It’s not a ghost town yet but it’s getting there. I spent a day in Hannibal, Missouri. I’m a high school English teacher and just couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the home of the American author, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Mid-July I expected the streets of Hannibal to be teeming with sightseers anxious to catch a glimpse of the spot on the Mississippi River where Twain’s hero Huck Finn set sail on his raft . I thought folks would be lined up in droves to tour the Clemens homestead and visit the caves where Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn had so many adventures. But on a steamy summer afternoon I browsed in solitary pleasure through shops replete with Twain novels, biographies and souvenirs. A Japanese tourist and a father and son from England were the only other people visiting Becky Thatcher’s cottage with me. A boy and girl dressed up like Tom Sawyer and his girlfriend Becky looked bored as they waited for tourists to show up and pay $7 to have their picture taken with the famous literary couple. Horse drawn carriages toured the city carting only a few passengers each. I attended an excellent one-man show put on by actor Richard Garey. Standing on a stage crammed with Twain memorabilia, Garey did a lively and educational re-creation of one of Twain’s lectures and story telling presentations. Mark Twain traveled across the United States entertaining crowds of people in the late 1800’s Unfortunately only eight of us were in attendance at the show Garey staged in Hannibal on a July night.
Don’t get me wrong. Hannibal, Missouri is charming. It’s just that the whole place appears to be a little ‘down on its luck.’ We stopped at two bed and breakfast establishments that looked lovely and appealing in the brochures we’d picked up. The doors were locked, the paint peeling and the yards overgrown. The high school English teacher who supplemented his income by running the book store at the Mark Twain museum had plenty of time to ‘talk shop’ with me since I was his only customer. We wanted to try a local Hannibal restaurant for supper, but by seven o’clock many were closed, and others I have to admit looked just a little on the seedy side. We finally settled on Lula Belles, a former bordello turned now into a respectable eatery. It was founded by an enterprising madam from Chicago at the turn of the century. The food was hardly gourmet, but the portions were plentiful and the service friendly. You couldn’t help remembering however that it used to be a centre for gambling and prostitution and was frequently raided by the police. Did the ‘ladies of the evening’ who made their living there a hundred years ago still haunt the place one wondered,
Literary tourism appears to be flourishing. People are flocking to the sites mentioned in the popular book the Da Vinci Code. The Prince Edward Island tourist industry thrives on the Anne of Green Gables books authored by Lucy Maud Montgomery. So what’s the problem in Hannibal, Missouri, the setting for Twain’s novels, I checked some traveler review web sites which mentioned several reasons for Hannibal’s decline including lack of advertising, limited hours of operation and an almost cynical attitude amongst residents about their famous home town author.
I enjoyed Hannibal, Missouri and was glad I had visited. Hopefully the town will be able to make the necessary changes to attract more tourists. Otherwise it might become a place inhabited only by the ghosts of Mark Twain and the interesting cast of characters he created in his memorable novels.