Comic Strip History in Our Backyard 

This article was originally published in the Grand Haven Tribune in August 2014, written by Meredith Meyer, Collections Manager

Today the funny papers are as much a part of newspapers as the obituaries and the sports page. However, it is not generally known that one of the pioneers in producing the American comic strip was Zenos Winsor McCay, born September 26, 1869 in Spring Lake. He was name for Zenos G. Winsor, who assisted Rix Robinson in management of the Robinson Trading Post. In later life, McCay dropped "Zenos" as his first name and used Winsor McCay as his full name, but signed some of his work "Silas".


In a January 19, 1982 Muskegon Chronicle article, Lisa Medendorp wrote the following:

Barely a trace remains in Spring Lake of one of its most famous sons. But serious students of the American comic strip and animation will definitely have heard of Winsor McCay. McCay was the creator of America's first fantasy comic strip. Charles Green, Director of the Museum of Cartoon Art in Port Chester, New York stated, "McCay was one of the great pioneers of the field. He is considered one of the finest draftsmen who ever worked in comic art. He was one of the first people to work in animated films."

Robert McCay, the father, worked at the Cutler/Savidge Mill and Winsor attended school in Spring Lake. When Robert went into the mercantile business in 1885, the McCay family moved to Stanton.

From age six Winsor drew beautifully but his father wanted him to have a business career and, although he never finished grade school, at age 17 he was sent to the Cleary Business College in Ypsilanti. Because drawing held more interest than business college, Winsor left Cleary to enroll at the Chicago Art Institute. He then went on the vaudeville stage with a chalk-talk that was an immediate success. In 1889, McCay joined a traveling circus as a billboard and poster painter. This led to his interest in drawing animals with bright colors, which he later used in his comic art.

McCay's first comic strip, "Tales of the Jungle Imps", was developed when he was working for the Cincinnati Times Star as a political cartoonist. John McLean, owner of the Cincinnati Enquirer and running for governor of Ohio, was so smitten with McCay's keen satire he hired him away from the Star. In 1903, McCay took a job with the New York Herald and it was there he developed humorous cartoons such as "The Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend", which made it to book form, "Gertie, the Trained Dinosaur" and "Little Sammy Sneeze" in color, before settling on his most famous strip, "Little Nemo in Slumberland". "Little Nemo" began in the New York Herald in 1905. It appeared once a week as a full page in color and was syndicated in the United States and Europe. In the last frame of each episode, little Nemo was awakened when he fell out of bed. It was McCay's intent to have "Little Nemo" more popular than "Buster Brown", which also fostered a line of clothing and shoes – and Winsor succeeded.

In 1966, "Little Nemo in Slumberland" was honored with an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the first comic strip so honored. A. Hyatt Mayor, curator of prints at the Metropolitan, was quoted in the New York Times as having said that McCay had visions of cities "...that were not to rise in actual steel for another half century." McCay is an acknowledged pioneer in the field of animation, and by universal consent, the foremost master of the art of comics. By liberating the comic strip from outmoded conventions of style and inspiration, he blazed new trails that paved the way for bold and unceasing experimentation which was to take place in the comics for the next three decades.

Spring Lake's Great Fire of 1893 destroyed the school and all the records which might have revealed some of the genius of the budding artist. But perhaps all was not lost. On October 15, 1880 the ill-fated Goodrich steamship Alpena left Grand Haven bound for Chicago with 46 persons aboard. It was never seen again. The event stunned everyone in the Grand Haven area. In 1880, at age 11, Winsor McCay made a chalk drawing on a slate of his impression of the Alpena as it was sinking on a stormy Lake Michigan. The teacher was so impressed with the rendering she had a photographer take a picture of it, who then sold copies. A post card appeared at thtat time which showed the sinking of the Alpena, and presumably, was the photo of the Winsor McCay drawing. He died July 26, 1934.

Lewis L. Cross was born in 1864, moving to Spring Lake with his family in the early 1880s as a youngster. He attended Northern Indiana Normal 1883-84 where he studied art, both drawing and painting. His vocation was managing 350 cherry trees on his Spring Lake Township farm, his avocation painting large murals.

In 1914, he began building a home and studio adjacent to the Float Bridge. With artistic flare he designed his own concrete blocks and proceeded to build the home himself, which took four years to complete. When finished the locals dubbed the unusual structure the "castle" and it became a curiosity stop for riverboats. Cross offered art lessons, advertising himself as a "landscape, marine, and portrait artist".

He preferred working on large canvases, some ten by six feet. His primary subjects were people, scenes and animals along the waterways near his home. His work depicted hunting scenes, log jams, and other activities he saw along the river and bayous. The Tri-Cities Historical Museum has the 3x4 foot Cross painting of passenger pi

    Help us continue to preserve and present the history and culture of the Tri-Cities. Learn about giving options and volunteer opportunities – and get ready to be appreciated.

    Get Involved

    Read More
    Our Education Department offers a wide range of learning opportunities for individuals, schools and community groups. Find a tour or program that suits your interests.


    Read More
  • 1