Hannibal, Missouri, retains the same old-fashioned, hometown atmosphere as when famed writer Samuel L. Clemens grew up there.
By Bill Vossler
When artist Norman Rockwell was commissioned to paint scenes from Mark Twain’s books for the covers of Life magazine, he was surprised to find that none of the previous Twain book illustrators had actually visited Hannibal, Missouri. That’s where Samuel L. Clemens, who used the pen name of Mark Twain, had been born and raised. So in 1935 Rockwell decided to travel to Hannibal to get authentic details for his work.
Many of those details, as well as the sense of the childhood innocence and adventure invoked in Twain’s books, can still be seen today by those who visit Hannibal and the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum.
The very same buttes over which young Samuel Langhorne Clemens roamed still surround the city, in many ways unchanged from the 1840s. Atop these hills Clemens and his friends spent countless hours watching the great steamboats navigate the mighty Mississippi. Clemens wrote, “When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village. That was to be a steamboat man. Their interest was so great that all the boys in town “” and probably the girls and the adults, too “” could identify the great boats from a long ways away, merely by their whistles.”
The name “Mark Twain” was a term used by riverboat workers to describe the river water’s depth. A boat on the river needed at least 12 feet (two fathoms) of water in which to navigate. If the boat worker called out, “Mark twain,” he was saying that the mark showed twain, or two, fathoms.
High above the town in Riverview Park, a crumbling wall along the edge of the buttes hints at the age of the area. A magnificent view of the Mississippi River, one Clemens doubtless saw many times, is afforded from this spot. Admittedly, several bridges to the south did not exist during Clemens’ day.
A huge statue of Mark Twain in Riverview Park overlooks his beloved river. The granite base is carved with these words: “His religion was Humanity, and the whole world mourned when he died.”
One mile south of town, Mark Twain Cave exists much as it did when Clemens and his friends gadded about it in the 1840s, and when Rockwell was guided into it in 1935. “My guide took me a mile and a half into the cave to a place known as the Five Points,” Rockwell recalled. “As I was getting out my sketchbook he asked, ‘You all set now?’ ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘I’ll be back for you in an hour.’
“‘You’re not going to leave?’ I said, suddenly aware of the black mouths of the five tunnels which led away from the chamber.
“‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘My wife’s having a baby and I gotta stay with her.’
“And he propped the acetylene lamp on a ledge and walked off.”
Despite the skittering and squeaking of mice and rats, Rockwell put the distractions aside, and sketched. “I discovered that all the other illustrators had been wrong,” he wrote. “They’d painted the cave with stalactites hanging from the roof and sides. It wasn’t like that. The rock formation was all horizontal, jutting ledges piled one on top of the other.”
By the time the guide returned, Rockwell had all the material he needed to make a great illustration, which became a front cover of Life magazine, depicting Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher lost in the cave.
At the end of Main Street rises Cardiff Hill, where Tom, Huck, and the rest of the gang played in Twain’s books. Higher up on the hill stands a lighthouse overlooking the Mississippi.
Preserving the past
Hannibal has not been turned into one of those purely touristy places, so the locations Twain wrote about in his books have kept their élan. Most of the buildings Twain brought to life in his books are conveniently clustered together within a half-block area, as they were originally, except for the Justice of the Peace office, which is farther away.
These buildings all are a part of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum:
Mark Twain’s Boyhood Home: Located on Hill Street, a mere hop, skip, and two jumps from the Mississippi River, which was easily visible by stepping out the front door, Twain’s two-story boyhood home contains rooms that still look much as they did when the Clemens family lived there. Period furniture as well as reproductions fill the house. Several figures of Twain are positioned throughout, along with interpretive panels emblazoned with appropriate quotes from his work. Most people who visit want to see the fence that Tom Sawyer convinced his friends to whitewash, as well as Tom’s bedroom, according to Regina Faden, executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. “People assume Samuel Clemens’ bedroom is actually Tom Sawyer’s,” she said. Actually, it’s unclear which was Clemens’ bedroom, but using information from his books, one of the upstairs rooms has been designated as most likely. Inside is a figure of Twain, as well as a boy, probably Tom Sawyer, climbing out the window.
Becky Thatcher Home: The home of Becky Thatcher, the little girl on whom Tom Sawyer had a crush, sits across the street from Clemens’ home. Laura Hawkins, the little girl Sam Clemens knew as a boy, lived in this house and was the inspiration for the character Becky Thatcher.
In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom thought Becky represented the essence of all that was charming in womanhood. Today the Becky Thatcher house is furnished, as an information panel says, “just as it might have been in those long-ago days when a girl with yellow braids peered shyly out these windows at the boy across the street.” One room on the second floor is furnished with period furniture.
J.M. Clemens Law Office: Located next to the Thatcher house is the law office of J.M. Clemens, justice of the peace and Samuel Clemens’ father. One night young Sam entered the office when his father wasn’t there, and with the lights out, stumbled over the body of a dead man, put there for safekeeping until the funeral. Clemens flew out the window, taking the sash with him. “I didn’t need the sash,” he recalled, “but it was handier to take it than it was to leave it, so I took it. I wasn’t exactly scared, but I was, uh, considerably agitated.” The courtroom provided the setting for the trial of Muff Potter in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Grant’s Drug Store/Pilaster House: Next to the law office, on the corner of the block, is the Pilaster House, where the Clemens family lived when things got tough and they couldn’t afford to live in their own home. The first floor of this building housed Grant’s Drug Store, which fronted the town’s main street, where Clemens, as a young boy, witnessed a man being shot, then watched him die on the floor of the store. Twain used his memory of the incident years later when writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Mark Twain Museum & Gallery: Situated two blocks south of the boyhood home, on Main Street, this new part of the complex is a must-see. It features two large floors plus a mezzanine level of memorabilia, including Twain’s typewriter, plus photos, sculptures, busts, letters, models of stern-wheelers, family photos, and even a picture of the typesetting machine that Twain backed (and went bankrupt over).
Other highlights include a bust of Twain reading to children; a raft, such as the one depicted in the Tom Sawyer book, moored in water, where visitors can sit and watch portions of the movie by the same name; a mock-up of the pilothouse room of a paddleboat from the Mississippi River, which includes an actual wheel, complete with spokes worn smooth by the action of captains “stepping” the wheel for added strength in turning the huge wheels; and 15 original Rockwell paintings used on the covers of Life magazine, along with the planning sketches and drawings. It is fascinating to study the differences between the earlier sketchings and the finished paintings, as well as to see scenes from Twain’s books come to vivid life. One of the covers, which depicts Tom’s friends whitewashing the fence, eventually was used on an 8-cent U.S. stamp.
The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum complex also includes a gift shop located beside the boyhood home (a 1930s Works Project Administration project that housed the original museum); the Huckleberry Finn House, a reconstruction of the home that belonged to the Blankenship family, as Huck was modeled after Clemens’ boyhood friend, Tom Blankenship; and the new Interpretive Center, where tours of the eight buildings begin. One entry ticket is good for all the buildings. The Interpretive Center, which was completely renovated and reopened in the spring of 2005, contains a wealth of interactive exhibits and tells the story of Samuel Clemens in Hannibal, using the writer’s own words.
Reality in books
Visitors to Hannibal and the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum complex will discover just what Norman Rockwell found when he visited in 1935: much of the information in Mark Twain’s books was taken from reality, from incidents that actually happened, from buildings that actually existed, from people who actually lived, and then was heated in the forge of Samuel L. Clemens’ mind to create enduring stories about an archetypal American childhood. Relive it in Hannibal today.
Other Attractions And Events
Rockcliffe Mansion, circa 1900, a beautiful 30-room estate on the National Historic Register, is open for tours. Cameron Cave and Mark Twain Cave also are available for touring. A ride on the Mark Twain Mississippi riverboat can be had, and you might want to see the Molly Brown Birthplace & Museum, dedicated to this heroine of the sinking Titanic.
During the summer, sight-seeing tours of the historic district are conducted by Hannibal Trolley Co. and the Twainland Express Train.
Each year Tom Sawyer Days is celebrated over the Fourth of July weekend (July 1 through 4 this year). Events include mud volleyball, a national picket-fence-painting contest, a Tom Sawyer/Becky Thatcher contest, a Tomboy Sawyer competition for girls, a frog-jumping competition, a parade, and fireworks.
Other items of interest in town include performances of “Mark Twain, Himself” in the Planters Barn Theatre on Main Street; a Mark Twain performance at Cave Hollow theater; and the Star Theater, a restored movie palace on Main Street that shows classic movies.
For more information about all of these attractions, as well as the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, contact:
Hannibal Convention & Visitors Bureau
505 N. Third St.
Hannibal, MO 63401
The following is not a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or the FMCA Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
Bay View Campers Park
P.O. Box 22
Hannibal, MO 63401
Injun Joe Campground
14113 Clemens Drive
New London, MO 63459
Mark Twain Cave Campground
P.O. Box 913
Hannibal, MO 63401
Mark Twain Landing, C9220
42819 Landing Lane
Monroe City, MO 63456
Samuel Clemens’ Observations
You pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.”
“Familiarity breeds contempt “” and children.”
“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”
“Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”
“Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”
“Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest.”
“Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person.”
“History does not repeat itself, but sometimes it does rhyme.”