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Jack Ritchie
An Appreciation and Bibliography

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A SHEBOYGAN KIND OF PLACE:
FAMOUS OBSCURITY

by Marc Zimmermann

If you have read more than a dozen of Jack Ritchie's stories (in particular the Henry Turnbuckle ones), you will inevitably have come across a place called Sheboygan. Although he uses it as a reference quite sparingly and subtly, one can't shake off the feeling that there is some 'secret' meaning attached to it. It seems more than just a dot on the map, a 'special' kind of place.

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Sheboygan's location is indicated by the red star on this map

Sheboygan, Wisconsin is a small town of approximately 50,000 inhabitants (today) on the shores of Lake Michigan, north of Milwaukee and Chicago (Illinois). It celebrated 150 years of history and has a homepage, which you might like to check out if you have too much time on your hands ;-) See: http://ci.sheboygan.wi.us - You can also find it on maps at http://www.mapquest.com

Almost every time Ritchie (or anyone else for that matter) refers to 'Sheboygan', it is in a gently condescending manner. Although it never seems outright patronising, it appears that Sheboygan stands for some sort of backwater: 'cute' but slow.

Interestingly I have heard only one explanation (see below) for this stereotype, yet my American friends seemed to have never heard of what appears to be a Sheboygan 'in-joke'.

These kinds of references to Sheboygan are not unique to Ritchie's world though. I have come across them in stories by other writers where 'Sheboygan' is used in the same obscurity evoking or 'backwoods' way.

You might be familiar with this one yourself: Billie Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959). When Tony Curtis' and Jack Lemmon's characters (Josephine and Daphne) are asked about their (non-existent) formal musical education, they respond with "Sheboygan Conservatory of Music". Here too it is used in a way as if this was something utterly preposterous yet so obscure (and bold) that they might just get away with it.

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Josephine and Daphne spent three years at the "Sheboygan Conservatory of Music"

Steve, Jack Ritchie's son, recently brought some clarification by explaining:

"When my parents lived on Washington Island (off the tip of the Wisconsin 'thumb') they would drive down to Milwaukee fairly regularly. On the way the would pass Sheboygan, or more accurately Sheboygan Falls, which is right next to it. Both towns are small, much smaller back in the 1950s. And since they were the first real cities they would pass on their way to Milwaukee, my parents started making jokes about them. What really encouraged the joke was the Bemis company in Sheboygan Falls. For years my parents saw their trucks driving around the area with the slogan "Be Seated by Bemis" painted on the side. What Bemis made was a mystery, there was nothing on the trucks other than the slogan. Then finally one day Bemis proudly painted a picture of their main product on the sides of all their trucks; they made toilet seats. Thus forever cementing Sheboygan as a small-town joke."

This certainly explains why Sheboygan references are such a recurring feature in Ritchie's stories, however it leaves us wondering how such obscurity can be so famous that it actually spread into a fair amount of other stories, books and even films.

If you can shed any additional light on the matter, have come across other Sheboygan references or have any questions, comments or additions, please contact me via e-mail at: NOSPAMheritage_events@yahoo.com (remove NO SPAM to send) - Marc.


 

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