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Chillicothe: The River City That Gave Birth to Zorro

Small towns across the country looking to brand their community have learned the importance of recalling hometown heroes.

In Illinois, Eureka celebrates the fact that movie actor and former president Ronald Reagan attended college there while Springfield has long been identified as the home of Abraham Lincoln.

Famous authors are also recalled. Hannibal, Mo., has developed its tourism campaign as the boyhood home of Mark Twain.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of “The Little House on the Prairie” series, is honored in five different states with museums or little-house replicas. You can find places to visit in Mansfield, Mo., Walnut Grove, Minn., Pepin, Wis., De Smet, S.D. and Independence, Kan.

Towns like Chester in southern Illinois, where Elzie Crisler Segar was raised, honor the comic-strip artist's creation, Popeye, with statues all over town of Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto and the whole gang.

So it should come as no surprise that Chillicothe, a community with a population of 6,200 located 18 miles north of Peoria, refers to Johnston McCulley as the town’s “master storyteller.”

McCulley grew up in the town, graduating from Chillicothe High School in 1901. He later moved to Peoria where he took his first writing job on the Peoria Star.

But McCulley the reporter was more interested in writing fiction. He left central Illinois in 1909 for points west to seek his fortune. Ten years later he wrote “The Curse of Capistrano” for “All Story Weekly,” one of the many pulp magazines popular at the time.

That five-part series featured a masked character named Zorro who came to the big screen in 1920. Just a year after McCulley’s story was published, “The Mark of Zorro” was a box-office hit with Douglas Fairbanks in the lead role.

Not only was Zorro’s star on the rise but so was McCulley’s writing career. Along with Zorro, McCulley penned hundreds of stories with characters like the Crimson Clown, Black Star and Thubway Tham.

Evidence of McCulley’s prolific publishing is in evidence at the Chillicothe Historical Society, 723 N. Fourth St., where many of the original magazines that carried his stories are on display along with a placard listing titles and publication dates.

“That’s not even complete,” said Gary Fyke, one of the directors of the historical society who’s researched the McCulley saga. “We’re still finding stories that he wrote,” he said.

The Chillicothe history group has taken the lead on raising awareness of McCulley’s work and his most popular character.

Dianne Colwell, another CHS member, recalled first becoming aware of Chillicothe’s Zorro connection. “I read about McCulley as creator of Zorro in the Chillicothe Bulletin in 1998. I vowed to do something about it some day. In 2013, I got $500 for a display at the museum. Gary Fyke began research into the subject,” she said.

Colwell said the town got a big boost when Peter Poplaski, an artist from Green Bay, Wis., decided to help promote Chillicothe’s claim to fame with items from his own Zorro collection that included classic movie posters and original paintings.

While the CHS has hosted Zorro Fest parades in the past and maintains an extensive McCulley/Zorro exhibit at its museum, due to the pandemic, there are no definite plans to honor the masked hero in 2021, said Colwell.

There are tentative plans to unfurl a Zorro banner at the first of a series of Downtown Market events set for Chillicothe on May 27, she said.

“We call McCulley Chillicothe’s master storyteller but we need more people to tell that story,” said Colwell, noting that, like other groups, the local historical society has seen a decline in membership.

Those interested in the Zorro story or Chillicothe history in general are welcome to drop by the CHS museum now open from 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays, she said.

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Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.