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Life on the Mississippi

15 January 2001

By Catherine Poe

The town Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer made famous, Hannibal, Missouri, is still there, perched at the edge of the Mississippi River. Mark Twain would have no trouble finding his boyhood home, a white clapboard house, just a short stroll up from the levee. Even the downtown looks pretty much like it did in the last century, except for the paved streets and the advent of the automobile.

What has changed is the sprawl of motels and fast-food franchises that clog the highways around the town. That and the need for Hannibal to cash in on the adventures of America's favorite boys. If you can keep that in mind, you will find Hannibal a true slice of Americana.

One hundred miles north of St. Louis and east of Springfield, Illinois, Hannibal is indeed a town that time forgot, despite the looming presence of Twain. While Mark Twain became the toast of the world, a famous figure in his pure white suits, and a builder of a magnificent house in Hartford, Connecticut, he continually felt himself drawn again and again to his childhood home both in person and in print.

The impact of Twain and his two fictional scamps are evident everywhere in Hannibal, but the best place to start is where Twain grew up, first in an apartment over a drug store and then in the house across the street.

TWAIN'S SCAMP YEARS

Mark Twain, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was the son of a justice of the peace whose small law office and court still stand on Hill Street next to Grant's Drug Store. For a few years, the family lived above the pharmacy and when the judge died, leaving his young family destitute, Twain's mother begged friends and clients for the money owed them and took in sewing to be able to afford the rent of the tiny, two-story house across the street. That's where Twain grew up, exploring the caves outside of town, making friends with a scalawag he called Huck, and developing a crush on the girl across the street whom he later made famous as Becky Thatcher. Twain himself became Tom Sawyer, the epitome of the all American boy. And to this day, the celebrated whitewashed fence borders his house.

You can still walk up Hill Street, one short block from the River, and visit Twain's boyhood home or drop in at the Thatcher house, which is now a book and gift shop. But it is the Twain Museum that offers the most information in its collection, including Norman Rockwell paintings of Tom and Huck, the impeccable white suit the author wore every day, a portrait of his little son who died of pneumonia after a sleigh ride with his father, first editions of Twain's books, and the Victorian memorabilia that was this writer's life. If you head back down to the corner of Hill and Main Streets, across from Grant's Drug Store, you will see where Twain at the young age of 13 first began his writing career as an apprentice in a print shop. Today it's a restaurant.

To your left at the foot of Cardiff Hill is where the statues of Tom and Huck were erected in 1926. Just beyond them, the Mississippi River cuts a great swath between Missouri and Illinois, still carrying paddle-wheel riverboats up from New Orleans. It is not hard to see why a young boy would yearn to be a riverboat pilot and even change his name from Sam Clemens to Mark Twain, a measurement of the mighty river's depth. The rest of downtown is also worth a stroll since the 19th Century buildings have been well restored and now house restaurants, new age stores, a coffee place, and gift shops. Since Hannibal built the levee, the town is no longer flooded and entrepreneurs feel safe setting up shop.

CHEESY AMERICA

However, once you leave this area, be prepared to see Americana at its most commercial. In many ways, Hannibal reminds me of a smaller Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where naked commercialism has subverted the natural beauty with honky tonk. But if you keep a sense of humor, immersing yourself in tacky can be fun and funny. It's soon obvious that Hannibal's business people just couldn't resist taking advantage of the Twain Legend. So be sure to see the Tom Sawyer Dioramas or the Haunted House Wax Museum, complete with a spook walk. And if your legs give out before your tolerance for cheesy, then hop aboard the Twainland "Choo-Choo" (800-786-5193) for a tour of not only Twain landmarks, but the Unsinkable Molly Brown's home, the old jail, and even out to the Mark Twain Cave and Cave Village, where guides will lead you underground to what they purport to have been the cave that Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher explored.

If your craving for even more schlock has not slacked, then head for "The Reflections of Mark Twain," adjacent to the Injun Joe Campgrounds and Huck's Homestead Restaurant, Go Cart Track and Miniature Golf. There you will be treated to a two-hour pageant, complete with episodes from Twain's' novels, including Life On the Mississippi. As the brochure says, the stories "come alive in a very special way." Still not enough fun for ya? There's always Sawyer's Creek Fun Park, Cafe and Christmas Shops on the banks of the Mississippi.

After you've been on your feet for untold hours and you long for something less taxing, I suggest you board the riverboat called - what else? - The Mark Twain (573-221-3222) and take a one-hour cruise to Lover's Leap and past Jackson Island. Or try the dinner cruise with dancing and drinks. It's one way for you to try to see the Mississippi River as Mark Twain did.

A VICTORIAN MASTERPIECE

When I visited Hannibal, I went right after Christmas with my daughter, not only to visit Twain's hometown, but also to stay at the Garth Woodside Mansion (314-221-2789), a legend among America's bed and breakfast inns. We had heard every downstairs room was decorated to celebrate a Victorian Christmas. We were not disappointed. From the 30-foot tree in the grand entrance to the table-top turkey-feather tree in the dining room, each room was festooned in antique decorations and trees. The house was built in 1871 by Colonel John Garth as a summer home and was set high above the Mississippi on 39 acres of country splendor. It was here that Mark Twain, now an internationally famous author, sought refuge when in town. We had hoped to book the bedroom always reserved for his visits to the Garths, but it was taken so we snuggled down in Colonel Garth's own bed. Staying at Garth House is like being in a living museum, down to the nightshirts supplied by the owners. Rightfully judged one of the top 10 inns in America for its genteel hospitality, stunning architecture, and original furnishings, the Garth House will make you expect to come upon Twain himself lounging in the parlor.

If you want something more mundane, motels abound. From the Tom'N Huck Motel (573-221-0422) to a Super 8 Motel just off Huckleberry Heights (573-221-5863), you'll find a comfy spot to put your head. If the Garth House is booked, there are other B&B's with charm, such as Abigail's Secret (573-221-2789) or the Fifth Avenue Mansion (800-874-5661), both in the historic district.

A ROSEANNE SPECIAL

If it's fine dining you crave, then just be sure to gorge on your B&B's sumptuous breakfast, because the rest of the cooking is basically Heartland specialties, even when restaurants label their menu California nouvelle. My personal favorite was the loose meat special at the Mark Twain Dinette & Family Restaurant. Yes, you read correctly, loose meat, the recipe that Roseanne Barr made famous in her TV show. Not that it was particularly tasty, but it was interesting. For prime rib, burgers, BBQ ribs, most folks head over to the Ole Planters Restaurant on Main Street (573-221-4410). Others prefer the Missouri Territory Restaurant and Lounge (573-248-1440) for steaks and seafood and an ambiance certified authentic by the National Register of Historic Places.

For those people stopping in Hannibal for a literary experience, know that you can have it, but you need to be selective in what you do and where you stay. If you want a town with the feel of a theme park, Hannibal is that too. Since Twain's hometown is less than a two-hour drive from St. Louis and St. Charles, it makes an amusing diversion from shooting craps. While the casino riverboats no longer ply the Mighty Miss, they still offer a range of games worthy of Rhett Butler. The Casino St. Charles (314-949-777), a 2000 passenger paddle wheeler (flanked by three other casinos dockside and on a barge) offers slots, blackjack, roulette, video poker, craps, poker, Caribbean Stud poker, and mini-baccarat. Five miles away in St. Louis, the 2500 passenger, historic President Casino on the Admiral (314-622-3000) floats at dockside, offering the same range of gaming as Casino St. Charles and buffets for brunch, lunch and dinner. If you want a riverboat casino that cruises the Mississippi, you'll have to go 200 miles south of St. Louis to the Casino Aztar at Caruthersville, Missouri (314-333-6000) and board the 600-passenger stern wheeler.

As a young man, Mark Twain made his living navigating boats up and down the Mississippi, a river he later immortalized with Huck Finn and Jim, the runaway slave, escaping North on a raft. Standing on the banks of the river, I couldn't help but wonder what Twain would think of all the river traffic today.

Or better yet, what would be his reaction to his hometown that has become a Twain theme park?

Knowing his sense of the ironic, I would guess he would probably find it most amusing. As will you.

Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.