Building celebrates Clemens’ legacy, local black history
This photo of Judge John M. Clemens’ former justice of the peace office at 112 Bird, Hannibal, was taken prior to the installstatian of the historic marker in the 1930s. Photo: Steve Chou collection.
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
As the 20th century dawned upon Hannibal’s riverfront, the wavy glass panes in an old frame building reflected the earliest glints of morning light.
This building, a surviving testament to Sam Clemens’ youthful adventures, stood proudly in the shadow of taller brick buildings, which were more ably constructed to survive the occasional rush of the Mississippi out of its banks.
This one building, styled in the manner of its day, served as site for John Marshall Clemens’ justice of the peace office during the 1840s, while his ornery son, Sam, was a but boy in Hannibal.
Located an easy half-block from the steamboat landing, this neighborhood was once a thriving business district. Among those businesses was the nearby Marion Exchange, operated by Robert Arthur in 1854.
In 1900, a quarter of a century after Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, made his exploits along this same riverfront known via his famed writings, the building that was once his father’s office was transformed into a restaurant.
And for 30 years to come, following the dawn of the 20th century, that restaurant would continue to be operated by people of color, who earned their living by feeding their customers in the style of their own heritage.
The building in reference no longer stands at 112 Bird Street, but thanks to the efforts of interested Hannibal citizens and a major motion picture studio back in the 1940s, the building itself was moved out of the flood plain in the 1950s and judiciously preserved. Today, it might be said, it not only represents the Twain era in Hannibal, but also the entrepreneurial spirit of a generation born into slavery in Missouri, who were emancipated at war’s end.
By the time Wesley and Harriett Dickerson moved into this building at 112 Bird, shortly after their marriage in 1899, Sam Clemens’ immortalization of his childhood via “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was known worldwide.
Harriett Norvell Dickerson
In 1888, Harriett Coleman Norvell, 28, daughter of Henry and Eliza A. Coleman of Pike County, Mo., was the widow of Henry Norvell, and was living at 723 Hill St., in an area known as Douglasville. Others living at the same address were Mrs. Kittie (or Kate) Brooks, a widow of Henry Brooks; Miss Anna Brooks, a domestic who worked for William Perkins; and Miss Ella Johnson, the teacher at Douglasville Branch School. The school was located between Rock and North streets.
In 1894, Harriett was working as a domestic for the George V. Moore family, at 514 N. Ninth. Mr. Moore was a railroad clerk. He and his wife had an infant daughter, Elizabeth, who was born in 1897.
Born circa 1850 in Missouri, Wesley devoted most of his life to agriculture. One interesting incident occurred in 1895, when he was reportedly “slashed” by man named Steve Jackson. Jackson was arrested and charged with assault with intent to kill. Dickerson survived his wounds. Jackson’s name came up in the Aug. 29, 1895 edition of the Palmyra Spectator, as being incarcerated in the Palmyra Jail at the same time as Dr. Joseph C. Hearne and his wife, Fannie C. Hearne, who were held in connection with the famous murder of Mrs. Hearne’s late husband, Amos Stillwell. (Dr. and Mrs. Hearne were later acquitted by a jury.)
When Harriett married Wesley Dickerson in September 1899, they moved into the aforementioned two-story frame building at 112 Bird Street, and opened a lunch room on the first floor.
By 1916, they had passed the proverbial soup spoon over to another couple of color, Fred and Dolly Drake Long, who operated the lunch room and lived on the second floor. The 1920 census identifies Fred Long, 45, as the restaurant proprietor, along with his wife, Dollie Long, 42. Also living there were Luther Walls, 26, son, who was a porter at a barber shop; and daughter Kitty Hazlewood, 24, a hairdresser.
By 1921, the Longs had moved their business around the corner, to 318 N. Main, where they opened the Texas Cafe on the first floor, and Long’s Hotel on the second floor. Unfortunately, Dollie Long died on March 11, 1921, of stomach cancer. She was buried at New London. Survivors included her mother, Malinda Drake; and two sisters, Mrs. Fannie Stewart and Mrs. Charles Braxton.
Mrs. Long’s husband, Fred, died in 1932 at the age of 58.
In 1925, Alexander Floyd and his wife, Luttie, managed the restaurant at 112 Bird, and in 1929, Arthur and Essie Green were the proprietors.
Harriet and Wesley Dickerson made their home at 1115 Paris Ave. (rear), when Wesley Dickerson died June 12, 1922. (William M. Smith was the undertaker, and Wesley was buried at the Baptist Cemetery.)
Harriett married William Griffy, and they continued to make their home at 1115 Paris Avenue (rear), where Harriet died in November 1942. She was survived by her husband; a sister, Mrs. Molly Murphy of Hannibal; a grandson, Lois Newberry; and a brother, John Coleman of Louisiana, Mo. She was a member of the Helping Hand Baptist Church.
(Reprinted from the website www.marktwainmuseum.org.)
“The office of John Marshall Clemens was located on Bird Street in the 100 block. It was fairly neglected into the 1930s and ‘40s. Warner Brothers Studios were working on a film production of Tom Sawyer. Representatives visited Hannibal on several occasions and received a warm welcome. As a thank you, Warner Brothers bought the office and gave it to the City of Hannibal on Nov. 30, 1942.
“In 1956, the office was moved to its present location on Hill Street. It was rehabilitated and dedicated on Law Day, May 1, 1959, by the Missouri Bar Association. The last restoration project has rejuvenated the building and new interpretation opened in 2016 with updates in 2020.”
Note: Research efforts were hampered by the variations on the spelling of Wesley Dickerson’s last name. Variants included: Dickerson, Dickson, Dixson and Dixon. For clarity’s sake, the spelling Dickerson is used throughout this story.
Note: Special thanks to Rhonda Brown Hall, for her invaluable research assistance for this story.
Note: William B. Spaun, a Hannibal attorney this author’s father, coordinated the events for the 1959 dedication of the Clemens’ justice of the peace office, on behalf of the Missouri Bar Association.
George A. Mahan was president of the State Historical Society of Missouri in 1932, when the organization placed historical signs from Hannibal to St. Joseph. The signs were made of cast aluminum with raised letters. Henry Sweets, in an article for “The Fence Painter” in 1998-1999, explained that Mahan later expanded the project, erecting a series of markers in Hannibal. Those signs identified Tom Sawyer’s Fence, Mark Twain’s Father’s Law Office (Justice of the Peace office), the Becky Thatcher Home, Cardiff Hill and the jail in “Tom Sawyer.” Photo by Otis Howell in 1954; Steve Chou collection.
The Clemens’ justice of the peace building was rededicated in its new location, 205 Hill Street, on May 1, 1959, by the Missouri Bar Association. William B. Spaun, Hannibal attorney, coordinated the events. That is his red Impala convertible in the photo. Otis Howell of the Hannibal Courier-Post has his back to the camera, and is standing in front of the Chevy Impala. Steve Chou collection.
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 Amazon.com by this author include but are not limited to: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," and "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870." She can be reached at Montgomery.firstname.lastname@example.org Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com