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PAGING BACK: Boyhood Tales

The Daily Times, Ottawa, IL
Monday, November 10, 2003

UNDER HIS PEN-NAME, Leo Edwards, Edward Edson Lee wrote more than 50 works of juvenile fiction in the 1920s and 1930s. The books were set in the fictional town of Tutter, which was created from Edwards’ memories of growing up in Utica as a boy.

UTICA -- As a boy during the 1880s and 1890s, Edward Edson Lee found adventure and fun roaming the hills of Utica and swimming in the Illinois & Michigan Canal.

And Lee -- better known by his pen name Leo Edwards -- immortalized those memories and shared them with others through more than 50 books written during the 1920s and 1930s.

Edwards wrote juvenile fiction; his books were a contemporary of works such as The Hardy Boys or Tom Swift. However, what set Edwards apart, said his fans, were the detailed descriptions of the town of Tutter, where almost all of the stories took place.

In reality, Tutter was Utica.

A map printed on the inside cover of the books display Utica (Tutter) as it was just before the turn of the century, although some of the names of streets and landmarks have been changed.

"The books talk about quarries and the canal -- all the places the kids played. There was a brickyard where the park is now. That's in the book, too," said Bruce Etheridge, a member of the La Salle County Historical Society.

Ottawa was changed to Ashton for the stories, but landmarks such as the train depot, the canal with its towpath, and the railroad tracks are all in the same locations.

Even street names are similar. Names such as Canal, Church, and Clark streets are still there, but in different places. Mill Street has been changed to Hill Street.

Ron Vasile, a historian from Downers Grove who recently completed a book on the history of Utica, ranked his discovery that Leo Edwards set all of his books in Utica as among his favorite local points of interest.

Describing Edwards' books as an early Scooby-Doo-type mystery series involving the same gang of kids, he included a reference to the author in his book and encouraged local history buffs to check out the books at the Utica Public Library.

"His childhood memories never left him, and he used boyhood surroundings in shaping his plots," Vasile wrote in his book about Edwards. "He credited his Utica teacher, Kate Gardner, for encouraging him to write."

Born Sept. 2, 1884 in Meriden, Leo Edwards spent nine years of his boyhood in Utica before moving to Beloit, Wis., at the age of 13.

During his years in Utica, Edwards attended the former two-story Utica school, which was situated in the same location as the current school building, and engaged in all of the activities that Utica children loved to do.

"I heard from a lady who stopped in that he was not a good student, that he would sit out under a tree writing stories," Etheridge said. "But I don't know where she got that."

Edwards' family was quite poor, and after moving to Wisconsin, he went to work in a factory when he was 14. Later on, while working at an advertising agency in Cambridge, Wis. he began his professional writing career, getting several serial stories published in "Boys Life" and "The American Boy" magazines. These stories introduced some of his characters from Tutter, and all of his magazine stories eventually were expanded into books.

One of those serials, a seven-part story printed in "The American Boy" from January through July 1922, became his first book. Based around the character of Andy Blake, it was published in 1922 with D. Appleton & Company. In this book, the town was called Cressfield, but the landmarks in the story indicate that it also was based on his memories of Utica. His later books were all set in Tutter.

Included in the first Andy Blake book is Landers General Store, a store that actually operated in Utica between 1885 and 1942 on the west side of Mill Street.

"The author had left Utica in 1897 as a young boy, but carried with him in his retentive memory a picture of the town which he restored in his writing. Among the Utica businesses which he had been familiar with was a general store operated by William Landers, " wrote Bob Chenu, an editor of the Tutter Bugle, a newsletter dedicated to Leo Edwards and his books.

While the first printing of this book recorded a net loss of $470.22, his later books, all published through Grosset & Dunlap, practically flew off the shelves. The rights to the first Andy Blake story were eventually purchased by Grosset & Dunlap which reprinted the book with some minor changes. Edwards also wrote three other Andy Blake books.

In all, Edwards wrote five different series, with the most popular being the Jerry Todd series (16 books) and the Poppy Ott series (11 books). Like the Andy Blake series, the Tuffy Bean and Trigger Berg series had four books apiece.

Just as he based the fictitious Tutter upon a real place, Edwards also liked to use real people and events in penning the pages of his books.

In "Jerry Todd and the Whispering Mummy", a mummy is donated to Tutter College that is stolen by the Golden Sphinx Fraternity Boys. The mummy is later found to be fake.

The plot came straight from an incident at Beloit College.

"Such a hoax actually occurred, involving a 'mummy' which was purchased by a patron of Beloit College and donated to that school," Chenu wrote. "It was uncritically accepted by the college authorities, and was placed in the school's Logan Museum. There it was displayed for some years, properly regarded with awe by the undergraduates and other visitors.

"Then some members of one of the college fraternities had an inspiration. One of the initiation requirements was for the candidates to perform some prescribed act of 'burglary.' The mummy was selected for the test, and was successfully mummy-naped by the candidate. Being of a more inquiring turn of mind than the faculty had been, the mummy's artificial nature was discovered by the captors."

And just as art imitated life on the pages of Edwards' books, so too did Edwards' love of children spill not only onto the pages of his books, but also into his everyday life.

His Cambridge home was often visited by neighborhood children, and Edwards read first drafts of his books to the children to gauge their responses to the story.

Characters in the books were named for children in his life, including naming hero Poppy Ott for his nephew, who was nicknamed "Poppy." The Jerry Todd books are said to be based on Edwards' own son, Eugene Lee. His books were often dedicated to children he knew.

"He was also very active in the Boy Scouts," Etheridge said of Edwards.

As the Great Depression progressed, Edwards' books declined in popularity, with economic difficulties drying up much of the publishing industry. On Sept. 28, 1944, Edwards passed away. But there are still people alive with fond memories of his tales, as the Utica Historic Society receives regular inquiries about Edwards and his books.

"A lot of the older people tell their kids about the books," Etheridge said. "We have people stop in from all over the country and say their dad had some of the books around. They're collectors' items now."

[Originally published in The Daily Times, Ottawa, IL, Monday, Nov. 10, 2003 and also availably online at www.inottawa.com. Published by permission of the Managing Editor.]

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