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Preserving justice of the peace office on Hill Street is preserving town's history

Dedication photo of the J.M. Clemens' justice of the peace office, May 1959. Steve Chou collection

The dedication of the J.M. Clemens' justice of the peace office on Hill Street in downtown Hannibal was one of those memorable events that stands out in my childhood memories.

It was a BIG DEAL in our family. My father, William B. Spaun, was president of the Tenth Judicial Bar Association in 1959, and helped put together a celebration to dedicate the office that is now a prominent part of the Twain property listings. The timing was appropriate, as May 1 each year is noted as Law Day.

The building was originally located in the 100 block of Bird Street, and was nearly falling down from decay when Warner Brothers offered to pay to have the building moved to higher ground following their filming of a Twain-related movie in Hannibal.

They moved the building to the site in the 200 block of Hill Street where it now stands, and where scores of people have peeked through the windows during the past half century to see a re-enactment of a famous scene when young Sam Clemens awoke one morning to find a corpse beside him.

Henry Sweets, Mark Twain Museum director, is an absolute genius at telling the historic facts. My memories are of those of an eight-year-old, surrounded by a lot of commotion going on in our family at the time.

My dad had a record that he played over and over during this era. I don’t know what the source was, but the man speaking had a distinctive baritone voice, which still resonates in my head. “May 1 is Law Day, U.S.A.”

Harry Gershenson of St. Louis, immediate past vice president of the Missouri Bar association and my father’s friend, was a special guest at the celebration. John Winkler, chairman of the Mark Twain Commission, was a noted participant. Judge Elgin T. Fuller of Hannibal was a dedication participant and speaker. I remember he had a beautiful singing voice and was a member of the First Christian Church choir, where I attended as a child.

At eight years old, I was the second oldest of my parents’ four children. They hired Louetta Mitchell, who often served as our babysitter, to clean the house prior to the visit from some of the dignitaries. She shooed us out of the house, and locked the door behind us!

We congregated upon the wooden and splintered guardrail at the bottom of the McKinley Street hill, bemoaning the injustice of our exile.

A few years ago, Steve Chou came upon color snapshots of the downtown dedication – which we, as children, were not invited to – and I got a true glimpse at the festivities. My mother, still petite although a little pregnant with the fifth Spaun sibling – was a vision in a floral print spring dress and matching hat. My dad wore a tailored grey stripped suit coat with contrasting black trousers.

My dad’s legal secretary, Stella DeLaPorte, was in attendance, wearing appropriate gloves for the occasion.

Otis Howell can be seen in this photo, camera strap across his back, capturing images for the Courier-Post. My dad’s red Chevy Impala convertible with the top down was parked front and center when this photo was taken of the dedication festivities, most likely ready to take dignitaries to the reception that followed the ceremony aboard the River Queen restaurant, moored across the bridge in Illinois.

The plaque that was affixed to the building remains to this day, as renovations get under way to stabilize the building so it will be around for future generations to enjoy.

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