Hometown, America

Selling the towns that Huck and Mickey built.

America's Hometown Mailbox
All photographs, except historic image, by Keith Eggener.

California and New York are places where people go to make it big. Missouri is a place where the big once were small. The list of those who spent a portion of their youths in the “show-me state” runs long: from Burt Bacharach to Eminem, T.S. Eliot to J.C. Penney, Calamity Jane to Kenneth Lay . . . on it goes. The pool is especially thick with writers (Tennessee Williams, Langston Hughes, Sara Teasdale, Jonathan Franzen, Maya Angelou, William S. Burroughs, Robert Heinlein . . .) and Hollywood types (Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Vincent Price, Joan Crawford, Betty Grable, John Huston, Brad Pitt, Robert Altman . . .), but other categories are just as rich (musicians, artists, scientists, TV stars, athletes, generals, outlaws, politicians, political reactionaries, etc.). There are parts of the state where one can hardly hurl a kewpie doll (invented by one-time Missourian Rose O’Neill) without hitting the childhood home of some worthy.

In tough economic times like these, all potential advantages must be explored, and Missouri’s luminaries may be among its most valuable natural resources. Yet unlike most everything else grown here, they can’t profitably be converted into biofuels, and most are either living elsewhere or long dead. So what are we — we who are left behind — to do with them? We can exploit their memories, of course. And there are no better tools for doing this than the places they once called home.

Before launching any major touristic initiatives along these lines, it’s wise to keep a few points in mind. First, the dead are much easier to work with than the living — more malleable, less litigious and often more attractive (lit by nostalgia’s flattering glow rather than busy being arrested or becoming decrepit). More to the point, it’s difficult to market an obscure, ordinary childhood while a captivating, remarkable adulthood is still ongoing. Second, not all celebrities are created equal. It helps if the person in question was and continues to be genuinely interesting and appealing — mysterious, charismatic, glamorous. Thus Amelia Earhart (daughter of our neighbor Kansas, unfortunately) is and shall likely remain a much better draw than, say, Rush Limbaugh (one of ours, alas). Third, small towns —especially those removed from established tourist venues, scenic areas or major highways — must try harder than large ones, for they have fewer ancillary attractions and much less traffic flow. A trip to poet Eugene Field’s downtown St. Louis row house (which includes a museum of antique toys) provides a diverting hour of arcane literary necro-tourism between a visit to the Arch and an evening game at Busch Stadium. The modest, two-story wood-frame house where General John “Black Jack” Pershing grew up, now part of the state park system, receives fewer callers, in part because remote Laclede (pop. 415) provides few other draws. Slater (pop. 2,083) does a little better at least one weekend each year with Steve McQueen Days, but that likely has as much to do with the vintage car parades, screenings of The Blob, and the opportunities to meet Steve’s personal trainer, as it does with the tours of his small, unremarkable boyhood home.

Finally, the most alluring places are those that became prominent parts of a native son or daughter’s work, are best known through that work, 2 and retain some of what he or she described there. The image of such a place has spread far and wide, but the real deal (or whatever it’s become) occupies only one dot on the map. Like a famous person, a famous place has an aura. People want to get next to it, to see it up close and compare it to their advance images of it. To enter such a place is to enter into the space of popular myth. 3 Outside of a few large cities, specific, identifiable places of this sort are rare, and few are notable as urban or architectural design. What makes them interesting is who came out of them, and even more, what, if anything, was made of them in the years since.

Twain House
Mark Twain’s Birthplace.

No place in Missouri — perhaps no place in the nation — better fits this bill or has done more to exploit it than Hannibal, boyhood home of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who lived there from 1838 to 1851, before becoming Mark Twain. “America’s Hometown,” as it calls itself, is sited on the Mississippi River, at the intersection of Interstate 72 and U.S. highways 61, 36 and 24, one hundred miles north of St. Louis, 20 miles south of Quincy, Illinois. One corner of this sprawling and otherwise rather derelict port and manufacturing town of 17,757 (down from over 23,000 in the 1930s) draws nearly a half million visitors each year. They spend millions of dollars and directly support hundreds of local jobs. They come to see the sites associated with Twain and his famous literary creations, most of these located in a small area near the river marked by low brick and whitewashed wood-frame buildings. 4 Centered at the intersection of Hill and Main streets, the Mark Twain Historic District has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1962. At its heart is the restored two-story wood-frame house built by Sam’s Father, John Marshall Clemens, in 1844, and the associated Mark Twain museum.

But many other attractions beckon. Collectively these blur the line between history and fiction: John Marshall Clemens’s law office, Grant’s Drugstore (where père Clemens died), bronze statues of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and of young Sam Clemens as a riverboat pilot, the Becky Thatcher and Huck Finn Houses (where the people these characters purportedly were based on lived), the fence Tom Sawyer painted, the Tom Sawyer Diorama (where “sixteen hand-carved scenes walk you through Tom’s Adventures”), and, a little south of town, the Mark Twain Cave (where Tom and Becky got lost and Injun Joe died). Signs indicate the sites of events described in Twain’s books. Young actors dressed as Tom and Becky stroll the restored 19th-century streetscapes on busy days. No less than two theaters regularly showcase actors in white suits and bushy mustaches, offering their competing portrayals of the town’s most famous son. Each Fourth of July holiday Hannibal hosts Tom Sawyer Days, complete with frog jumping and fence painting contests; the 55th annual will occur in 2010, which has also been declared the year of Mark Twain (in honor of the centennial of his death), “a 365-day celebration of the life of America’s most beloved author.” Bed-and-breakfast inns such as the Garth Woodside Mansion (where Twain stayed with friends on some of his many return visits to Hannibal) and the Robards Mansion (where he visited the dying daughter of another old friend in 1902) make much of their connections to the author. 5


Hannibal Drink Machine
Hannibal, Missouri.

And there is still more. Parks and ball fields, schools and theaters are named for Twain and his characters, as are lodgings and eateries of all sorts. So too are a bank, a lighthouse, a riverboat and other tourist conveyances, an amusement park, a beauty parlor, stores selling all variety of merchandise (including pets and medical and industrial supplies), a retirement home (formerly the Hotel Mark Twain), a mental health counseling center, a printer’s shop, a gas station and an automotive body shop. On Hill Street one can take out “Mark Twain Fried Chicken” from the Mark Twain Dinette and then walk across the street to wash it down with a soft drink pulled from a machine bearing the larger-than-life-size visage of the author. While Twain glowers at them disapprovingly, visitors consume their Mr. Pibbs and a sugar-coated slice of all-American pie — along with a tarted-up, romantically reconstructed representation of our national past, one that scarcely existed outside the realm of literature.

Hannibal’s Chamber of Commerce may like to think of itself as the keeper of a major literary shrine, but the real shrine is a few miles west. In and around the tiny village of Florida, Missouri, young Clemens was born in 1835, lived for the first four years of his life, and regularly returned to visit his Uncle John’s farm. The first months of his life were spent in a rustic, two-room cabin rented by his parents and shared with four older siblings and a teenage slave. That house, part of the Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site, was moved from its original location nearby and now stands inside the 2,775-acre Mark Twain State Park, on the shores of Mark Twain Lake.

Twain Museum
Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site. Florida, Missouri.

Actually, it stands inside another building. Built in 1959 by the Kansas City firm Swanson, Terney, and Brey, this structure is a classic bit of 1950s neo-expressionist modernism: stark limestone and glass-walled boxes roofed by a hyperbolic paraboloid concrete shell that evokes contemporary works by Eero Saarinen and Felix Candela. Tucked away under flat roofs are the entrance foyer, a small museum and research library, offices, storage areas and lavatories. The main attraction, spot-lit beneath the wing-like shells covering the largest and most dramatic room, is the little rough-hewn cabin.

Thus enclosed, it looks like nothing so much as a miniature inside a snow globe. The structure enclosing it, which replaced an open, wood-frame one of 1930, is that rare case of an entire building designed for the almost sole purpose of housing another, smaller and more precious one. Its original name, still spelled out over the entrance, leaves little doubt as to the building’s quasi-religious function: “Mark Twain Memorial Shrine.” The little cabin is preserved there as an icon giving access to the origins of an authentic American folk hero, and to the still immensely popular images of frontier life and national innocence he represented. Apart from a few scholarly tomes on Twain for sale near the entrance, there is no commerce in this semi-sacred place. For that you must return to Hannibal, where a visit to the Huck Finn Shopping Center offers plenty to cure even most the most nagging literary or spiritual hangover.

Twain is not the only creative Missourian to have spotlighted his boyhood town, only to have it later do the same to him. In 1906, when he was four years old, Walt Disney and his family moved from Chicago to a small farm just outside of Marceline, a speck of a place on the Santa Fe Railroad line between Chicago and Kansas City. Located a few miles south of U.S. highway 36, a good hour by car from any place of more than 10,000 people, further still from the relative metropolises of Kirksville, Hannibal and St. Joseph, Marceline is one of those small Midwestern towns (they are legion) marked by an almost majestic sense of isolation and decline.

An infinitesimal percentage of the world’s population has or ever will visit Marceline (pop. 2,558), and yet vast numbers have unknowingly traipsed through a version of it. As the local chamber of commerce relentlessly reminds the few who do venture there, Marceline is “Where Walt found the Magic.” More specifically, according to a passage on the City of Marceline website: “Go to Disneyland in California — or to the Magic Kingdom at Disney World in Florida, or Disney Tokyo, or Eurodisney outside Paris — and you will find that there is only one entrance: under the station of the old-fashioned steam railroad, through a town square, and down the Main Street of a nostalgic, gingerbreaded, nineteenth-century American town. . . . The town could be straight out of The Music Man, or Oklahoma — or it could be Marceline, Missouri, the little town by the railroad where Walt spent his boyhood . . .” 6

Marceline, Missouri.

Disney was candid about his creative debt to Marceline. “To tell the truth,” he once said, “more things of importance happened to me in Marceline than ever happened since or are likely to in the future. 7 The town repaid him by naming most of its civic institutions for him: the Walt Disney Post Office, the Walt Disney Municipal Park and Pool, the Walt Disney Elementary School (“Where the magic of learning begins” says a sign out front), the Walt Disney Hometown Museum, etc. 8 Each September since 1998, Marceline has hosted “Toonfest,” which includes visits by noted cartoonists and “Walt Disney’s Barnyard Olympics for Children, [with] cow milking, nail hammering, candy in a haystack, feedsack races, and much more!” Meanwhile, although the house Walt lived in is not open for tours, its owner-occupiers do allow visitors onto a part of their land to see “Walt’s Dreaming Tree” and a reconstructed barn dubbed “The Happy Place.” Signs on the property point out the spots where young Walt engaged in “belly botany” and other questionable activities.

Most telling is what has happened to the former Kansas Avenue, Marceline’s main street. Sometime in the 1990s, metal street signs of a distinctive mouse-eared shape were erected on each corner, rebranding it as Main Street USA. In fact, Marceline’s main street, with its late 19th- and early 20th-century two- and three-story brick buildings, does look faintly like the later Disney version of the same name. Plaques scattered amidst the faltering shops and boarded-up storefronts indicate the stations of Disney’s crossing. In this and a few other ways (an old-timey drugstore, a nostalgia-laden café), Marceline has tried to make itself look more like Disney’s carefully embroidered memory of it than its actual Disney-era self. But although the town has done its best to capitalize on its most famous son, it hasn’t had nearly the success of Hannibal to the east. Annual paid admissions to the Disney Museum run about 4,000 to 5,000, and given that that there’s not much else in town for would-be tourists to do, this probably correlates to the total number of visitors each year — i.e., somewhat below Hannibal’s half million.

Disney Museum

Marcelline Street
Marceline, Missouri.

Twain’s and Disney’s names are about equally famous the world over. Each spent a portion of his youth in a small Midwestern town and each drew on that experience to shape his own hugely popular creative output. Years later, the towns capitalized upon these images and in the process they changed themselves to accord with the visions of their famous former residents. Yet Hannibal is immensely more successful in attracting tourists. Why? This has something to do with location, of course: Hannibal’s site on the Mississippi River and at the junction of several major highways, its relative proximity to one major metropolitan area (St. Louis) and one more modest one (Quincy, Illinois), versus Marceline’s proximity to . . . soybeans.

But there is more to it than that. Even before his death in 1910, Twain had become a genuine American folk here, and so he remains. For a while in the 1950s and ‘60s, as “Uncle Walt” introducing Sunday-night television audiences to The Wonderful World of Disney, the man from Marceline seemed poised to become one too; but since his death in 1966, Disney’s name for most people under fifty has come to mean little more than the vast eponymous corporation he founded, like Chrysler or Boeing or the pre-Paris Hiltons. Moreover, Twain’s stories were partly autobiographical, and so his literary settings have been widely conflated with real sites. People go to Hannibal to walk the streets where the real children who inspired Huck and Becky walked; they go there ready to believe that an otherwise unexceptional white wood fence is the one Tom painted, or, at least, the one that inspired Twain to invent his story.

Disney’s stories, on the other hand, are pure fantasy; Mickey and Daffy never walked any but cartoon streets, and Marceline was not the singular setting of a beloved American myth, like Hannibal, but the incidental archetype for a generalized and nostalgic fantasy version of small-town America. Marceline’s Main Street USA, like its flashier offspring in California, Florida, France and Japan, is Anytown, USA. There is no compelling reason to go see “the original” since there was never anything special about the original to begin with. It was always the secondary, Disney version that mattered.

As Thomas Wolfe said, “you can’t go home again.” To that I would add, “but your audience can.” Sometimes, however, it isn’t worth the trouble.

  1. If Donald Judd’s art contained more of his native Excelsior Springs, Missouri, people might well pay more attention to that neglected place; on the other hand, they would likely pay less attention to Donald Judd.
  2. Young Henry James may have scampered through New York’s Washington Square and even named a novel after it, but most people know it through other means and have other more compelling reasons to visit the place.
  3. In a related vein, gravesites are generally more popular as destinations than childhood homes, partly because people like knowing how stories end, but also because they provide access to the physical remains of figures most people couldn’t have gotten close to in life.
  4. The literature on Twain’s connections to Hannibal is large, beginning with his own writing. In fictional works such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and The Tragedy of Pudd’n Head Wilson (1894), he disguised the town as St. Petersburg or Dawson’s Landing. He also discussed it at length in his posthumously published Autobiography (1924). Among the most interesting of more recent studies are: Henry Nash Smith, Mark Twain’s Images of Hannibal: From St. Petersburg to Eseldorf (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958); James R. Curtis, “The Most Famous Fence in the World: Fact and Fiction in Mark Twain’s Hannibal,” Landscape 28:3 (1985), 8–14; and Ron Powers, Tom and Huck Don’t Live Here Anymore: Childhood and Murder in the Heart of America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001). See also Gary Scharnhorst, ed., Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006).
  5. On my last visit to Hannibal I stayed in the very room where the unfortunate young Miss Robards passed. She did not haunt me, though a decorative assortment of straw hats, quilts, and wooden ducks did.
  6. City of Marceline, accessed 17 July 2009.
  7. Quoted in a brochure from Marceline’s Chamber of Commerce. For more on Disney’s debt to his hometown see Steve Watts, The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997), 3–23.
  8. Here, among other artifacts, one may view remnants of the Midget Autopia, “the only ride ever to leave and be operated outside of Disneyland.”
Keith Eggener, “Hometown, America,” Places Journal, September 2009. Accessed 08 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/090911

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Past Discussions View
  • Nola Devitt

    10.20.2009 at 16:00

    Really interesting article. I especially appreciated the explanation for why one town's famous resident is a better draw than another's. A perspective I hadn't expected but rings quite true.