Traveling with Twain

In Search of America's Identity

Small river towns of Keokuk, IA, and Cape Girardeau, MO, showcase Twain’s writings and letters

The mural along the flood wall in Cape Girardeau, Missouri

On the drive to Keokuk, Iowa, where a young Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) worked as a printer in the mid-1850s, we stop in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, for lunch.

We have Twain as an appetizer. A building wall mural and two Mississippi River flood-wall murals depict a larger-than-life Twain. A Missouri Hall of Fame recalls Twain’s description of himself as a “border ruffian” with Missouri morals.

A plaque carries a Twain quote of special meaning to oft-flooded Cape Girardeau: “The Mississippi River will always have its way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.”

A three-story, riverfront brick building from Twain’s time—with a huge exterior wall sign for 3- and 5-cent Coca Cola that “relieves fatigue”—houses the antique-adorned Port Girardeau Restaurant and Lounge and a $10.95 all-you-can-eat Sunday buffet. We eat all we can, and continue to Keokuk, where we pass our trip’s 8,000-mile mark.

Keokuk, a tired Mississippi River town that has lost almost 40 percent of its population of 16,000-plus from the 1960s, derives its name from the chief of the Sac Indians, whose remains are buried beneath a striking statue of him that overlooks the Mississippi.

All of the town (and half the county), called the “Half Breed Tract,” was deeded by an 1834 act of Congress to the offspring of fur traders and Sac and Fox Indians. Those owners in turn sold their plots of land, primarily to white settlers.

Sam Clemens came to town to help his brother Orion operate a print shop that produced, among other works, the 1856 city directory. Sam listed himself as “antiquarian.” When asked why, he said, “Well, I thought the town ought to have one antiquarian, and as nobody else claimed to be one, I volunteered.”

Loren with Keokuk's Christmas Twain in Rand Park

Rand Park features a painted billboard for the Christmas season of Mark Twain as author of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer (I cannot resist posing with it and later getting a haircut at a barbershop named Mark’s). The Keokuk Public Library displays a painting of young, red-haired Clemens in 1859 and sells a book of three travel letters from Cincinnati and St. Louis by him.

The letters, first published in the Keokuk Daily Post in 1856-57, earned Clemens $5-7.50 each, his first payments for writing. The book, The Adventures of Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, was printed for the library on an old Heidelberg Windmill press by the Working Linotype Museum in 2007 and sells for $49.95 (no discount for geezers).

Jane Clemens' house in Keokuk, Iowa

Clemens’ mother, Jane, bought an attractive two-story home at the corner of 7th and High Streets (reflecting the current economy, a bank has reduced its price to $49,000). Sam regularly wrote candid letters to her. Upon her death the letters, several trunks full, were passed to Orion’s family but later destroyed by John Carpenter, Keokuk’s ex-mayor and a Clemens cousin, in accordance with Sam’s wish.

Sam Clemens returned to Keokuk in 1886 for a family reunion and gave a brief Fourth of July speech in which he joked about the town 30 years earlier: “There were 3,000 people here and they drank 3,000 barrels of whiskey a day, and they drank it in public then.” Though Clemens regretted that he could not deliver the last word—the benediction was to follow—he promised “I will do the next best thing I can and that is to sit down.”

Loren Ghiglione

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One thought on “Small river towns of Keokuk, IA, and Cape Girardeau, MO, showcase Twain’s writings and letters

  1. margie laughlin on said:

    Loren left his phone in Boise.