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Archie at 80: Here's the Kansas town that inspired the creation of Riverdale
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Archie at 80: Here's the Kansas town that inspired the creation of Riverdale

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If you’re among generations of readers raised on “Archie,” Riverdale should be close to your heart.

Geographically, Riverdale could be closer than you think.

Archie Andrews, perennially a teenager, turned 80 last month. The character was introduced in Pep Comics No. 22, cover dated December, 1941.

At the core of Archie mythology: He’s stuck in an eternal love triangle with rich brunette Veronica Lodge and blond girl-next-door Betty Cooper.

Readers couldn’t get enough. The decades saw an explosion of different comic book titles featuring Archie and his pals and gals, plus adventures on other turfs: comic strip, radio show, Saturday morning cartoons, fictional band (“Sugar, Sugar” was a No. 1 song in 1969) and modern TV fare like “Riverdale.”

Some of the inspiration for it all was provided by a town that’s about a five-hour drive from Tulsa.

Specifics?

John L. Goldwater is credited as a creator of Archie. He was orphaned shortly after birth in New York. As a teen, he thumbed his way west and hopped trains. The odyssey took him to Hiawatha, Kansas, in the northeast corner of the state. He took a job there as a reporter at the Hiawatha Daily World newspaper.

It would be interesting to pick Goldwater’s brain about his experiences in rural Kansas, but that’s no longer possible. He passed away in 1999.

A New York Times obituary said Goldwater was assigned to cover school sports in Hiawatha. He socialized with football players and girls they attracted “which would later supply him with ample comic material.” Bonding was likely easy because he was close to the same age as the people he was writing about.

Goldwater didn’t stick around for the long haul in Hiawatha, but his time there — maybe a year and a half? — is considered foundational to the creation of the Archie-verse. Goldwater wasn’t blessed with a traditional high school experience while growing up, but Hiawatha filled in some blanks and gave him something to bring to the table when Archie was being fleshed out years later.

Said the New York Times obit: “Naming his creation Archie, after a school chum, Mr. Goldwater surrounded him with other characters patterned after teenagers he had met in the Midwest, gave them jalopies and typical teen-age problems, placed them in the mythical and idyllic town of Riverdale, and found a young artist, Bob Montana, who provided what became indelible faces.” (Montana, the original Archie artist, drew upon his high school experiences in Haverhill, Massachusetts.)

Maybe there’s an alternate universe where Goldwater became a permanent resident of Hiawatha instead of continuing his travels, but something Archie-ish — girl trouble — reportedly hastened his departure in this universe.

A 2011 Comics Journal story said Goldwater was fired from the Hiawatha Daily World because he got into a “scrap” with the son of the newspaper’s biggest advertiser. Reason for the scrap: a girl.

“Everywhere he went, his life was as complicated as that of Archie Andrews — and all because of girls,” wrote R.C. Harvey, who provided examples in his Comics Journal story.

Hiawatha’s Archie connection was compelling enough (at least for a longtime Archie consumer) that a visit to the town seemed mandatory.

Downtown Hiawatha looks vintage enough that Pop Tate’s Chock’lit Shoppe would be a natural fit among storefronts. An Old Clock Tower built in 1891 crowns a building that is home to City Hall.

A roadside sign on the western edge of Hiawatha reminds visitors that the town is the City of Beautiful Maples. Aside from fall foliage, Hiawatha’s drawing cards include the nation’s oldest Halloween Frolic and a Davis Memorial at Mt. Hope Cemetery that has been spotlighted by Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

Held annually since 1914, the Halloween Frolic was created to occupy kids who might otherwise be doing ornery things in October. The Davis Memorial features 11 made-in-Italy statues that depict John Milburn Davis and wife Sarah during various stages of their life together. He commissioned the statues (estimated cost: $200,000, during the Great Depression) following his wife’s death because they had no heirs and he didn’t want his in-laws to wind up with an inheritance. Some in Hiawatha urged him to spend the money instead on civic improvements. “They hate me,” Davis told reporter Ernie Pyle in the late 1930s. “But it’s my money and I spent it the way I pleased.”

Back in present day, folks at the Chamber of Commerce, the Hiawatha World, the Brown County Historical Society and the Brown County Genealogical were eager to help in the search for clues that might shed more light on the town’s Archie ties.

Wouldn’t it be great to find newspaper stories written by Goldwater? Unfortunately, newspaper stories of that era were not equipped with bylines, so there’s no way of identifying his handiwork.

Goldwater told interviewers Archie Andrews was based on a high school kid he encountered. A library search of the Hiawatha newspaper archives yielded a mention of an Archie Andrews in a classified advertisement that was published Oct. 7, 1940: “Mere words will not be adequate to convey our feeling of gratitude to those who in so many ways expressed their concern (and) sympathy during Archie Andrews’ sickness. ... Thank you for the many gifts which helped him pass the long hours of convalescence. His complete recovery is assured. Each of you has helped to sustain our courage (and) trust.”

Even though 1940 would’ve been after Goldwater’s time in Hiawatha, is the classified ad referencing “the” Archie Andrews?

In 1933, performers during Hiawatha’s junior class skits included James Weatherbee. The Riverdale principal in Archie lore is Waldo Weatherbee. Perhaps some things are too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence.

Regardless, the Goldwater/Hiawatha/Archie story is a spin on the American dream that actually resulted in the creation of actual Americana. What are the odds that an orphan kid grows up to steer the fortunes of America’s favorite teenager?

Though Goldwater’s journey to find his calling took him many places, he shared with family that he loved Hiawatha. It was obvious from how often he referenced his time in Hiawatha that he viewed it as a special place. It was his Riverdale.


Tulsa World Scene: James Watts, Jimmie Tramel and Grace Wood talk interior design trends; Archie turns 80 and more

Scene staff previews new podcast; 2022 interior design trends; Archie comics at 80 with an Oklahoma tie and Sound of Music coming to Tulsa.PAC; Reservation Dogs up for a Golden Globe, and Dracula Sandwich in downtown

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Scene Writer

I cover pop culture and work as a feature writer at the Tulsa World. A former Oklahoma sports writer of the year, I have written books about former OU coach Barry Switzer and former OSU coach Pat Jones. Phone: 918-581-8389

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