1If there are autographed black and white photos of the L'il Abner comic strip creator, radio talk show host and political commentator hamming it up with local politicians or cavorting at a local bar with some of his New York friends, they're likely tucked away in the private collections of residents who knew the family well. There are no streets named after Capp's famous comic-strip characters Daisy Mae, Shmoo or Sadie Hawkins, to name a few. In fact, the only public monument to his memory is his family's unmarked homestead on Whitehall Road and Capp's gravesite at Mount Prospect Cemetery.
Today on what would mark Al Capp's 100th birthday, there is no festival planned to honor the occasion. But there are many in town who still remember Capp's downtown art studio, his friendly in-laws and the memory of Capp sitting on the porch of his picturesque home on the banks of the Powow River, where he and his family lived from 1940 until his death in 1979.
According to his daughter, Julie Cairol, 75, who still lives in the Capp family home, the quick-witted cartoon satirist whose comic strip was once viewed by 60 million readers, cherished his down time in this small town.
"I was born in Amesbury," said Cairol. "My father bought this house for my mother (Catherine Wingate Cameron) when we were children because he didn't want us living in the city. I grew up here until I went away to school."
Cairol was born shortly after Capp first pitched his L'il Abner cartoon strip to United Features Syndicate, setting out on his own after ghosting for cartoonist Ham Fisher on the popular boxing strip series Joe Palooka. His fictitious Dogpatch, home to L'il Abner, and love interest Daisy Mae, Mammy and Pappy Yokum, Fearless Fostick and the ever unfortunate Joe Btfsplk, struck a chord with Americans suffering through the Great Depression.
And as his name became a household one across the country, back in his home on Whitehall Road, his first readers were wife and three children — Julie, Catherine Jane and Colin.
"He was a wonderful father and we had a lot of fun," said Cairol. "Every night he would come home and tell us what he'd drawn that day in L'il Abner, and tell us all his jokes and wait for us to laugh. If we didn't, he'd explain it a little better until we'd laugh. He shared it all with us."
At that time, said Cairol, Capp kept a studio in Boston and a studio in downtown Amesbury. For a time he had a studio up on Powow or "Po" Hill as well, according to Cairol, but his well-known local workspace was located in the second floor of the building that used to house Ben's Men's store.
"He was more of a big city person but he was very happy to have his children being brought up on a farm," said Cairol, who cited her mother's parents as being part of the reason for the family moving to Amesbury. Cairol said her parents went searching for a place to settle down that was close to her mother's parents, Colin and Della Cameron of Amesbury. Colin was a former member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and owned the Whittier Press. He was also related to the Nova Scotia Cameron who launched the Currier, Cameron Carriage Company in downtown Amesbury.
From his first meeting with his in-laws, according to a biography written by Capp's brother Elliot Caplin, Capp was immediately taken with his future in-laws.
"He was very, very fond of them," confirmed Cairol, who credited her grandparents' intellect as being a selling point for the notoriously acerbic, quick-witted Capp.
"They were very intelligent, for one thing," said Cairol. "They could talk about anything — honest, intelligent people — and they got along very well."
Cairol recalls how Capp's friends would come to visit from New York and Los Angeles, injecting the family home with some cosmopolitan flare.
"That was always very interesting," said Cairol of the visits. "He was always happy to have them come down and have us get to know them."
It's been rumored for years that Capp took inspiration for many of his characters from the nearby community of Seabrook. While Cairol can't confirm specific instances, she believes Capp probably was inspired by the characters he came across when the family took up residence at their Seabrook cottage on the shore.
"A lot has been said about that, and I'm sure he had a big influence from around here," said Cairol, who noted her father had also spent some time hitchhiking across southern Appalachia and gotten some inspiration there.
"I know he was sort of impressed by Seabrook, so no doubt there was something that filtered through," she said. "I know he always talked about the beautiful women in Seabrook."
Beautiful, strong women were regularly featured in Capp's comic strip, with buxom, independent-minded beauties like Wolf Gal and Moonbeam McSwine featuring heavily throughout. Capp had some help from gifted ghost artists like well-known artist Frank Frazetta in drawing them too, though Capp reportedly insisted on drawing the faces and hands of his subjects.
Capp's personality, as described by those who worked with him, ran the gamut from intolerable to lovable, with Frazetta describing him in his book, The Comic Art of Frank Frazetta, 2008, as "exasperating, infuriating, domineering, obnoxious, loud, lots of fun, acidic and lovable."
But Cairol remembers her father for "his wonderful sense of humor, his generosity and his warmth."
"He always used to pick up soldiers hitchhiking, and take them home to stay the night," said Cairol, who explained Capp's sadness over not being able to serve himself due to a streetcar accident that claimed his leg when he was 9 years old. "He couldn't be in the war because of the wooden leg and he always felt he wanted to do something for the war effort. So that was one thing he could do."
Cairol said Capp always included his family in his L'il Abner journey.
"(L'il Abner) was part of my life," she said. "I guess I couldn't be too objective with L'il Abner because I lived with L'il Abner. I say 'L'il Abner — c'est moi' because I was supposed to be named L'il Abner if I was a boy."
Cairol and her siblings went to South Hampton and Amesbury schools growing up and made lots of friends within the community. Those friends, like Ron Gagnon, recall getting a first glimpse of the soon-to-be-published "L'il Abner" strip on visits to the Capp house.
"We gathered (at the house) numerous times and on the coffee table were always chapters ahead of L'il Abner," said Gagnon, who was friends with Cairol's sister, Cathy. "We'd be able to see them earlier than everybody."
Gagnon also recalls how Capp would pick up the tab for their evenings out at Salisbury Beach, a generous gesture he said Capp was known for around Amesbury. And he recalls the Capps' many travels, which seemed at the time very sophisticated, considering air and sea travel was not possible for average Americans at the time.
After Capp's death in 1979, the house became more the place for family gathering for holidays and special occasions. Cairol said she lived in Germany and Paris for many years, but came home when her mother's health began to fail.
"I lived away from the '50s until about 1990, when my mother was left alone," said Cairol. "I always knew I'd come back here. I love it. This is my home."
1909 — Alfred Gerald Caplin was born in New Haven, Conn.
1928 — Al Capp is the youngest syndicated cartoonist with his Colonel Gilfeather strip for the Associated Press
1934 — Capp successfully pitches his L'il Abner strip to United Features Syndicate, which originally published the series in eight newspapers nationwide. That number would jump to 253 newspapers in just three years. A short time later that number jumped again, leading to his strip eventually enjoying a circulation of 60 million readers.
1937 — Capp Introduced into his strip the Sadie Hawkins Day Race, which sparked a "girl asks boy" movement at school dances across America.
1948 — Capp introduces Shmoo into his strip, a lovable character who aims to please, which sparks one of the biggest mass merchandising campaigns of its time.
1957 — L'il Abner characters inspire the launch of a Broadway show, along with two film adaptations.
1979 — Capp dies of emphysema at his home in South Hampton. He was buried in Mount Prospect Cemetery on Elm Street.