Twain scholar and performer stops in Cape as part of events marking centennial of writer's death

Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Chalen Robinson, a third-grader at Jefferson Elementary School, meets Mark Twain, portrayed by George Frein, during the riverboat pilot's visit Tuesday to Central High School. (Fred Lynch)

Mark Twain passed through Cape Girardeau as a passenger aboard the riverboat Nebraska in 1861. Twain, who grew up in Hannibal, Mo., passed through the city again Tuesday as part of statewide events to recognize the centennial of his death.

Dr. George Frein, a Twain scholar and performer, stopped in Cape Girardeau on a tour for the annual ReadMOre program. Frein will also perform at 13 other historic sites, universities and libraries throughout Missouri.

Cape Girardeau Central High School's library was transformed into a riverboat while students and teachers re-enacted the voyage of the Nebraska.

Principal Dr. Mike Cowan, acting as the riverboat captain, set the stage for the May 21, 1861, journey from Memphis to St. Louis during the Civil War. He said Twain was in the pilot house when shots hit the riverboat during the journey.

Librarian Julia Jorgensen played the part of a war widow in a black hoop dress and veil, but the journey was upbeat with students dressed as Gypsies and Tom Sawyers.

"So please be aware of where you are in history today," Cowan said before handing over the stage to assistant principal Josh Crowell, the riverboat pilot.

High school students performed with songs, yo-yo tricks and coin tricks in front of an audience of community members. Third-grade students from Jefferson Elementary participated in Tom Sawyer look-alike and jumping frog contests.

In the 1883 memoir of his days as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River, Twain described Cape Girardeau as having a handsome appearance. He also cited a "Jesuit school for boys at the foot of the town" and another college "high upon an airy summit."

"Uncle Mumford said that Cape Girardeau was the Athens of Missouri, and contained several colleges besides those already mentioned and all of them on a religious basis of one kind or another," he wrote.

Frein read Twain's recollection of the city while describing, in character, the author's training to become a riverboat pilot.

"I entered on what I thought was a small task," he said, before describing the process of memorizing the geography along the river.

He told tales of sleepwalking riverboat pilots chartering dangerous waters and life along the Mississippi River. He also fielded questions as Twain and talked about his family and the origin of his pen name.

Frein, a professor at Furman University in South Carolina, will spend two weeks touring Missouri. Other performance sites include Twain's boyhood home in Hannibal, Columbia Public Library and the Old Courthouse rotunda in St. Louis.

During the presentation, the audience also dined on food from the era using period terminology. Sugar cookies, known then as sugar cakes, were dessert. Part of the main course was sausage in a bun.

"Later on, they're going to call this thing a hot dog," Crowell said.

The voyage ended when Cowan presented a resolution from newly elected Mayor Harry Rediger that proclaimed Tuesday Mark Twain Day.

"It is wonderful to get such a thing from a politician," Frein said.

abusch@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

1000 S. Silver Springs Road, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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