Even if youve never visited Hannibal, Mo., you probably have a pretty good idea what the town looks like, thanks to the literary works of its most famous resident.
When Mark Twain wrote his classic adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the stories were fiction but the setting was not. The locale was Hannibal, with its whitewashed picket fences, paddlewheel steamboats and rafts on the Mississippi River, quaint buildings, and cobblestone streets.
The literary images Twain painted more than a century ago still exist in the historic river town. An old-fashioned riverboat steams past the town on the Mississippis broad channel, gracious 19th century buildings line its downtown, and the fence made famous by Tom Sawyers whitewashing still stands outside Twains boyhood home.
Born Samuel Clemens in nearby Perry, Mo., Twain used many of his boyhood experiences in Hannibal as the basis for his classic novels. Today the town honors its native son with attractions such as the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, the Mark Twain Riverboat, an outdoor theater pageant featuring scenes from his books, and the Mark Twain Cave. This limestone labyrinth often explored by the young Clemens and his fictional characters is now a registered national landmark.
Hannibals greatest homage to Twain comes during National Tom Sawyer Days, scheduled July 1-4, when 100,000 visitors fill the town for fence-painting championships, frog jumping contests, an arts and crafts show, and the crowning of Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher local seventh-graders who serve as the towns official ambassadors throughout the year.
While Twain remains the leading icon from Hannibals past, the towns future is being shaped by a new generation of civic leaders such as Linn Ayers, who grew up in Hannibal, left to attend college, and returned in 1985. Today she and husband, Steve, own a pottery shop, gift store, and cozy coffeehouse in the middle of the towns historic business district.
They also helped found the Great River Road Guild of Professional Artisans, a non-profit group of more than a dozen professional artists in the Missouri river communities of Hannibal, Louisiana, and Clarksville. The guild is working with other groups to recruit artists by offering low-interest loans to renovate local historic buildings into studios.
Hannibal is a wonderful place for artists because of the natural beauty of our setting and the large number of visitors we have each year, Ayers says. Weve already had more than 90 inquiries from artisans across the country.
Another force for change in the community is the soon-to-be-completed Mark Twain Memorial Bridge. The $55 million structure spans the Mississippi River and is scheduled to open Sept. 16 after two years of construction, making Hannibal the crossroads of two major four-lane highways.
The completion of the bridge is going to give a big boost to Hannibal, says City Manager Gary Shimun. Weve got all the right ingredients to really grow, presumably without losing its charm.
And one of these is the great river flowing endlessly past the town. Theres something about the Mississippi that draws people into its spell, adds Ayers.
Mark Twain would certainly agree.