Archaeological dig in works at Mo. farm with Mark Twain ties

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A site that Mark Twain once called "a heavenly place for a boy" in northeast Missouri will be the focus of a privately run archaeological dig this summer.

Karen A. Hunt, 67, owns property outside of Florida, Mo., which used to be the farm of Samuel Clemens' uncle, John A. Quarles. Long before Clemens became the famed writer Mark Twain, he spent part of his boyhood summers on the farm, and drew from those experiences in his writing.

Hunt is organizing a largely volunteer effort to conduct an archaeological dig at the site to recover any artifacts and details about the Quarles house. She hopes to verify Twain's descriptions of the site and, one day, reconstruct the house and other structures on the property.

The project is a labor of love for Hunt.

"I see this as something that needs to be done," she said.

Before she owned the property, Hunt documented it as part of her master's thesis in anthropology from Indiana University. She then had an opportunity to buy about 18 acres of the Quarles farmland in 1991, she said.

Hunt, speaking by telephone while on a trip to Minnesota, is a now-retired school teacher. She said the Quarles' house consisted of two halves of a log cabin joined together by a breezeway. She organized efforts last summer and fall to excavate the south half and is seeking about 30 volunteers to assist with the north half from May 26-31.

She said artifacts found so far include clay marbles, like those children used to play with, feet from two dolls and a pocketknife.

Samuel Clemens was born in Florida, Mo. in 1835. Letters from the Quarles family encouraged his parents to move before he was born. When Clemens was a boy, his family moved from Florida to Hannibal, Mo., the Missouri community where he grew up.

The small community of Florida has a museum where thousands of visitors annually view the cabin he was born in, and Hannibal remains a significant tourist draw for those interested in the writer.

In "Mark Twain's Autobiography," edited by Charles Neider, Twain explained tongue-in-cheek that the Quarles farm has come in "very handy to me in literature once or twice. In 'Huck Finn' and 'Tom Sawyer, Detective' I moved it down to Arkansas. It was all of six hundred miles but it was no trouble..."

Twain also said that a slave from the Quarles' farm, whom Clemens called "Uncle Dan'l" had been "staged" in his work, both under his own name and as "Jim."

Henry Sweets, the curator of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, said it's difficult for scholars to say how much Twain modeled his characters on real people in his fiction. But he said it's safe to say Twain borrowed characteristics from those on the farm, like "Uncle Dan'l," in his writing.

Sweets visited the dig site last year and said while the log cabin itself is gone, workers had created an outline of the house, based on the stone foundation. He said it must be a thrill for participants to know they're coming across artifacts that Clemens' relatives, or even the boy himself, might have handled.

"Each year should add value to what they find there," he said.

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