The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2000

 
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Mark Twain's Elmira

by

Ed Van Dyne

Several cities boast connections with America's greatest humorist: most notably Hannibal, Missouri, his boyhood home; Virginia City, Nevada, and San Francisco, California, centers of his western activities; Buffalo, New York, where early on, he edited a newspaper; and Hartford, Connecticut, his final home. But none has a stronger claim than Elmira, New York, where he courted and won Olivia Langdon, spent the 20 following summers, and now rests in Woodlawn Cemetery.

Those summers were spent at Quarry Farm, a property just outside town owned by Olivia's sister, Susan Crane. There he wrote much of his best work ranging from Huckleberry Finn to lesser efforts like Pudd'nhead Wilson.

His association with Elmira began in 1867 aboard the steamship "Quaker City" during a Mediterranean cruise which resulted in an early book Innocents Abroad. Aboard was 18-year-old Charles Langdon, son of a mine owner, coal dealer, and prominent citizen of Elmira. He and Twain, then 32, struck up a friendship.

Among Langdon's effects was a photo-miniature of his sister, then 22, which Mark often gazed at. Following the cruise, Mark was invited to visit Elmira where he fell instantly and permanently in love. His feeling was not, however, immediately reciprocated. Olivia liked and saw merit in the budding young author but was a bit put off by the rough edges of this lusty veteran of the western mining camps and knockabout journalism who for lectures billed himself as "the Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope."

Upon leaving from a second visit a bit later, Twain tumbled, by design or otherwise, from the carriage which came to take him to the rail station and was carried back into the house for recovery. On nursing duty, Olivia began to take a warmer view of her patient. In 1870 she and Mark were married by the Rev. Thomas K. Beecher, pastor of Park Church and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Twain's first summer at Quarry Farm on East Hill, overlooking the city, the Chemung River, and the hills beyond, was in 1871. His delight with the site was as immediate as had been his attraction to Olivia. Realizing his appreciation of the rural location, Mrs. Crane had constructed on high ground above the house, an octagonal study resembling a river boat pilot house. This became the secluded work room where Twain withdrew to write.

Of this hideaway he enthusiastically wrote: "I haven't piled up MS so in years as I have here. It's like old times to step into the study and sail the whole day long without running short of words."

During these summer stays Mark also found time for considerable socializing. Although himself a non-believer, he and Rev. Beecher became fast friends. One visitor in 1898 was young Rudyard Kipling, then a little known journalist en route from India to England, who detoured through Elmira for an interview. Thus began another life-long friendship.

On a less exalted level was a bit of elbow bending and yarn spinning in a favored haunt, Klapproth's Cafe. Prior to the 1960s, Twain's Elmira connection was little better known than those with the other above mentioned centers. This changed when the distillers of Old Crow bourbon ran a series of national ads featuring him at the cafe and elsewhere about town.

A distinguished Elmira journalist, W. Charles Barber, penned a review of the advertising campaign."They show Mark regaling cronies at Klapproth's with a glass of the advertiser's commodity in hand and casting a worried eye on the cafe's supply which appears to have dwindled to about 19 barrels."

And of the Kipling meeting which took place at the Langdon home: "The ad's illustrator refrained from sprinkling the yard with containers of the aforementioned remedy. Those who can find interest in something other than a collection of lettered barrelheads have reason to be thankful."

As it was in the beginning with the Langdons, Elmira long failed to appreciate the full value of the Twain connection. A glaring example was the demolition, hotly disputed by some, in 1939 of the Langdon home which surely would have made an ideal museum, and a strong tourist attraction. It had been offered to the city for back taxes but the officials heeded less forward-looking voices and house and lot gave way to a shopping center.

Quarry Farm has fared far better. Now owned by Elmira College, it is a center for Mark Twain studies, a mecca for scholars who attend symposiums there. The octagonal retreat scarred by vandals, was restored and moved to the college campus where it draws many visitors. Other memorabilia is now housed in the college library.

And civic leaders today are fully aware of the value of the Twain connection. For a full decade a highly successful summer production depicting his affiliation with Elmira was staged in the domes, a spacious college center for sports and entertainment. Among other institutions bearing the humorist's name are a state park and a municipal river front one, a motel and residential hotel and a performing arts center. However the suggestion to name what some considered a redundant arterial road "Puddn'head Parkway" was rejected.

The graves of Mark, Olivia, and their three daughters are designated by small headstones in the shadow of a huge monument marked Langdon. This ironic situation was eased in recent years by a second monument which honors the author. It is 12 feet high (two fathoms) the depth at which Mississippi leadsmen once sang out m-a-a-r-k t-w-a-i-n.

Klapproth's Cafe is no more, the building which housed it a victim of urban renewal. During it's final years, the space which had once occupied it bore the name "Family Liquor Store," a touch Elmira's famed part-time resident would surely have savored.

2000, Ed Van Dyne
Illustrations were provided by courtesy of the
Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies.
[Illustrations will be posted shortly]
 
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