The Great River Road, Part 11: Hannibal, MO

A man’s experiences of life are a book. There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.

– Mark Twain’s notebook and “The Refuge of the Derelicts”

 September 4, 2015 – Day 14 – Hannibal, MO

Trying to write about Mark Twain (a.k.a. Samuel Clemens) in Hannibal, Missouri, is like trying to play basketball on Lebron James’ home court. Twain was a master storyteller and Hannibal was his boyhood home and inspiration for much of his writing. The town made an impression on him, and he made an impression on it and the rest of the world through his writing. In Hannibal, it’s possible to drive down Mark Twain Avenue and pass by the Mark Twain Brewery and Becky’s Old-Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor on the way to your home at the…drum roll…Mark Twain Apartments. Or, you could grab lunch at the Mark Twain Dinette, play some ball at Clemens Field, and then drive by the Mark Twain Lighthouse on your way to the Mark Twain Cave. You get the idea. This place is proud of their hometown hero…and for good reason.

Twain's Boyhood Home & Museum
Twain’s Boyhood Home & Museum


Twain reflects on his younger ornery self
Twain reflects on his younger ornery self

The face of the river, in time, became a wonderful book…which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it had uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.                              – Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

We seem to also have a new story to tell ever day based upon our journey along the same great river that inspired Mr. Twain. Today’s story fittingly began at Twain’s boyhood home, which has been turned into a museum. Through videos, displays, statues, and memorabilia, the museum vividly illustrates Twain’s life and writings. It even features several original Norman Rockwell paintings. We followed the map on our self-guided tour outside and down a path to the modest replica home of Tom Blankenship, Twain’s childhood friend and inspiration for the popular character, Huckleberry Finn. We then traveled back down the path to enter Twain’s boyhood home. His life-sized figure greeted us in each room, behind a viewing glass, along with popular quotes attributed to him.

Doin' work...or is it play?
Doin’ work…or is it play?

“Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it.   Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”   – Tom Sawyer

That’s right, we exited the home and headed for Tom Sawyer’s fence and posed for the obligatory photo of us painting it. As you may recall, Tom was a bit of a trickster and actor and understood human behavior. To get the fence painted, Tom just needed to convince his friend Ben that the opportunity to paint it was “play” (something, according to Tom, that the body is not obliged to do)…and not “work” (something the body is obliged to do). While that may seem a little deceptive on Tom’s part, it’s a leadership technique that’s been frequently used on me and that I have used on others. An Air Force boss once enthusiastically told our squadron, “Today we get to pick up trash around the base prior to the inspection team arriving.” I, in turn, have often convinced my students that picking up trash on campus (or assembling playground equipment or putting down mulch) is not just a way to get out of class, but also a high honor and among the most important things that would be done on campus that day. The fact that I actually believed that made my pitch all the more convincing. In reality, one’s attitude can make otherwise difficult or boring tasks seem fun…and worthy of being done correctly. That seems to be what Solomon had in mind in Ecclesiastes 9:10 when he wrote, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…”

The Sweetheart Across the Street
The Sweetheart Across the Street

“As he was passing by the house where Jeff Thatcher lived, he saw a new girl in the garden—a lovely little blue-eyed creature with yellow hair plaited into two long tails, white summer frock, and embroidered pantalettes. The fresh crowned hero fell without firing a shot… He worshipped this new angel with furtive eye till he saw that she had discovered him; then he pretended he did not know she was present, and began to “show off” in all sorts of absurd boyish ways, in order to win her admiration.”                        – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876

Young Samuel Clemens had a major crush on Laura Hawkins, the lovely girl across the street. Laura was a few years younger than Sam, and they became friends, classmates, playmates, and even sweethearts. Laura was the inspiration for Tom Sawyer’s sweetheart, Becky Thatcher. In real-life, their childhood attraction to each other eventually fizzled as youthful crushes often do. Laura married a doctor, had two sons and later became the matron of a Hannibal home for orphans and indigents. Samuel and Laura did keep in touch, however, including visits with each other in Hannibal in 1902 and again in Connecticut in 1908. In 1915, five years after his death, Laura honored him on what would have been his 80th birthday by having tea in his boyhood home. In 1926 Laura, at the age of 89 and two years before her death, would honor him a final time by attending the dedication ceremony for the Tom & Huck Statue in downtown Hannibal.


So my lovely sweetheart, Lil Jan, and I crossed the street to tour Becky Thatcher’s home, which was the real-life home of Laura Hawkins. I meandered slowly, reflecting on Samuel’s crush on the pretty young girl across the street. Lil Jan went on ahead and entered the house, apparently lured by the gift shop inside. As I approached the door, the romantic trance I was in came to a crashing halt as Lil Jan pointed to a sign and mouthed, “They’ve got poo here!” (Which, by the way, when mouthed through a glass door, looks very similar to the words, “I just poo’d myself.”) Yes, the gift shop contained odorless products made from the recycled poo of horses, donkeys, sheep and perhaps even Mark Twain himself. I stopped and pondered who was the very first person to look at a pile of donkey excrement and decide to make dinner napkins out of it. Or an even better question, “Why?”


Our next stop was the Hannibal History Museum a few blocks down the street. It was on the second floor of this building that Samuel Clemens began working as a typesetter and writer for the local paper. He found an article about Joan of Arc (Noah’s wife?) beneath one of the windows that caused him to write her story. In addition to more Twain history, we learned about another Hannibal resident, the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown. On April 14, 1912, at 11:40 p.m. Margaret “Molly” Brown was thrown from her bed when the Titanic hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage. She got dressed (to include seven pairs of wool socks), went out on the deck, and immediately began helping other women and children into lifeboats. Disregarding her own safety, she protested when one of the crew demanded that she board a lifeboat. Still, two men grabbed her and tossed her into a lifeboat as it was being lowered into the sea. As the Titanic sank, she insisted that the lifeboat return to rescue those in the water, but the quartermaster refused, fearing the boat would capsize from those trying to climb aboard. As her lifeboat waited for help to arrive, Margaret shared the seven pairs of wool socks she was wearing to help others stay warm. Once on the rescue ship, the RMS Carpathia, Margaret realized that many of the women and children survivors were poor immigrants who had lost everything, including their bread-winning fathers and husbands. She asked the First Class survivors to contribute toward a fund to help the newly widowed women and orphaned children. She raised more than $10,000 ($233,000 in today’s dollars) before the rescue shipped reached the New York harbor. In a time of crisis, Molly’s character was revealed. Well done, Molly…well done.

Mark Twain Riverboat

As afternoon turned into evening, we had one final agenda item…a dinner cruise on the (you guessed it) Mark Twain Riverboat! We had a magnificent time cruising up and down the Great River, walking around the boat, listening to live music, and chowing down on the buffet. The extremely friendly and cute cruise director, Julie, reminded me of a celebrity crush from my youth…another cruise director, also named Julie, who kept passengers happy each week on the Love Boat. The meal was delicious and filling and the guy on guitar was the real deal. Before placing the dinner napkin on my lap, I cautiously sniffed it to determine if it derived from recycled sheep poo. (That would have been baaaa’d.)

Downtown Hannibal
Downtown Hannibal

After dinner, we met and chatted with Linda and Karen, two sweet ladies from the Chicago area. They told us about their lives and travels and we returned the favor. Of all the great things about traveling around the country, our favorite is the people we meet along the way and the things we learn about them and from them. Most we’ll never see again, but it’s encouraging to cross paths, hear their stories and hopefully encourage a few by our story. You see, Mark Twain was right…every life is inherently interesting, made up of some drama, tragedy, and hopefully plenty of comedy.

Big Steve

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