Have you ever wandered country backroads with names like “Cr BB” or “Cr J” and wondered why you were doing it? Perhaps it was your adventurous nature or, in my case, a love of history and the roads that lead to it. it was one of those roads that took me to the birthplace of Mark twain.
In the village of Florida, Mo., a reddish-colored granite monument marks the original location of the humble two-room cabin where Samuel Langhorne Clemens — Mark Twain — was born. on a November night in 1835, with Halley’s Comet visible in the sky, Samuel joined the family of John and Jane Clemens. that little rented cabin sheltered the Clemens family of seven and a teenage slave girl until a larger residence was built in 1836.
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Today, the cabin is preserved at the Mark twain Birthplace State historic Site, inside a modern museum/memorial shrine dedicated to Missouri’s favorite author and humorist. The museum is adjacent to the 2,775-acre Mark Twain State Park, the third oldest state park in Missouri. The park features three campgrounds with basic and electrical sites, modern restrooms, a dump station, showers, potable water, a laundry facility, picnic areas, boat ramps and six miles of hiking trails.
In 1839, Samuel’s family moved to Hannibal, a frontier town on the banks of the Mississippi River, where his father presided as the justice of the peace in the 1840s. Though Samuel grew up in Hannibal, his summers were spent at the large farm of his uncle, John Quarles, located three miles north of Florida. It was here that Samuel listened to stories told by Uncle Dan’l, a slave who would later become the model for Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His childhood friend, Laura Hawkins, was immortalized in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as Becky Thatcher. In the same book, Aunt Polly was modeled after his own mother, an ardent believer in patent medicines and quack cures.
Samuel had fond memories of his summers on the farm and wrote of them in his autobiography: “The memories of sumptuous meals — well, it makes me cry to think of them. Fried chicken, roast pig, wild and tame turkeys, ducks and geese; venison just killed; squirrels and rabbits, pheasants, partridges, prairie chickens; biscuits, hot batter cakes, hot buckwheat cakes, hot wheat bread, hot rolls. … I can see the farm yet, with perfect clearness.”
Samuel was 12 when his father died in 1847. He quit school and went to work on a Hannibal newspaper as a “printer’s devil” (an assistant) and later became an itinerant printer in 1853. He also spent four years piloting a riverboat on the Mississippi River until the outbreak of the Civil War. He hunted for gold in Aurora, Nev., and worked as a newspaper reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, where he first used his pen name of Mark Twain, which was also a riverboat term for safe waters. In 1864, Samuel headed for San Francisco, where he continued to work on local newspapers. His first break came with the publication of a short story titled “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog.” His work became so popular that he embarked upon his first lecture tour and became a celebrated public speaker and successful stage performer.
His years spent traveling abroad and to the West gave him ideas for books, including The Innocents Abroad, Life on the Mississippi and Roughing It. He wrote many of his books in an eight-sided study on the grounds of the Langdon farm near Elmira, N.Y. This is where Samuel courted and married Olivia Langdon. They later moved and raised their family in Hartford, Conn.
Inside the Mark Twain Birthplace Memorial Museum, the writer’s remarkable life is interpreted through exhibits, artifacts, family photos, furniture, a partial reproduction of a Mississippi River Steamboat Pilot House and even his carriage. A film about his life is available for viewing. On display and encased in glass are the original proof sheets for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, printed in London and published by Chatto and Windus in June 1876. I particularly enjoyed the exhibit that detailed how Mark Twain loved to change the English language to suit his needs. He would coin words, devise compounds and revise outmoded words and used Americanisms to give them new meaning. He made thousands of changes and it is said the English language was never quite the same.
Mark Twain was also famous for his quotes: “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” Or, “Be good and you will be lonesome,” and “My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water.” Somehow, they all make sense.
Mark Twain provided images of the romantic, the real and the strengths and weaknesses of a rapidly growing world. Tragedy seemed to follow him, first with the death of a younger brother, then his son, Langdon, who died at the age of 2, and a daughter, Susy, at the age of 24. His beloved Olivia died in 1904 and the youngest daughter Jeanne in 1909. Four months later, on April 21, 1910, with Halley’s Comet again visible, Samuel Langhorne Clemens left this world.