It was just dumb luck that led us to the Avenue of the Saints aka The Great River Road Route. Little did I know that there is an actual name for the route from St. Paul to New Orleans via St. Louis. Of course, it was not our intent to travel as far as St. Louis even though Cherie (my wife) lived there all of nine months when she was a child.
But it was the right route to Hannibal, MO! This trip has already proven to be an opportunity to explore places I have only read or heard about. My excitement was palpable as we moved closer to the childhood home of one Samuel Langhorne Clemons aka Mark Twain. Imagine visiting the location of one of your heroes? I read “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and of Huck Finn” in high school and in college. And now I was going to actually see the sites that influenced the development of these stories and that gave rise to the characters in these stories.
Hannibal rests along the mighty Mississippi River near a fairly wide point across from the state of Illinois. During the time running up to the Civil War the city had its share of slave owners, yet when the war broke out the City refused to engage in the conflagration declaring itself a “neutral zone” to both sides. Of course, this contrariness was much admired by Twain and was influenced his political philosophy over time.
But first and foremost Hannibal was a river city and therefore a city of commerce. Serviced by rail and by riverboat the city was a terminus for grain and passengers then as well as today. The Mississippi or the “Big Muddy” flooded regularly until dikes were built all along the Missouri shoreline near Hannibal.
Twain built quite a resume of professional positions over time with riverboat pilot being a highpoint.
And of course his nom de guerre was derived from the riverboat term meaning safe passage — a riverboat needed 12 feet to clear the river during transport. “Mark Twain or mark two” equated to this determination.
Hannibal is a bit tired as it seems most small towns/cities are today. However, this riverside metropolis is striving mightily to remain relevant. Main Street was in the midst of a substantial public works effort that replaces the street and the side walk. Real estate values are still below par; but “historic district” is experiencing a renaissance with new coats of paint accompanying the renovation of storefronts and civic buildings. A contributing factor to vibrancy of the city is towboat activity and periodic dockings by the River Queen riverboats.
The other economic engine is driven by tourism that primarily focuses on Mark Twain. The Mark Twain Museum was a great find–loved his childhood home, the Becky Thatcher house and the office of his father who was the Justice of the Peace for many years. This too was to provide fodder for Twain’s books created later in his life.
The museum was structures using the Twain literature to as the backbone of the self-guided tour. There are many family pictures, clothing–one of Twain’s white suits; and a wonderful collection of Norman Rockwell illustrations that were completed near 1940 to support updated printings of Twain’s books on one Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. The museum even had the original death mask for a Twain progeny who had died as a baby due to consumption.
Not to be undone by the historical significance of the town I did stumble upon a delightful sweet shoppe that offered the “best” popcorn, particularly carmel corn — warm and extremely buttery. In the interest of trying to maintain my girlish figure I also got some regular white popcorn as well.
The opportunity to see Twain’s home and the town of Hannibal was a dream come true for me. Cherie, who is not quite as excited as I about historic sites was also enamored with the museums. Although she probably enjoyed visiting the antique stores and art galleries just as much if not more than I did the historic areas.
So to all you history and literature buffs, as well as those who simply want to see everything famous in the US of A then this town is the place for you. I am very glad I had read two of his novels prior to coming to this famous burg. Did I mention that the museum had one of his trademark white suits too–well I just did!
One more item to cross off my bucket list! Now on to Springfield, IL in order to soak in more history as we go visit Abe Lincoln’s museum, homestead and interpretive center–I am certain that this is a trip of a lifetime #2 in 2012–it has been a very good year.