Since most of our family vacations were within a half-day's drive of our Ohio home, a journey to Missouri seemed a long way off. To a youngster daydreaming of the adventures of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Hannibal was a magical place.
Well, I finally made it to my Missouri destination. And, although it doesn't always work out that way, Hannibal was not a disappointment at all. It truly is "America's Hometown." And I can still visualize a young Samuel Clemens rambling along its river streets and absorbing the colorful life that would later be shared when he wrote as famed author Mark Twain.
Unlike many literary towns, Hannibal has not forgotten its roots. Nor has it allowed its links to Twain to be neglected. Appropriately, Hannibal's motto is "where childhood memories come alive."
Remember the famous scene from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer where Tom Sawyer has the unenviable task of whitewashing a fence:
Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit.
But the conniving youngster soon had other kids paying him to let them have the "pleasure" of painting Aunt Polly's fence. A re-creation of the whitewash fence with a bucket of “make-believe” paint and a paintbrush wait by the fence for travelers who want to pretend for a photo opp.
GROWING UP IN HANNIBAL
Twain wasn't born in Hannibal but it is where he spent his boyhood years. “He often said that Hannibal made a strong impression on his life and his writings,” says Henry Sweets, executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. “Mark Twain understood human nature and what he wrote is still relevant today.”
Twain returned several times after becoming a well-known writer. In later life, he was quoted during an interview in India as saying, "All that goes to make the me in me is a small Missouri village on the other side of the globe."
Founded in 1819 by Moses Bates, Hannibal was named after the famous Carthaginian general who herded elephants across the Alps in his 218 AD invasion of Italy. Located on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, Hannibal is about 100 miles north of St. Louis.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri, in 1835 when the famed Halley's Comet passed over. His father, an attorney and justice of the peace, moved his family to Hannibal when Clemens was four years old. The young man lived in Hannibal until he was 17.
During his exciting lifetime, Clemens was a printer, riverboat pilot, Confederate soldier, miner, newspaper reporter, lecturer, world traveler and master storyteller who adopted the pen name Mark Twain.
With a population of about 18,000, Hannibal has taken care to commemorate its favorite son. Many landmarks trace the author's youth. A good starting place for a visit is the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum which gives an interesting introduction to Twain's life. The museum has photographs of people who provided models for Twain's characters, plus Twain's famous white suit jacket, first editions and more. If possible, visit the museum from May 9 through October on Thursday through Sunday at 4 p.m. for a free program by actor Jim Waddell in the character of Mark Twain. Waddell is about as close as we are going to come to the real thing.
Exhibits on the main level showcase Twain's major writings. You can step through the pages of his books to relive such scenes as the scary graveyard visit with Tom and Huck, Tom's schoolhouse antics, meeting Injun Joe with the treasure and getting lost in a cave with bats overhead. Another exhibit lets you climb aboard a stagecoach and relive Twain's tall tales and silver mining days.
The Becky Thatcher Home is the home of Twain's childhood sweetheart, Laura Hawkins.The first floor bookstore and gift shop features a large collection of Twain-related books. Across from the Twain boyhood home is the J.M. Clemens Law Office where Twain's father presided as justice of the peace in the 1840s. The courtroom provided the setting for the trial of Muff Potter in Tom Sawyer.
Erected in 1926 at the foot of Cardiff Hill, a statue of Tom and Huck is believed to be the first statue erected in the United States to honor fictional characters. The statue depicts Tom preparing to venture forth into adulthood and Huck trying to hold him back in childhood.
Mark Twain Cave, one mile south of town, is where Tom and Becky Thatcher were lost. A guide will escort you on a one-hour tour featuring points of interest mentioned in Twain's writings and made more enjoyable by interesting techniques in cave lighting.
Twain always predicted that he would die when Halley's Comet returned after 75 years. He was right. He died April 21, 1910. Just three years later, his hometown dedicated a statue of Twain in Riverview Park, a nature area overlooking the Mississippi River. The words inscribed on the statue–"His religion was humanity, and a whole world mourned for him when he died."
Before I left Hannibal, I got a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It has been years since I read Twain’s book and it seemed like the appropriate thing to do on my trip home from Hannibal. Hard telling what Twain would say about the world today but I’m sure the words he wrote long before I was born would still ring true.
For more information: Call the Hannibal Visitors & Convention Bureau at toll-free (866) 263-4825 or www.visithannibal.com.