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Riding with the Rangers: 'Yes, Virginia' and the one-day return of a comic-strip classic

Dec 13, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

A nice part of having a traditional downtown commercial district that's friendly to pedestrians is obvious this time of year, when holiday decorations are decking the downtown halls.

We've done our part this year, dusting off the "Yes, Virginia" window display that is based on what probably is the most-famous newspaper editorial ever written. It was in 1897 when Francis Church, editor of the New York Sun, was shown a letter to the editor by a little girl named Virginia O'Hanlon. She said she had been hearing from her friends and others that there really was no Santa Claus. Her parents suggested she write to the editor of the the New York Sun and ask him. So she did, and editor Church responded with the famous line "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," going on to explain why.

We created the colorful tableau almost 10 years ago in conjunction with a downtown Christmas decorating contest with the theme "Christmas Through the Eyes of a Child." (Not to brag, but it took first prize.)

Debbie Evans and Marcia McBeath of The Ranger and Ranger Printers staffs put the pictures and words together that first year, and this is only the second or third time it has been displayed.

It has been altered slightly to accommodate some changes to our front windows. Some say it looks better this time around. Either way, it's a fun part of our Christmas season in 2013.

Assisting Debbie and Marcia again this year were Kim Draper and Shannon Stover, along with 5-year-old Alondra Osorio, who provided a healthy dose of early Christmas spirit for everyone as the decorations were going up.

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Who was that bug-eyed flatlander riding a blanketed horse into the colorful first frame of last Sunday's "Snuffy Smith" comic strip in The Ranger? None other than Barney Google, that's who. Hope you noticed. Who knows when Barney might show up again.

"Snuffy Smith" is one of The Ranger's three original comic strips from our conversion from weekly to daily publication in 1960 ("Beetle Bailey" and "Blondie" are the others). "Snuffy" had been a famous comic strip for decades before that -- but not always by that name. Originally it was known as "Barney Google," which was one of the great and wildly successful early newspaper comics. The character was a city slicker who owned an old racehorse named Spark Plug, and in the 1920s it was the top comic strip in the United States, even inspiring a famous song of its era, "Barney Google (With the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes)." If you watched the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" this fall, you might remember hearing the song in the background of a scene at a nightclub.

The strip's popularity was eroding a bit by the time of the Great Depression, so creator Bill deBeck wrote a new story line. Barney Google inherited some land in rural North Carolina, and he rode Spark Plug into the mountains to inspect his new property. The place was called Hootin' Holler.

It was there that he met a feisty little moonshiner named Snuffy Smith, and for some years deBeck had good fun with Barney intermingling with the hillbillies of Hootin' Holler. DeBeck by this time had a young assistant, who was both a good artist and a good gag writer. Fred Lasswell was his name, and he had grown up in the rural South. That helped polish the newly popular theme of city slicker in the backwoods.

Before long, with the urban "jazz age" that had birthed the strip no longer topical, Snuffy Smith became so popular that the name of the strip was changed to "Barney Google and Snuffy Smith." That's the name it had when The Ranger picked it up in 1960, but by that time Barney Google himself had all but disappeared. Beginning in the 1950s, the strip went many years with no appearance by Barney Google at all. Lasswell, a better artist than deBeck (he's considered one of the all-timers, in fact) made Snuffy a star. The expertly crafted strip neared the 1,000-paper mark in the 1960s, the gold standard for any newspaper comic.

Lasswell died in the 1980s, and his younger assistant, John Rose, took over. By then, the strip was known simply as "Snuffy Smith," and comics-watchers wondered if Barney Google ever would be seen again. After many years of absence, Rose put Barney in for a full week of strips a few years ago, and on Sunday there he was again, riding Spark Plug and saying howdy to the gang in Hootin' Holler.

I've been a newspaper comics buff for a long time, and I knew the history of this strip quite well as I set out to write today's column. But there were a few dates I had forgotten, so I looked them up online using -- you guessed it -- Google.

In case you wondered where the term for the huge Internet search engine came from, now you know.

Thanks, Barney Google. Even if it was just for the day, after all these years it was good to have you back Riding with the Rangers.

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