By BEA LEWIS, for THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
MEREDITH — To Lynn Montana, her father's job seemed fairly typical. It was only after she got to boarding school and friends learned what her father did for work that she realized her father's job as the cartoonist who created the Archie comics was unique.
Bob Montana drew the first comic book featuring Archie Andrews, the clean-cut teen with a toothy grin, while renting a cottage on Lake Waukewan in 1942. Four years later, he developed the Archie comic strip that would become a staple in newspapers nationwide.
In 1948, Montana, who could have lived anywhere in the world, decided his home port of call was the lakeside community of Meredith, and bought a 60-acre farm on Meredith Neck.
"He always said, 'Why go on vacation? We already live in the middle of paradise'," Lynn Montana recounted of her late father feelings about Meredith.
Forty-one years after his death, the Town of Meredith is planning to honor the cartoonist by commissioning a bronze sculpture of his brainchild Archie, one of the most durable characters to emerge from American pop culture.
"He was humble and not driven to be in the spotlight. Archie was famous and that's the way he liked it," his daughter said.
In 1967, the artist bought the former Esso service station on Main Street from Brad Sprague, that frequently appeared in his strip as "Sprigs." He hired local architect Ralph Flather to recast it into an art gallery and framing shop, thinking he could quietly create his cartoons there.
He ripped up the sea of pavement that ringed it, put in a lawn and planted trees, the first to return to Main Street after Dutch Elm disease had denuded similar thoroughfares nationwide. He convinced abutting property owners to plants trees of their own, helping restore the village character.
But a steady stampede of visitors would cause Montana to retreat to the farm, leaving wife, Peg, to field the endless questions and wait on customers. Meanwhile, the artist would have spent the early morning at his drafting table, then enjoyed a swim in the lake, before returning for a few more hours of work. He'd conclude his work day by finding a comfortable chair on the porch and sipping a cocktail.
Lynn Montana recounted that her father attracted an icy stare from her mother when she got back to the farm after spending all day at the gallery, found him enjoying a drink and would be cheerily asked, 'What's for dinner?'
"He took an iconic situation and put it in a strip," Montana said of her dad's recipe for success.
For him, the comic strip did two things: It reached lots of people beyond his immediate sphere and it made people laugh.
She credits her father's ability to capture the slightly sex-tinged high jinx and angst of high school with his fondness for his own years in the classroom.
As the son of a world-famous banjo player and a Ziegfeld dancer, Montana grew up in the wings watching the leading comedy shows of Vaudeville. That early exposure to brilliant comedy routines helped shape Montana's ability to seamlessly blend dialog and art. Cutting his teeth as a de facto gypsy traveling the Vaudeville circuit with his parents, Montana didn't have the chance to form lasting friendships with kids his own age. He'd make up for that in high
school, when his peer-to-peer interactions provided the fodder for his strip.
Vaudeville's demise began with the growth of lower-priced cinema in the 1910s that siphoned off some leading performers and the footlights twinkled out permanently after the crash of 1929.
Montana's parents, who had discovered Meredith in 1924, made the decision to return and opened a restaurant, of course called "Montana's," which featured a banjo-shaped sign.
It was while sitting at the counter in the restaurant that Montana's artistic talents first bloomed, his daughter said. Given paper and pencil to keep himself entertained while his parents worked, it wasn't long before Montana, then about age 7, began sketching caricatures of the customers.
In 1931, the restaurant known as Montana's closed, a victim of the deepening Depression. The family headed south, landing in Boston where they opened a new eatery called the Rancho, which became a popular and profitable nightspot when Prohibition was repealed.
Following his father's sudden death, his mother remarried, and they moved to Haverhill, Massachusetts, where Montana spent his high school years that would later be depicted as Richmond High in his strip.
"He could take the most ordinary thing and turn it into an adventure. When we were traveling, he could always pick the best spot to stop and have a picnic," Lynn Montana said.
She remembers one impromptu roadside lunch in Italy and running around in an olive grove after eating tasty local foods, or spending the afternoon at a scenic beach in Cornwall, during a foray to England.
She also has fond memories of her father orchestrating apple picking with her and her siblings, Paige, Ray and Don. After pressing the fruit into cider, it would be sold roadside at the farm. The proceeds of a day's work spent outside with family allowed them to buy their own Christmas presents.
Montana said her father frequently said the best thing he ever did was to raise his family in Meredith.
The four Montana children hope to kick off the campaign to raise around $65,000 needed to create the bronze Archie statute by auctioning off a dozen or so of their father's original Sunday pages from their personal collections and make a donation they hope will be close to $5,000.
Montana said she looks forward to seeing how the artist chosen to create the bronze sculpture will take a one-dimensional character and turn it into three.
"I'm immensely honored that the town will do this as a tribute to my father. He really loved this town. It was his home."
Lynn Montana, right, and Leah Storey hold an original Archie comic strip drawn by the late cartoonist Bob Montana, a copy of Carol Lee Anderson's book, "The New England Life of Cartoonist Bob Montana," and an Archie cutout that the artist made for Lynn, his daughter. (Bea Lewis/for The Laconia Daily Sun)