We ducked into Hannibal, MO for the day to visit the town that so thoroughly celebrates native son Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, that you’d be hard pressed to not trip over a reference at every turn. Though also home of another famous resident – the unsinkable Molly Brown herself (whose home/museum was unfortunately closed the day we visited) – from street signs to restaurants, museums and motels, Hannibal is ALL about Twain and the characters he created. So much so, that after a description of the town, our handy road trip guide, Road Trip USA, had this to say:
“Not to detract from the credit due him, but don’t look for any subtlety or modesty surrounding Mark Twain’s achievements here.”
The book also references disgraced baseball player, Shoeless Joe Jackson as being from Hannibal, MO, and has this to say:
“The Twain mania is so overwhelming that little is made of Hannibal’s other famous son(s). Baseball lovers searching for some mention of Joseph Jefferson “Shoeless Joe” Jackson will look in vain, there is none.”
Jackson, however, was born and raised in South Carolina. I believe the book’s author is confusing Jackson with the fictional Joe Hardy from the musical Damn Yankees. Hardy, also dubbed “shoeless,” is immortalized in the show’s number, Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO.
But back to Twain. The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum is actually a series of buildings and exhibits that span a few blocks in the downtown Hannibal area. We began our tour as directed, in the interpretive center. The center chronicles the timeline of the Clemens Family and does an excellent job of setting up the social and economic context of the great author’s life and how many of his early experiences influenced his future literary works. We enjoyed reading through much of the exhibit.
However, as we got closer to the adjoining room, we encountered a problem. A video was playing in the next room. It could be heard from wherever you stood once you were near or in the room. It was quite loud, and extremely distracting. It was difficult to focus on the events I was trying to read about with conflicting information playing loudly in the background. The video was likely good, but I didn’t stay around to watch because it was so intrusive while trying to enjoy the rest of the exhibit. The remainder of the interpretive center was mostly a loss.
We moved on to tour the other properties, off first to Huck Finn’s house.
In his autobiography, Twain mentions his childhood friend Tom Blankenship as the inspiration for creating Huckleberry Finn: “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person—boy or man—in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us. And as his society was forbidden us by our parents the prohibition trebled and quadrupled its value, and therefore we sought and got more of his society than any other boy’s.”
Across the way, we stopped to visit the Tom and Huck statue that has been erected. But, we decided that it didn’t quite capture the mischievous nature of the boys. In fact, we didn’t think it much looked like young boys at all.
Next stop was the Clemens home. Inside the home, which was much larger than Huck’s home, each room was set up with various statues of Twain, as well as quotes and memorabilia.
Tom and Huck fans know that two boys were bosom buddies despite their social and economic differences (which were more than apparent when comparing their homes). Perhaps before there was neighborhood zoning, the rich and poor and in-betweens lived next door to each other and knew and played with each other. It seems the real Huck grew up to be a petty criminal and there are several instances where he was arrested for stealing food.
Outside the Clemens house we discovered a fun interactive exhibit. Just grab a brush from the bucket, and you, too, could help paint Tom’s fence.
The next building to explore was Becky Thatcher’s House. Becky, Tom Sawyer’s love interest, was based on Twain’s friend and neighbor Laura Hawkins. While touring the home we learned about the Tom and Becky Program. Each year since 1956, the Chamber of Commerce selects two students to portray Tom and Becky, and serve as ambassadors, representing the town in parades and other ceremonies throughout the year.
Further down the block the larger museum welcomes you in with exhibits depicting scenes from Twain’s most popular books. One of the fun things to do was to sound the whistle of a steamboat. The staff assured us that they like hearing the sound all day long. Hannibal at one time was an important port and lead Samuel Clemens to become a Mississippi riverboat pilot. In his book Life on the Mississippi, he talks about how a river pilot was the most coveted job in many small towns along the great river. There were riverboat tours available, but we didn’t have the time to go on one.
An upstairs gallery at the museum contained a great exhibit of drawings by Norman Rockwell from one of the illustrated editions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Noticeably, racial segregation and slavery in Hannibal was barely mentioned – there was a small mention in the interpretive center that differences existed and words to the effect of ‘everyone knew their place’. There was also a small display about the real ‘Injun Joe’, a harmless Osage Indian, who was badly disfigured by small pox. Supposedly, his ugliness led Mark Twain to make him the perfect villain.
Though we thoroughly enjoyed our experience in Hannibal, our greatest disappointment was that we purchased the Mark Twain: Words & Music double CD set and then accidentally left it in a Post Office while mailing some other items home. A collection of stories and music, narrated by the incomparable Garrison Keillor as well as Clint Eastwood and others, the collection features such wonderful country artists as Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Brad Paisley, and many more. At some point we’ll replace it, but it would have made for fantastic listening on the road.
After a full day exploring the town, it was time to move on. As we were leaving, an employee of the museum directed us back inside the gift shop. She’d asked if we’d taken note of a painting hanging on the wall. The painting shows Twain painted with other famous figures. See how many you can pick out.
This post is dedicated to my cousin, Tina, who has waited patiently to hear the next installment of our travel adventure!