Monday evening, January 9, 1922, the New Year was barely a week old when more than 100 members of the Rotary Club and the Chillicothe Chamber of Commerce crowded into the dining room of the Warner Hotel on North Paint Street. The white-lined tables were now cluttered with discarded plates, rolled-up cloth napkins, and half-empty glasses of iced tea. The after-dinner special speaker was nearing the end of his speech and the men leaned forward in their chairs, clinging to his every word.
By the time he finished, the men leapt from their seats and erupted into thunderous applause and cheers. After the applause finally died down, the smiling members of Rotary and the House unanimously and enthusiastically elected this man “Emperor of Chillicothe!” They were barely kidding. The speaker was the famous columnist, stand-up comedian and “Chillicothe boy done well”, Jack Raper.
John Wolfe Raper – everyone called him Jack – was born on February 20, 1870 in Vinton County, but his family moved to Chillicothe when he was 5 years old. His father, Captain John T. Raper, was a native of Chillicothe, a well-known Civil War veteran and editor of “The Ohio Soldier,” a popular veterans newspaper; he also co-owned the Gazette from 1874 to 1887. Jack got his middle name from his mother, Sarah Frances (Wolfe) Raper.
Growing up on South Walnut Street, young Jack attended Chillicothe schools and has always credited Anna G. McDougal, his favorite high school English teacher, for sparking his interest “in good literature and prompting him to always do your best ”.
Thirty-five years later at the sleek Warner Hotel, professor and wearing glasses, Raper began his speech as he usually did, with a heavy dose of self-mockery.
“It’s really useless to try to grow hair again,” said the nearly bald 52-year-old, rubbing the top of his head. “You can’t grow grass on a concrete block. And if anyone was interested in a sure-fire way to tell if a man had reached old age, he suggested he only had to ask two questions: Is the climate changing? And were girls prettier when they were younger? “If he answers yes to both questions,” Raper said with a smirk, “it’s a cinch that he’s old.”
After a final joke, Raper’s speech turned serious, probably more than the men sitting around the tables expected. The theme of his speech, “What I Would Do If I Were City Emperor,” was a sharp critique of what he thought Chillicothe needed to be a better city. Few men could have gotten away with it. But Jack Raper was no ordinary man!
After graduating from Chillicothe High School, Raper moved from newspaper to newspaper in his twenties, but soon after turning 30 he found a permanent home at the Cleveland Press, where his popular column, “Most Anything,” was published for 47 years.
Jack Raper’s first column, August 23, 1900, set the tone for all that followed. “Gas Inspector Harry L. Payne is spending his summer vacation at Town Hall,” he began sarcastically.
Payne was paid by the City of Cleveland to perform bi-weekly gas tests, but had never done such a test and didn’t even have the equipment to do it. It was a sham at the expense of the taxpayer. Readers loved it, and for nearly half a century, Raper’s “Most Anything” columns shed a vivid light on those in power.
In the Warner Dining Room, the revered journalist was about to shed a different light on his childhood hometown. He hadn’t lived in Chillicothe for over three decades, but he was back in town so often that it must have seemed like he never left it.
Her sister Frances (Mrs. Charles Kellenberger) resided on East Fifth Street and her older brother was a frequent guest. Time and time again, until his death, Raper was drawn to the house like a magnet and insisted to anyone who wanted to hear him that Chillicothe was “the best place on earth.” And he meant it.
That’s why at Warner that night, after he went from his opening at home to Will Rodgers and got to the flesh of his speech, no one came out.
“Cover your ears, ministers and ladies,” he said, surveying the room. “Main Street is a hell of a name, isn’t it?” He asked without expecting an answer, his face suddenly serious. “A hick name for a hick street in a hick town.” Was this the same guy who thought Chillicothe was the best place on earth? Context is important.
After 10 years of writing his increasingly popular “Most Anything” columns, Raper featured a regular Monday article titled “All the News from Hicksville”. Once a week, for the next 25 years, he chronicled activities in a fictional small town, full of fictional residents with colorful names such as Bessie Belle Beebe, Peachy Boblet, Aunt Attie Moon, Grandpa Whetstone and a crowd. other rustic characters. .
Some readers will recall that at the time there was a mass exodus of people from small towns and the countryside to the burgeoning industrial towns of the United States. Cleveland was a perfect example of this phenomenon and the people who had recently moved there ate this stuff. They recognized the characters from Raper’s Hicksville, and the humorous stories made them gut their stomachs and yearn for their past lives.
The problem was, there was a real Hicksville located in Northwest Ohio and the residents who lived there were sure Raper was laughing at them. They send him angry and sometimes even threatening letters. Eventually, however, a prominent Hicksville resident convinced angry townspeople to accept it, as it was “the best publicity Hicksville has ever received!”
After 25 years of whimsical Hicksville chronicles, the small town sent its Silver Cornett Band to Cleveland, where he serenaded Jack Raper outside the Cleveland Press building and asked him to come out and give a speech. Raper, still in mind, replied, “I won’t just give a speech, but I won’t charge you for anything.” Hicksville gave him a nice cigarette case, and he was forgiven for everything.
Funnily enough, despite what the good folks in Hicksville suspected, the make-believe town of Raper really was somewhere just outside of Chillicothe, straight out of young Jack’s childhood imagination.
Bessie Belle Beebe, Peachy Boblet and the rest of the gang swam in Paint Creek, fished in the Scioto River, lived in the same neighborhood as Rattlesnake Knob, Rocky Knob, Sugar Loaf and Mount Logan, and traveled on many of the same Ross routes. The counts still do this today.
Yet his comments that night were sharper than his Hicksville chronicles and unequivocally bore the fingerprints of American novelist Sinclair Lewis. The recently published Lewis Main Street novel was a blockbuster, and its runaway success prompted countless small towns and cities to consider renaming their Main Streets.
Lewis had grown up in the small town of Sauk Center, Minnesota, and Main Street was a thinly veiled attack on the small town values of the townspeople and thousands of other similar small towns across America. The inhabitants of Lewis’s fictional Gopher Prairie were conformist, narrow-minded, pious, self-righteous, and a carbon copy of countless other small town dwellers, one indistinguishable from the other.
Incredibly, the novel had such a big impact on American culture – like many of Lewis’ later novels – that small towns across America began to debate whether to rename their main streets or risk doing so. be caricatured as a “wasp city”.
But if the men of Warner were taken aback by the harshness of Raper’s “hick town” remarks, they had little time to digest them because the columnist was aiming for his next target.
The courthouse on Paint and Main streets, he said, “is one of the best advertisements for Chillicothe and if I were Emperor there would be a long rope hanging in a very public place and it would be tagged: ‘This is for anyone desecrating our beautiful courthouse.’ Jack Raper was just starting to warm up.
Read Part 2 of my next column and find out what Jack Raper had to say about Mount Logan, the city’s population size and architecture, kids, baseball diamonds, historic sites and heresy. not to have a YMCA.