Visitors to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum can see one of the writer’s white jackets, his typewriter and first editions of his major works. But the museum, located in Hannibal, Mo., does more than house literary artifacts. Its mission is to promote awareness and appreciation of the author’s life and works, and to demonstrate their relevance to the world.
Born Nov. 30, 1835, Samuel L. Clemens worked as a typesetter, riverboat pilot and miner before taking the pen name Mark Twain and writing for newspapers. He wrote essays, travel narratives and novels, including “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” published in 1876 and 1885, respectively. He won patents for three inventions and traveled the world. He died in 1910.
Twain is the ultimate gift that keeps on giving! —Missouri Rep. Louis Riggs
The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum properties consist of five historic buildings, including the Clemens home; the Becky Thatcher House, which was the home of the Hawkins family (Laura Hawkins was the inspiration for Becky Thatcher in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”); the John M. Clemens Justice of the Peace Office, the building used by Twain’s father when he worked as a judge); Grant’s Drug Store, outfitted as a period pharmacy; and the Huckleberry Finn House, a re-creation of the home of the boy who is thought to have inspired the famous character.
There is also a gallery housing 15 paintings Norman Rockwell created for special editions of Twain’s books. The museum offers workshops for teachers, hosts the “Music Under the Stars” free concert series, and runs the Tom and Becky Program, a contest in which seventh graders portray Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher.
Rep. Louis Riggs (R) is an attorney and former educator at Hannibal-LaGrange University whose District 5 includes Hannibal. We caught up with him to ask about the importance to his community of all things Mark Twain.
What does the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum mean for your district?
The museum is the focal point of our substantial and growing tourist economy. It is a national treasure and is visited by Twain readers and fans from across the world. Twain embargoed his autobiography until 100 years after his death in 1910. When released literally a century later, all three volumes made it to The New York Times bestseller list. Twain is the ultimate gift that keeps on giving!
Have you been to the museum? What is your favorite part?
I am a member of the city of Hannibal board that oversees the museum properties. I also serve on the House Committee on Tourism and was a member of the Missouri Travel Council board of directors before becoming a state representative.
I have been to the museum many times. Any excuse will do, and the museum hosts receptions all year long. My favorites are the pilot wheel that faces the stretch of the Mississippi River that Sam Clemens watched roll by as a child and youth that fired his imagination, giving us Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and “Life on the Mississippi”; the Norman Rockwell Gallery, which captures America like no other; and the gown Twain wore to receive an honorary degree from Oxford. That was one of his most prized possessions, and he wore it to all manner of important occasions, including the wedding of his daughter, Clara, the only child who survived him. Not bad for a writer whose “college” was the Mississippi River.
How does the Tom and Becky contest remain relevant today?
The Tom and Becky contest challenges contestants to immerse themselves in Twain’s life and writings and stays relevant because Twain is always relevant. He wrote about every topic imaginable, and Hal Holbrook [who won a Tony Award for his depiction of Mark Twain in the one-man play “Mark Twain Tonight!”] mined his writings for more than 60 years, which was longer than Twain was known as Twain.
Perhaps the most fun I have had as a legislator was hosting all of the Toms and Beckys in the Capitol when they came to celebrate Missouri’s bicentennial in August 2021. Their intelligence, humor and poise are remarkable. All the finalists are able to participate as Tom and Becky for a full year in costume and in character in downtown Hannibal and at special events. They have a blast and so do the people who interact with them.
Recently, Ashlyn Nichols, a former Becky and one of my former students, was crowned Miss University of Mobile and is competing to become Miss Alabama. She won the official Becky title in 2013. She credits her tenure as Becky with starting her down this path. In true Twain fashion, she works as a journalist.
What else is great about your district?
Hannibal is the eastern anchor of the U.S. Highway 36 corridor, “The Way of American Genius” that includes the homes of Mark Twain, Molly Brown, Walt Disney, John J. Pershing and J.C. Penney, as well as the birthplace of sliced bread, the Pony Express and the last home of Jesse James. That 180-mile-long corridor has more than 1,000 attractions and is cross-promoted by every community along the route. We know authentic tourism like few other places in the United States.
Hannibal is also part of Senate District 18, which is represented by Cindy O’Laughlin (R).
Nora Caley is a Denver-based freelance writer.