Hannibal's a Real Humdinger
Barge traffic inching along the Mississippi River and buildings dating from the early 1800s give visitors a hint at life in Hannibal, Missouri during Mark Twain’s celebrated days.
“Hannibal, because of Mark Twain, is one of the best known, if not the best known, small towns in the world,” said Richard Garey, an actor and teacher known for portraying Twain in local shows and at venues and special events nationwide.
Garey fell in love with Twain because the writing has done the nearly impossible — remained relevant.
“As an actor, the material is so wonderful. It’s still wonderfully fresh and funny even after all these years. Comedy doesn’t last very long usually, a play you do this year may not be nearly as funny in three or four years. His material seems to never lose that.”
Twain’s evaluation of politics, especially — he ran for president — at times gets Garey in some hot spots with his audiences.
“His take on politics is timeless. I have people who get very upset at me (during a show) because they think I’m going off script, because it sounds like last week’s headlines,” Garey said. “But human nature does not change, and Twain recognized that as most great writers do.”
Garey said visitors should make time in their schedules to take in Twain’s boyhood home museum.
“One ticket gets you into the historic properties. You get to go through Mark Twain’s house, where he lived as a boy, but also get a feel for what it was like in the 1840s in America.”
“I also recommend very highly the Mark Twain Riverboat. (The captain) takes you on the river, above and below Hannibal. You see the world the way they saw it when you’re out on the boat.”
And simply walking through downtown, with Garey as a guide, provides a memorable experience.
“Part of what I offer, I do a walk with Mark Twain,” he said. “I’m in costume, and the dialect is based on a Thomas Edison recording of (Samuel) Clemens I was able to find.
“Most of the buildings on North Main Street were built in the 1830s, 40s and 50s and — thank God — have not been torn down.”
Megan Rapp, assistant director with the Hannibal Convention & Visitor Bureau said walking is a great way to make sure visitors don’t miss anything in the historic downtown.
“Of course Mark Twain is what puts Hannibal on the map, but our downtown has wonderful locally-owned stores, galleries and restaurants, all within easy walking distance from the Mark Twain Home,” she said.
At Java Jive, tourists can get their caffeine fix and a sweet treat to fuel up for the day before a visit to other attractions like Karlock’s Kars and Pop Culture, a venue boasting more than 10,000 square feet of movie memorabilia, classic cars, vintage juke boxes and “all kinds of unexpected things,” Rapp said, including one of Steve McQueen’s motorcycles.
But Rapp said a fall visit to the town also provides guests an unusual opportunity to view visitors of a different kind.
Just minutes from the downtown Twain immortalized, is an old limestone mine that connects to an intricate cave system also made famous in his works. However the bodies seeking refuge in the Sodalis Nature Preserve aren’t the fictional Tom and Becky, but are instead bats seeking the protection of the cave for their winter hibernation.
According to experts with the Hannibal Parks & Recreation Department, thousands of Indiana bats (myotis sodalis) make their seasonal home in the preserve and comprise roughly one-third of the entire known population of that species. Other types of bats that winter in Hannibal include the gray and Northern long ear, both endangered.
Quintin Heaton is a science teacher at Hannibal High School and a volunteer data collector with the Missouri Bat Census. He said an autumn evening spent watching bats hunt may seem like an odd way to use part of a family getaway, but it’s actually a unique opportunity that can inspire awe.
“If you sit in the open with the sky lit a little bit, you can see the silhouette of the bats coming out,” Heaton said. “We count them in 10-minute sessions, and at the peak of the season, there might be 5000 bats in 10 minutes. That’s a really neat thing to see.”
Sadly, he said, it’s an increasingly rare opportunity. The Indiana bat, like others in its genus, are often afflicted with white nose syndrome, a disease caused by a fungus that affects the animals’ behavior and makes them break their hibernation too early. When a bat leaves the safety of its hibernation too soon, the animal often starves or freezes to death.
That’s bad for humans, Heaton said, because of what bats do for people.
“The bats actually help with the bug populations, help keep pesky insect (populations) like mosquitos down,” he said.
Aside from the practical advantages of healthy bat populations, Heaton said there are some divine wonder motivations as well.
“One of the cool things about the bat, their biology, is how they use echo location to hunt their prey and navigate at night. That is really amazing,” Heaton said.
His students often accompany him on the weekend count outings, and the teacher said it doesn’t take long for the unexpected beauty of the event to win over the young people.
“I hear it from the students often, how much they enjoy coming out and sitting in the park in near dark. It gets them outside, they get interested in nature through this one project,” Heaton said.
“And if I’m thinking as a tourist — I’ve been busy all day with shopping or tours, but that stuff closes down about the time the sun goes down. This is an activity they can do to relax, it’s peaceful to get out at nighttime, just far enough away from the lights of downtown to look up at the sky and see the stars.
“It’s a great way to get away from the hubbub.”
If you go
Hannibal Convention & Visitors Bureau
Mark Twain Himself
Shows offered most often four times weekly, though visitors should check the website for details as dates and times change.
Tickets: From $20
Planter’s Barn Theater
319 N. Main Street
Hannibal, MO 63401
Mark Twain Riverboat
Three excursions offered, various days and times
Tickets: From $21
100 Center Street
Hannibal, MO 63401
Sodalis Nature Preserve
819 Ely St
Hannibal, MO 63401