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The Year of Mark Twain

FLORIDA, Mo. – This is the Year of Mark Twain. It is the 175th anniversary of his birth, the 100th anniversary of his death, the 125th anniversary of the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Mark Twain Memorial Shrine.

With all those dates aligning, 2010 is the Year of Mark Twain and a perfect time to visit the Mark Twain State Historic Site, where the cabin where he was born sits inside a much more elaborate shrine of concrete, glass and native stone. The contrast is startling.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which operates the state historic site and bordering Mark Twain State Park, is planning to commemorate the anniversaries over the Labor Day weekend.

Special guests for the Sept. 4 event will include Tom Gilding, who does first-person interpretation of Mark Twain, and Ralph Gregory, the first curator of the shrine who is now over 100 years old.

Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was born in a rented two-room clapboard cabin in the tiny village of Florida on Nov. 30, 1835.

When shown a photo of the cabin where he was born, Clemens wrote: “Heretofore, I have always stated that it was a palace, but I shall be more guarded now.”

Although his family moved to Hannibal when he was 4, Clemens returned each summer until he was 12 to stay with relatives and had fond memories of growing up in the fields and forests around Florida.

“He wrote about running around the countryside, eating watermelon and blackberries,” said Connie Ritter, the interpreter at the historic site. “He was eating the fruits of the land, more or less.”

A daring design

A local farmer and businessman, M.A. Violette, bought the dilapidated cabin in 1915 to save it from demolition. He also helped form the Mark Twain Memorial Park Association, which purchased land for a park.

The association donated the cabin and the land to the state in 1924, and it became the third oldest park in the state system and the first north of the Missouri River.

In 1960, the shrine was completed. The architects created a “hyperbolic paraboloid roof,” which features two soaring, curving triangles joined at the base under which the simple cabin sits. A newspaper review described the daring design as looking like the pilot house “of a steamboat gone rambunctiously modern.”

Ritter pointed out that Clara, the only one of Clemens’ four children to outlive him, had approved the design when shown the architectural drawings.

“She said it was like her father - unusual, different and ahead of its time,” Ritter said. “She said it reminded her of a steamboat. When you see it from the bridge on Highway 107 coming north, its top does look like a large ship.”

Although he was fond of self-deprecating humor, Clemens believed he had special gifts, and he may have appreciated a shrine that was out of the ordinary, especially for this rural area of Missouri. And he undoubtedly would have appreciated the alignment of the anniversaries of the important dates in his life.

Clemens was a seven-month baby, and Halley’s Comet hailed his arrival. He correctly predicted he would “go out with the comet,” which re-appeared the year he died.

“They believed he had second sight,” Ritter said of the author. “He even believed he could tell when things were going to happen.”

No talent for writing

The birthplace cabin is furnished with toys, quilts and period furniture, including an ornate wood bed.

“There is a possibility that Samuel Clemens was born in the bed, but no documentation,” Ritter said.

Seven members of the Clemens’ family, plus a teen-aged slave girl, lived in the two tiny rooms for nearly a year before moving to a larger home, which no longer exists.

While the cabin is the centerpiece at the state historic site, the shrine includes other artifacts that represent milestones in Clemens’ life, which is nicely outlined in a 24-minute video. Admission to the shrine, which also has a research library, is $4.

“This is Mark Twain’s pipe, this silver teapot belonged to his wife, Olivia, and these were baptismal plates given to his children, Langdon and Susan,” Ritter said of objects in a display case.

Under a photo of Clemens, another case holds the original manuscript for his most famous novel, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” The display has his hand-written preface and conclusion, and the proof sheets show some 300 corrections he made.

The shrine has several pieces of elaborate furniture from Clemens’ Connecticut home. Murals on the walls tell of his life as he moved from printer, to riverboat cabin, to newspaper reporter, to author, to lecturer. Quotes display his wit and wisdom.

“After writing 15 years, it struck me I had no talent for writing. I couldn’t give it up. I was already famous,” he wrote. “In October (1866), I broke out as a lecturer, and from that day to this, I have always been able to gain my living without doing any work.”

Fall colors

When Clemens roamed the area, the land around Florida was wooded hills, reminiscent of the Ozarks to the south, with the Salt River running through. The landscape was altered in 1983 when a dam built by the Army Corps of Engineers flooded the river valley and created the 18,000-acre Mark Twain Lake.

The 100 acres overlooking the river that M.A. Violette and his friends donated as a park in the 1920s has grown over the years. Mark Twain State Park now totals around 2,800 acres, and features camping, hiking, swimming, fishing and boat ramps offering free access to the lake. Because there is no development along the shoreline, the lake has many quiet coves for fishing.

The park has six miles of interconnecting hiking trails.

“The White Oak Trail has the best views of the lake,” said Jeff Crook, a park employee. “It circles the peninsula.”

Civilian Conservation Corps Co. 1743, an all-black company that worked in other Missouri parks, built stone structures at Mark Twain between 1939 and 1942. At Buzzard’s Roost, a picnic area with the best overlooks of the lake, the company built a handsome shelter of native limestone that shows off the CCC craftsmanship.

Crook suggested that fall, when the woods and bluffs of the park are in their autumn colors, is a good time for a visit.

“This place will look completely different,” he said.