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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Believe It Or Not

Last Thursday we talked about P.T. Barnum who was the greatest showman of the mid to late 1800's. Today, I'd like to highlight perhaps the greatest showman of the mid 1900's - Robert L. Ripley of "Believe It Or Not" fame.

Ripley was born December 26, 1890 in Santa Rosa, California. Failing to make to grade as a major league baseball player, he moved to New York where he became a newspaper cartoonist. He developed a cartoon themed column, called "Champs and Chumps" that highlighted sports oddities. He soon found that his focus on sports was too restrictive and, expanding his column to include oddities in all walks of life, he renamed it "Believe It Or Not". It soon became a nation wide hit.

Ripley started his career as a sports cartoonist. (Photo from Google Images.)

Ripley took his first trip around the world in 1922. It greatly broaden his horizons, and he began to feature odd and interesting foreign happenings, locations, and customs to his column, always challenging his readers to "Believe It Or Not". I remember reading Ripley's cartoons as a small boy, marveling about such strange things and dreaming about traveling around the world. I bet many of you out in the Blog-O-Sphere also have fond memories of a Ripley cartoon or two.

An original Ripley cartoon from 1932. (Cartoon from Google Images.)

The Ripley legacy continues, with the cartoon format still popular today, as it continues to feature a wide variety of oddities that, often, stretch one's perception of reality. (2008 "Believe It Or Not" cartoon from Google Images.)

Ripley died in 1978 but his ideas and traditions live on through "Ripley Entertainment" which, today, airs national television shows, features various publications of oddities, and has holdings in a variety of public attractions including Ripley's "Believe it or Not! Museums", one of which is on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Today's popular Guinness World Records is a spin off from the Ripley Entertainment group.

The Ripley "Believe It Or Not" Museum on the Atlantic City boardwalk. (Photo from Google Images.)

Interesting stuff, you're probably muttering, but "What's it got to do with a local area History Blog?" Well, I don't believe Ripley ever made it to New Gretna; however, he came pretty close. While flipping through some old issues of the Tuckerton Beacon, I came across a June 6, 1946 report of Ripley visiting nearby Ship Bottom, aboard a Chinese Junk, on his way home to New York from a Florida vacation. Now, that's traveling in style!

Tuckerton Beacon - June 6, 1946

I bet that raised a few eye brows among some of the Beacon subscribers in little old New Gretna. I wonder if any of the locals made the journey to Ship Bottom to see the novel attraction. And, I also wonder if Ripley ever made good on his promise to feature the origin of Ship Bottom's name in his column.

I got to thinking about what the reaction of the local baymen would have been as the Chinese Junk sailed along the coast and passed by Great Bay on its way into Little Egg Harbor Bay. Probably more than one head was scratched as the odd looking ship sailed by. I wouldn't be surprised if a local clammer or two, perhaps Joe Cramer, Fred Kalm, or our Blog buddy, Don Maxwell, may have even thrown a clam or two at Mr. Ripley as he passed by. Calm throwing is a valued skill and noble tradition in these parts.

Joe Cramer tonging in the 1940's. I wonder what he would have made out of seeing Ripley's Chinese Junk in local waters. (Photo courtesy of the William Augustine Photo Collection at the Rutger's University Library.)

Or, how about the Oyster Watchmen from New Gretna, including Harry Applegate, Washy Allen, Harry Allen, Woody Allen, Caleb Flemming Allen, Doughty Cramer, Gid Cramer, Otto Kalm, and Sam Mathis? They were paid to live out along the bay shores and watch for suspicious happenings around the clam and oyster beds. What could be more suspicious then a foreign looking vessel, sporting hand carved golden dragons, gliding through the area? It sure ain't an oyster dredge.

The oyster watchmen's cabin at Cape Horn while Otto Kalm was on duty. Donald Maxwell is sitting on the top step, David Kalm is bending over on the left, Fred Kalm is in the boat, with Janet Maxwell (left) and Claire Kalm standing next to the boat. I'm not sure who is sitting on the lower step. (Photo courtesy of Alston and Clare Kalm Allen.)

Watchman, Otto Kalm, patrolling local water in search of suspicious vessels. (1952 photo courtesy of Alston and Claire Kalm Allen.)

That ends our Blog entry for today. Did any of the local baymen or watchmen actually see Ripley and his junk? Well, I'll leave it up to you. You can "Believe It Or Not"!

Pete S


  1. I have fond memories of the Ripley's Believe It Or Not exhibit on the Steel Pier in the late 1950s. It was fascinating to a young kid.

    I wonder if the Commander Richard G. Blair mentioned in the caption of one of the pictures is a relation to Richard (Dick) "Boomer" Blair who served many years on the Atlantic City Lifeguards? I remember him well from the same era when my Dad (an ex-lifeguard) would take me to the beach and he would talk to all the "old" guards. I see from a 1948 year book of the Atlantic City Beach Patrol Benevolent Organization that Boomer and Bernard Levy won the one mile boat race for the ACBP Championship, he was 23 in 1948, 235 lbs., 6'5". I can scan the picture of them by their lifeboat if there is any interest. Boomer passed away in 2008.

  2. I believe it. The "Junk", that is. I was working on the beach in 1958, or 1959. We were doing a job right on the ocean front. We took a break and was looking out to sea, and there she was. A real live junk. Heading South I think, about a mile or so offshore. Under sail. Sails made of Bamboo. Strange sight indeed. Had to be the same one in the Ripley article. I don't think there was another one in the U.S.

    Bob Mathis
    June 22, 2009 8:03 PM