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Column: Celebrating Gainesville's Ed Dodd and 75 years of 'Mark Trail' comic
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

Jules Rivera, the new artist for the “Mark Trail” comic strip, paid tribute to the comic’s creator Ed Dodd in last weekend’s edition of The Times.

The occasion was the 75th anniversary of “Mark Trail,” which first appeared in newspapers April 15, 1946. 

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'Mark Trail' is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

The Gainesville Daily Times, as it was called then, didn’t begin publication until Jan. 26, 1947.

Ed Dodd was a local connection for The Times, having lived in Gainesville as a Boy Scout leader and physical education and recreation instructor. His cartoon skills first emerged when he drew a one-panel comic called “Back Home Again.”

When he experimented with an outdoors-conservation comic strip, Jim Tree was the name of the main character. Dodd renamed Tree to “Mark Trail,” and the strip was off to the races, at one time appearing in more than 300 newspapers.

Since then Mark, his wife Cherry, son Rusty and faithful dog Andy have entertained readers across the country.

Rivera is the first artist without a Gainesville connection to draw “Mark Trail.” She lives in California and is best known for a web-based cartoon, “Love Joolz.”

The late Jack Elrod, who grew up in Gainesville, worked on the comic strip with Dodd for years before taking it over in 1978. After he retired in 2014, James Allen of Gainesville drew Mark Trail until Rivera took it over last fall.

Trail hasn’t changed much over the years, dark-haired, pipe-smoking, square-jawed and handsome, but Rivera’s artwork updates his looks, along with those of Cherry, Rusty and Andy.

Rosemary Dodd, wife of the late Ed Dodd, accepts the changes. 

“I’m just glad to see Mark still around as long as it isn’t in a bad light,” she said. “I’m very grateful, and it’s good to see a female artist drawing it.”

Shortly after “Mark Trail” started appearing in The Times, the newspaper editorialized, “Ed Dodd deserves the applause of a nation duly concerned with its plethora of degrading comics … the good lessons of Mark Trail are not preached, but are demonstrated, and the moral left clearly for the reader to see and understand.”

All the artists’ drawing of wildlife has been meticulous, following Dodd’s work ethic of deep research and attention to detail.

“Mark Trail” has won numerous awards. The Times in 1950 reported the strip had won a Pulitzer Prize, but there is no record of that in the organization’s files.

However, it has been nationally recognized by various organizations, especially those dealing with conservation and the environment. Dodd and Elrod especially worked with and were honored by the U.S. Forest Service, National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Northeast Georgia History Center has scaled down its large Ed Dodd exhibit, which included memorabilia of his outdoors adventures. The Times uses only the Sunday “Mark Trail,” as it prints only twice a week these days.

But, there’s plenty of evidence of the strip’s long life. One of the biggest is the Mark Trail Wilderness, 16,500 acres of undisturbed forests at Unicoi Gap between Helen and Hiawassee. 

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This 1993 original drawing of "Mark Trail" pays homage to the establishment of the Mark Trail Wilderness in the North Georgia Mountains. Image courtesy Sammy Smith

It’s dedicated to Dodd and Elrod’s work on behalf of conservation. There are also roads or streets named after Dodd and “Mark Trail” in Hall County and other locations.

“Mark Trail” didn’t appear in the first issues of the Gainesville Daily Times. Instead, the newspaper carried “Rip Kirby,” “Hap Hopper,” “Popeye,” “Red Ryder,” “Grin and Bear It,” “Out Our Way,” “Barney Google,” “Claire Voyant,” “Abbie and Slats,” “Bringing Up Father” and “There Oughta Be a Law.”

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; email, vardeman623@outlook.com. His column publishes weekly.

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