the flying flapdoodle. The rose colored cat, the bobtailed elephant, the talking frog and waltzing hen, the Oak Island treasure, and, of course, the whispering mummy.
The boys in the Todd and Ott series shared mutual enemies: Bid Stricker and his ne'er-do-well buddies, cousin Jim Stricker (although he's called a brother in one book). Hib Milden, and Jum Prater. This collection of mischief-makers lived in the far west end of Tutter, and their sole intent of existence was to upset the best laid plans of Jerry and his pals. Naturally, the good guys eventually got the upper end.
And there were wacky grown-up characters: Professor Hebberloom Clatterby, a lizard expert on the track of a rare reptile loose in the Tutter area, and the "Reverend" Joshua Jonathan Jacobs, a Bible salesman who claimed that one of his big toes, which he secretly blackened with shoe polish, had been accidentally stitched on after he and an African named Walla Walla had lost their toes in a train wreck and the doe who did the sewing got them mixed up. Don't overlook Cap'n Boaz Tinkertop and his "hilarious dancing leg," or Professor Van Gordon who wandered through his backyard lecturing the bushes on how the northern lights affected the fauna of the pre-glacial period, or Capricorn Hebrides Windbigler, the Harmony Hustler with a warty nose and a lilting voice.
|"...as World War II uncoiled, the market for his books withered. His former boy pals were now grown and in places with strange names and terrible duties."
Leo Edwards was by no means a gifted writer. Yet his books made their youthful readers shudder (What was the secret of the mummy that disappeared from the college museum at the upper end of Tutter's Hill Street?) and laugh until their sides ached (Was the purring egg actually a dodo egg from King Tut's tomb, and if so, would the dodo hatch?). Edwards's popularity can be deduced from the number of Freckled Goldfish club members—3,000 in 1930,25,000 by 1937. But as World War II uncoiled, the market for his books withered. His former boy pals were now grown and in places with strange names and terrible duties. The youths at home wanted war stories, which Edwards could not write. The most violence he could workup concerned boys in pirate dress floating on a shaky raft down the canal and whooshing rotten eggs with a giant slingshot at Bid Stricker and his gang who had misappropriated a scow belonging to the Todd brickyard.
Around the time World War II started, the author's marriage broke up. In 1944,Edward Edson Lee died in Rockford, Illinois. His son, Eugene, told a Baltimore Sun reporter that his father died "a broken, sick, and bitter man." Perhaps. But under his pen name, Lee was Leo Edwards, and Leo Edwards was Jerry and Poppy, Trigger and Tuffy, and Red Meyers and Horse Foot as well, not one of whom ever expressed bitterness. They were happy, adventurous, full of life, eternally young. They were the true Leo Edwards.
Believe me. Freckled Goldfish never lie.
|EDWARDS'S FIRST BOOK, Andy Blake in Advertising, was published in 1921by Appleton Press. Grosset & Dunlap, which became his sole publisher, re-issued this book in 1928 as Andy Blake. There are only four Blake books although the last, published in 1930, promised Andy Blake, Boy Builder. This title never appeared. As a book title, Jerry Todd and the Whispering Mummy was put out in1923. There are sixteen titles in the Todd series, the last being Jerry Todd's Cuckoo Camp (1940). In the closing pages of Cuckoo Camp, Edwards promoted Jerry Todd, Detective, but like the promised Blake title, this book also did not appear. In the Poppy Ott series there are eleven titles, the first—the story of the stuttering parrot—appeared in 1926. The last Ott tide, The Hidden Dwarf was published in 1939. Trigger Berg and the Treasure Tree came out in 1930. There are four titles in this series. The last was Trigger Berg and the Cock-Eyed Ghost (1933). There are also four titles in the Tuffy Bean series, the first being Puppy Days (1931) and the last Tuffy Bean and the Lost Fortune (1932). At the end of this book Edwards announced a forthcoming fifth title, Tuffy Bean's Hunting Days. The book was never published.
Copyright © 1991 by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.