Tour the town that inspired Mark Twain
One of America’s greatest literary figures, Samuel Clemens wrote so powerfully about life on the Mississippi that his home town of Hannibal (population 17,757) is still considered the seminal river town. Sitting between two big hills and a star-stop along the Great River Road, Hannibal is one big and utterly charming love letter to Mark Twain—his name is on half the signs in town, and his characters’ names are on the other half.
Clemens took his pen name ‘Mark Twain’ from his early career as a steamboat pilot. If shallow water measured two fathoms (12 feet)—deep enough to navigate—the crewmen bellowed “mark twain”. Twain introduced some of American literature’s most unforgettable characters—Huckleberry Finn, Becky Thatcher and Jim—in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), but it was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) that earned his place among the literary greats.
Ground zero for Twain lovers is the Mark Twain Boyhood Home, half a dozen buildings near the river that have been faithfully preserved, including the tidy, two-storey white clapboard house where the family lived in the 1840s; the home of Laura Hawkins, who was the model for Becky Thatcher; the office where his father, J.M. Clemens, practised law; and the fetchingly old-fashioned Grant’s Drug Store with the Pilaster House on the floor above, where the family lived for nine months after J.M. went bankrupt in 1847.
In an attractive downtown building, the Mark Twain Museum & Gallery has an outstanding collection of 15 original oil paintings by Norman Rockwell, who was commissioned in the 1930s to illustrate special editions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Literature buffs enjoy Twain’s writing desk and original manuscripts, while kids can act out scenes of the book in interactive exhibits.
Twain fans won’t want to miss the hour-long tour of the Mark Twain Cave, now well-lit with paved walkways, written about so vividly in Tom Sawyer.
Mark Twain mania reaches its height over July 4th weekend when 100,000 people turn out for National Tom Sawyer Days, a special time marked by a small-town parade, fireworks, fence-painting contests and the crowning of the town’s new Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, a competition among local 7th graders (12- to 13-year-olds) since the 1950s.
Though he lived out his final years in Hartford, Connecticut, Clemens often returned to Hannibal to stay with old friends at the handsome Garth Woodside Mansion, now one of the loveliest B&Bs in the country, an 1871 Second Empire home built on a hill just outside Hannibal. It’s filled with museum-quality Victorian furniture like the 1869 Steinway square grand piano, and charming touches like nightshirts laid out in each of the eight lavishly decorated bedrooms, including the one where Clemens slept.