Whats that sucking sound at Mark Twains old Missouri cabin?

Whats that sucking sound at Mark Twains old Missouri cabin?












Sure, he was born in a log cabin in 1835. But Mark Twain was always ahead of his time, and he loved a good laugh, even at his own expense. So maybe he’d be amused to see the haz-mat workers who have spent the last few weeks sucking asbestos off that old cabin.

Whats that sucking sound at Mark Twains old Missouri cabin?











The Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site in Florida, Mo.,  a modest museum that houses the two-room cabin where Twain was born, has been closed for asbestos removal since December. Right now, state park officials and consultants are racing to clean up the site, perhaps in time for April 21, the centennial of Twain’s death.

“We’ll try our best,” said Jim Rehard, a district supervisor for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Even if the team misses that goal, Rehard said, the state is determined to reopen the museum building by June.

The museum building, completed in 1960, had asbestos in its ceiling. When state officials realized that some of it was falling on the cabin and exhibition area, they closed the museum Dec. 15.

Since asbestos removal began in early April, the cleanup team “has made good strides,” Rehard wrote in an April 13 e-mail. Once the asbestos is gone and a new ceiling is in place, he added, “we will be able to move the collection back into the birthplace cabin.”

Even without the asbestos troubles, these were already lean times in the town of the great author’s birth.

Florida, Mo., had about 100 residents when Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) was born there in 1835. By 1840, the Clemens family had moved on to Hannibal, about 40 miles east, although young Sam Clemens frequently returned to stay with family in the summertime. By the 1930s, the old Clemens cabin had been moved to a second site, still in Florida. By 2000, Hannibal had emerged as the riverside colossus of Twain tourism, drawing tens of thousands of visitors yearly to the home where the author spent most of his time from ages 4 to 17.

Sleepy little Florida, meanwhile, dwindled to just nine permanent residents, as counted by the 2000 census. (Twain biographer Ron Powers calls it a “flyspeck hamlet.”) There were more vacant houses than occupied ones along the hamlet’s gravel lanes, though a handful of 19th century landmarks endure, including a church, schoolhouse and cemetery.

Since 1960, the 1830s Clemens cabin has been sheltered within the modern museum building, complete with swooping mid-century roof. The idea was to keep the historic structure safe from the elements. (Here is what the cabin looked like before the recent closure.)

Little did anyone imagine then the trouble that asbestos could later pose. When I drove up in early April, the museum was closed, the building’s interior’s draped with plastic sheets. Rehard and the contractors were kind enough to invite me in (to an area where it was safe to breathe) and show the artifacts they’d removed from the museum and cabin during the cleanup.

In one corner of the sheeted “sterile environment” rested bentwood rocking chair of Twain’s mother. Nearby lay 655 printer’s proof pages of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and several fancy pieces of furniture from one of the author’s later homes, in Connecticut.

“It’s a very tough year,” Ben Sapp, superintendent of Mark Twain State Park and recent inheritor of responsibility for the Twain birthplace historic site, told me over the phone.

The Twain historic site’s administrator, who retired in May 2009, has not been replaced. And the asbestos uncertainty adds a dramatic edge to various upcoming anniversaries. Besides the April 21 centennial of Twain’s death, the 125th anniversary of the publication of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” came on Feb. 18. On June 6 comes the 50th anniversary of the Twain historic site museum. Also, Nov. 30 brings the 175th anniversary of Twain’s birth.

The good news is that no matter when the cabin cleanup is done, this year’s literary pilgrims can still admire a stone marker at the site of Twain’s birth. There’s a Florida folk-life festival scheduled for May 22, and there’s talk of a cemetery walk in the fall.

The area does attract seasonal visitors with vacations cabins, and some have boats parked in their driveways. A newcomer to Florida, said David Eales, editor of the weekly Monroe County Appeal, “should expect a picturesque little community. There’s a walking trail there that the county commissioners got a grant for. Of course, the birth site monument is there. And it’s just a gorgeous area around Mark Twain Lake. The bald eagles are just fabulous this year.”

But when the census people come looking for residents this year, locals say they may find no full-time Floridians at all. “To my knowledge,” Sapp said, “nobody lives there permanently.”

Even the geography is different since Twain left town. The hills of the area were carved over centuries by the Salt River. But in 1983, state and federal officials dammed that river, created an 18,000-acre artificial lake and named it, of course, for Mark Twain.

At Mark Twain State Park, by the water’s edge, there are about 100 campsites and six camper-cabins that have no plumbing but great lakeside locations. (They go for $65 nightly.) And in Mark Twain Lake — here’s your silver lining, Tom and Huck — you can swim, or boat, or fish for crappie, catfish and bass.

For more information on Twain-related sites in Missouri and beyond, check here.

– Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times staff writer

Upper photo: In early April, the Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site in Florida, Mo., was closed up tight. But officials say it will soon reopen. Credit: Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times

Lower photo: A bust at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, Mo. Credit: Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times

By LA Times

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