Saturday, April 4, 2009


We've just spent the last three days in Hannibal, MO. Hannibal is about 100 miles northwest of St. Louis along the Mississippi River. To get there in the most expeditious manner you actually take Interstate 70 due west about 40 miles through the sprawling suburbs and strip malls that surround St. Louis, then turn north on Route 61 toward Iowa. The country is open rolling plains, nearly empty save for a few small towns. The Mississippi is out of sight to the east, but since it tends west as you go north when you approach Hannibal you drop off the prairie through a series of rocky outcrops into the river valley.

Hannibal is the county seat of Marion county with a population of about 17,000. Route 61 slows as it enters the ubiquitous strip mall zone. Turn toward downtown on Broadway and you pass through modest neighborhoods. The houses are small and run down, more than a few vacant. The town is quite hilly. Some of the hills have fine older homes, but they too seem in need of more attention than their owners can afford. Here and there you can see a fully restored Victorian or even civil war vintage home, but they are the exception. As Broadway approaches the river a row of brick storefronts line both sides of the street. The classical Country Court House is here as well as a nondescript brick federal office building that houses the post office, courtrooms for the federal court, the Social Security district office, and my destination, the ODAR hearing point.

If you continue on Broadway you can see the Mississippi River at the far end of the street. The heart of downtown consists of Broadway and two cross streets, Third and Main. Both have storefronts for about four blocks to the north, none to the south, where a small stream enters the river. All east bound streets end at a tall levee except Broadway, which dead-ends into the river at a small, nearly empty marina. The storefronts in this area are mostly occupied. There are a few small restaurants, some antique stores, two good coffee joints, and of course a booming trade in Mark Twain. See for yourself:

Now, I'm not a big fan of Mark Twain, but I've read most of his books over the years. A few years back our book club read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and enjoyed the heck out of it. Sam Clemens was not born in Hannibal, that honor goes to Florida, MO about 15 miles west, but he did grow up here and he based Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn on his memories of Hannibal. So it has come to pass that Hannibal's main industry is Mark Twain tourism. The river boat “Mark Twain” is tied up at the end of Center Street. The Mark Twain Hotel and Mark Twain Dinette are downtown along with the Mark Twain Museum. Tour buses head directly for the Mark Twain boyhood home, and you can eat at the Becky Thacher Restaurant right down the street. The Mark Twain Cave is two miles south. About every third business in town uses “Mark Twain” as part of its name. We had lunch Friday at a very good coffeehouse called Mark Twain Ice n' Coal.

I don't object at all to towns using tourism as a means of survival. I'm a pretty discriminating tourist myself. We checked out the museum and found much to admire there. It's a curious mix of the real and the imagined. The first floor is devoted to dioramas from the most popular novels and the upper floors concern Clemens' life, especially his time as a steamboat pilot. Much of the top floor is devoted to display of the original Norman Rockwell paintings used as illustrations for Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

The problem with using tourism as a town's economic base is that it doesn't produce nearly as much capital for the town as one might imagine. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Hannibal every year, look around for a short time then leave. The service jobs are seasonal and often part-time. Some small businesses prosper on tourist dollars, but not to the extent that the whole town prospers. Thus the overwhelming image I'm left with of Hannibal is of a struggle to survive, with many inhabitants just barely getting by.

On Thursday I heard six cases, all of whom were represented by the same lawyer, Terrell Dempsey. He and his wife, Vicki, have done a lot over the years to make Hannibal a better place to live. They helped found the free health clinic, the woman's shelter and to restore the Molly Brown (as in Unsinkable) home. I was surprised when he asked one of his African-American clients during testimony whether she liked a particular place because it was owned and operated by black folk. After the hearing he told me that he meant no offense but it's just that the entire area is still called “Little Dixie” and that segregation is far from over. He referred me to his book, Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens' World, if I wanted deeper understanding of Hannibal's history. Take a look at this interview with Dempsey for a different view of Mark Twain's background:

In all I enjoyed my introduction to Hannibal. I'll be back for a week in July when the tourist season is in full swing. You can expect a another dispatch from Little Dixie then.

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