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1850s: Era when tobacco was leading manufactory

Looking up Fourth Street from Mark Twain Avenue (previously known as Palmyra Avenue) in May/June 1955. At left is Norman’s Conoco service station. At right, partially visible, is the old Garth Tobacco Factory building, a relic of the 1850s. The building was torn down to make room for widening the avenue. Fourth street no longer intersects with the avenue. Otis Howell photo, Steve Chou collection.


Palmyra Avenue aka Mark Twain Avenue was once little more than a cattle trail, linking the fledgling town of Hannibal to the rural vastness to the northwest. A scattering of frame buildings dotted the corridor during the town’s infancy, those buildings serving as both tenement houses and business venues. Creeks, fed from the adjoining hillsides, carried overflow to the Mississippi River, and sometimes that overflow spilled into the yards and basements of these primitive wooden structures.

The avenue was functional, rather that elite, serving as a key business venue in its day. Craftsmen of all genres earned their living serving the needs of their fellow man: butchers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, coopers, horseshoers, wheelwrights, wagon makers, coffin makers and more.

A common occupation along the avenue was that of a teamster, defined as a man who drove horse-pulled wagons, delivering goods likely produced along this same corridor.

For as long as mankind has lived in Hannibal, there have been people and goods to move between communities. And in those early days before the rails linked neighboring towns, this main corridor fit the needs of the communities it connected. Earliest maps show the course of the avenue through the valley between the great hillsides, inching its way first westward, then northwestward, up through the vastness that would become Fette’s Orchard, Riverview Park, the Country Club golf course, Holy Family Cemetery, Hannibal-LaGrange University and beyond.

There remain today relics of this past era along “the avenue.” Specifically, the old two-story stone Kilian house, located on lot 23 in Ruffners Subdivision of outlots 85 and 86. The vacant and historic house is sandwiched by two popular gasoline stations.

In recent weeks, this column has focused upon some of the structures that in later decades defined commerce on “the avenue.”

This week, the focus goes far back in time. During this very early era, immigrants from Kentucky mingled with transplants from the Northeast in what was not always a harmonious social environment.

There was slavery, and anti-slavery sentiment, standing shoulder to shoulder in neighborhoods and business districts throughout Hannibal’s scattered hills and valleys.

Immigration was so prolific that both the northerners and the southerners, upon arrival, recognized the familiar faces of their contemporaries. They shared business dealings and letters containing news from home.

Early in the import of newcomers was David J. Garth (circa 1822-1912) of Kentucky, a tobacco dealer, who arrived in Hannibal with his father and brother not long after the town was settled. In 1844, records show he was married to Susan Campbell Meredith, sister to Dr. Hugh H. Meredith, who had previously settled in Hannibal along with a contingent of his siblings.

Susan Garth gave life to three children during these years in Hannibal, Elvira Garth (1845-1898); Mary Frances Garth (1846-1895), and Charles Meredith Garth (1850-1902).

The Hart & Mapother map of 1854 shows the Garth dominance on the avenue in Section 88 and 89, on the south side of the aforementioned connector road. Two tobacco factories are represented on this map: one, a frame building, to the west, and the other, a brick building on the southwest corner of Fourth and Palmyra Road.

At the time, Rock Street, which is parallel to and a block north of North Street, extended east to the river. Palmyra Avenue ended when it connected to Rock Street midway between Third and Fourth.

Fourth Street intersected with Palmyra Avenue. It is at this intersection where the Garths moved their second manufactory, following a fire at their Main Street plant on March 4, 1852.

The second Garth plant, likely in place prior to 1852, straddled what would later become Denkler Alley, an outstretch to the north of the original Fifth Street (the viaduct would be constructed for Fifth Street to cross Palmyra road in the 1950s.)

'Destructive fire!’

That was the headline in the Hannibal Daily Messenger on March 18, 1856, when the D.J. Garth tobacco firm experienced its second fire in three years.

“Last night about 2 o’clock, (after our paper had gone to press) the old tobacco Stemmery belonging to Mr. D.J. Garth, and situated on Palmyra Avenue, in this city, together with its entire contents, was consumed by fire. It contained between 250,000 and 300,000 pounds of tobacco, most of which they had received a few days previous.”

The fire was spectacular in that burning tobacco leaves actually took flight.

“Large balls of fire were carried, high up in the air, the distance of six and eight squares over to the southern part of the city, frequently dropping on the roofs of houses, causing considerable alarm, and in two or three instances, setting the roofs on fire. However, there was no damage done by the flying sparks of fire, as they were immediately extinguished.”

Patriarch dies

A year after the second fire, in March 1857, David J. Garth’s father, John Garth penned his will.

In the will, the elder Mr. Garth made bequests to the children of his deceased daughter, and to his two sons, David J., and John H. Garth.

To the children of Elvira Garth Smiley, (namely Matilda F. Smiley, born 1837, Elvira G. Smiley, John J. Smiley, born 1839,  and David G. Smiley,) the elder Mr. Garth left slaves and proceeds from the sale of slaves.

(In 1860, Elvira Garth Smiley’s children were scattered among relatives: David Smiley, then 8, was living with his maternal grandparents, William B. and Frances W. Gilbert of Monroe County, Mo. Matilda Smiley, 23, and John J. Smiley, 21, were living with the David J. Garth family in Hannibal, Mo.)

To son John H. Garth of Hannibal he left his 638-acre farm and homestead in Monroe County, and a brick house located on Rock Street in Hannibal. (The house on Rock Street was located near the street’s intersection with Fifth Street, on the north side of Rock.)

To son David J. Garth, the elder Mr. Garth wrote: “I have in addition to the above described property a balance due me on account of the books of my son D.J. Garth, as well as notes and bonds, not yet collected, which balance and uncollected notes and bonds, I give to D.J. Garth.” The debt was forgiven.

War years

As the Civil Years came and went, the presence of the Garth family in Hannibal diminished.

David J. Garth and his family moved first to Washington, D.C., and later to Scarsdale, New York. He amassed considerable real estate, and, according to the Scarsdale Historical Society, 60 acres of his land now constitutes a portion of the Bronx River Parkway.

After the war, John H. Garth returned to Hannibal and took up the lumber trade. He flourished both economically and socially. He and his wife, Helen Kercheval Garth, were childhood friends of Sam Clemens aka Mark Twain.

Upon John H. Garth’s death, his wife and daughter bequeathed funds for the construction of the Hannibal Free Public Library, across Fifth Street from their Hannibal home.


A stemmery is a building where tobacco leaves are stripped for the production of tobacco products. The name is an Americanism dating to the mid-late 1850s.

This map, based upon the 1854 Hart and Mapother map, shows key locations on Palmyra Avenue. Note the two tobacco factories. The one to the west burned in 1856. Note the J. Garth (died 1857)  home. This was owned by the father of David J. Garth and his brother, John H. Garth. Illustration by Mary Lou Montgomery

David J. Garth advertised his tobacco business in the Hannibal Journal on Jan. 8, 1852. This was prior to a fire which destroyed this business location.

This is a clipping from the Hannibal Journal and Union, dated March 11, 1852. It describes losses David J. Garth experienced as a result of a fire at his tobacco factory, which was located on Main Street, between Hill and Bird. He moved the factory to the corner of Palmyra Avenue and Fourth Street, where he continued to operate up until the Civil War years.

Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Books available on by this author include but are not limited to: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870,” “Hannibal’s ‘West End,’ and the newest book, “Oakwood: West of Hannibal.” Montgomery can be reached at Her collective works can be found at


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