Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Diamond in the Rough

As construction winded down on the chateau, we noticed some extraordinary activity (or rather lack of) from the house immediately south of us.

Normally, much of this activity had been boisterous - loud rock music, domestic fights at 3am, and kids flooding the front yard and sidewalk day and night. It was not the type of activity one would associate with a resident on Hannibal's Millionaire Row, at least not of late with the influx of newcomers snapping up property to renovate them into B&B's, restaurants, and private offices.

We were to learn that the residents next door were evicted by the local bank down the street for failure to keep up mortgage payments. Could it really be? For two years, officers had been called in the middle of the night to quell disturbances at the house. The disturbances had become more frequent with time as did other things, such as the spreading of yard litter throughout the neighborhood and unfamiliar visitors coming to and going from the house. Could it really be that the neighborhood was finally rid of these incidents?

We were to soon learn that this indeed was the case. Some brief history is in order. The house had been purchased by a retired Californian a few years earlier. The family was a typical nuclear family with a father, mother and two nearly grown offsprings. The offsprings flew the nest, however the father died shortly after (two years ago). The man's son and his family began living in the house and two years later, mortgage payments were defaulted upon. The bank took possession of the property and after a few attempts to evict the family, they were gone.

This house was the final residence of Laura Hawkins, the model for Becky Thatcher in Mark Twain's novel, Tom Sawyer. The house which shows evidence of being at one time a glorious Queen Anne was built two years after our chateau was built in 1895. The untimely death of her husband (Dr. Frazer) left Laura a widow at age 45, and she moved into the house shortly after it was built in 1897 with her son Judge Edward Frazer. Laura Hawkins lived in this house until her death in 1928, at the age of 91.

So, there it was, staring at us in the dead of winter – a diamond in the rough with all the potential one could imagine…

Sunday, July 20, 2008

It’s a Buyer’s Market in Hannibal

Recently, this article appeared in the Hannibal Courier-Post:

These paragraphs jumped out at me:

The number of units (homes) sold is up almost 6 percent, and the volume has increased 7.5 percent. The average price has risen only 1.5 percent.

John Ravenscraft, the association’s president (The Mark Twain Association of Realtors), gives low interest rates and low regional unemployment much of the credit, but adds an intangible that often isn’t mentioned with such trends.

He said local real estate agents and banks “continue to have a positive attitude” and “continue to work hard” to make sure buyers get what they want.

They’ve also stayed away from sub-prime lending that’s gotten some financial institutions in trouble.

Upon reading this article, I found myself wishing the writer had added a broader view reflecting a national trend of house-buying toward towns like Hannibal where...

Houses are cheap! Very, very cheap. It’s easy to find decent houses for well below $100K in Hannibal. Prices here would amaze much of the rest of the country. Had folks the inclination to look outside their own cities and towns like we did in our search for a more Rockwellian existence (and in a grand house), it is easy to find a Victorian glory for well below $200K, and even less than $100K, if a fixer-upper were desired.

Additionally, Missouri is one of few states that allows non-Missouri residents access to the state’s tax credits program for restoring historic and historic district houses:

More on our experiences with this later.

Though we had our Victorian glory well into the restoration process, we decided to make another purchase - a purchase that was a result of the house-buying climate today, where many find themselves in a mortgage mess. That house purchase would be the Laura Hawkins (Becky Thatcher) house, right next door to us.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Exterior Brickwork - Part 3

Finally, this is what we've been waiting for...

Remember that leaning wall on the southside of the house?

Here is the original southside wall (taken from the previous post):

Here's the new wall on the northside of the house:

Here's the original north wall:

As you can see, the condition of this wall was about the same as the south wall. Entire bricks and chunks of mortar were removable from both walls before they were torn down and reconstructed. See the mismatched cement (or concrete) used in a futile attempt to repair this wall?

Here's the restored north wall viewed from ground level:

Note that the stone edge of this wall is now evident.

Here's a closer view of the north wall at the stone edge:

Here's a closer look at the center of the north wall:

Here's a view of the north wall with the stone base shown:

Here's the edge of the south wall with a new gutter installed:

Here's a closer view of the brickwork:

Here's a view of the entire south wall, at least as much as I could get considering the close proximity of the two houses:

If you were to walk down the small alley on the southside of the house and turn the corner on your left, this is what you'd see:

I love that the exterior brick walls are now structurally sound for another 100 years, yet have retained that "old house" patina. Initially, the masons wanted to clean the bricks to make them look newer. We wouldn't have any of this. Instead, we had them make new bricks installed look just like the patinated, original bricks. Who says newer is better?

You might be wondering why the house next door was built so close to ours. Many of the houses in the latter part of the 1800's were built close together as Hannibal became more urban and population became denser. Also, close neighboring houses took advantage of heat contained within and radiating from brick and stone construction.
Folks were concerned with generating and retaining heat, particularly during the harsh winters in this part of the country.

Yet, heating a house in the 1890's was a laborious task. It required the women of the house to start the wood or coal-burning, cast-iron furnace and stove very early in the morning. The heat generated was expected to keep the main floors of the house warm for hours, and even an entire day.

One drawback to the neighborhood design of closely built housing was the potential for exacerbated spreading from a single house fire. Fortunately, this was never to happen in Hannibal's Millionaires Row.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Pause to Pay Homage to Hannibal's Most Famous Son

This week, Time magazine devoted its July 14 issue to Mark Twain - Laura Hawkin's friend and childhood sweetheart.

Mark Twain on the cover of Time Magazine. View the articles at:,9171,1820166,00.html

This Time issue is well worth reading. It contains homage to a great man, homage that couldn't have been printed in earlier days (particularly concerning his progressive views on race). I've bought several copies of this magazine myself.

And speaking of earlier Twain homages, one of the earliest posthumous ones was published by this magazine in 1924, fourteen years after Twain's death in 1910:

The Mentor, May 1924

The Mentor was a popular literary magazine published in the 1900's up until the Depression years. One could consider it the equivalent of Times today.

One excerpt from this issue of Mentor, titled The Old Home Town features Hannibal, Missouri; it was of particular interest to me. Here are the pages from this excerpt:

Built in 1840, Huck Finn's childhood home was demolished in 1911. A replica of the house commenced construction in 1997 and was completed in 2006 - to a tune of about $300k. This house is now part of the Mark Twain museum tour.

This structure was demolished. Why, oh why do demolishers not see the irreparable damage they do?

Florida, Missouri was Mark Twain's birthplace in 1835.

Other excerpts in this magazine issue include Mark Twain - Boy and Man, Mark Twain as Speech Maker, The Many-Sided Mark Twain, Gleams of Mark Twain Humor, One Love of a Lifetime (Olivia Langdon, his wife) and tributes paid by Joseph Conrad, General Grant, Twain's physician, and Twain's daughter, Clara. I'll share some of these excerpts with you as time goes on.

Incidentally, I've been told Mark Twain once stayed in this "big" house of mine. While I have no documentation to back this up, it certainly is a fact that Twain visited Laura Hawkins (Frazer) at her house in 1902 for a dinner in his honor.

Exterior Brickwork - Part 2

Work on the exterior brick of the house commenced last winter - the dead of winter, with all the snow and ice storms that plague this area of the country.

After negotiating all the particulars, the job commenced with the building of scaffolds around the north and south sides of the house.

The scaffolding is almost complete on the northside of the house. Fortunately for us, we experienced unusually sunny days for this leg of the job.

Here's the loftier area of the northside.

Scaffold building commences on the southside of the house. Note that the stone edge of the brick wall has now been returned to its original color, after a thorough acid-washing. Notice the difference from my previous post?

Since the upper portions of the brick walls have been free-standing (unattached to the main structure) for the entire life of the house, these areas required the most intensive treatment. Solution: tear down the upper 8-feet portions of both walls and rebuild with original bricks, new bricks, and mortar.

An army crew descended upon the house, working on and off (weather permitting) for two months. In Part III, I will show you the amazingly seamless results.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Exterior Brickwork - Part I


This item on the house inspector's report had now been taken care of. Here's a final look at the entire north wall of the house just before all the vines were removed:

See the dead vines? These were infinitely easier to remove than were the live vines just a few weeks earlier.

Another item was:


Here were other troublespots on the exterior:

This was the north wall of the house, accessible at ground level. Note the amateurish and glaring attempt at tuckpointing.

Here's the entire north wall again, sans the vines and ready for a facelift.

Here's an upshot of the south wall. At one time, an attempt was made at tuckpointing. Upon closer inspection, the mortar in many areas was applied merely as a 1/16-inch thinset. This is not nearly enough to rebond a brick to the wall. At least they got the mortar color right.

Here's another view of the south wall. You wouldn't know to look at it, but those are stone inserts on the edge of the brick wall. I doubt they had ever been cleaned, as they should be much closer in color to the adjacent stone.

This indeed was to become the biggest restoration job for the house. Fortunately, we were able to procure the services of a mason from Quincy - one who not only specialized in old houses but boasted expertise passed down generations within the family.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Small Town Gastronomical Survival 101

Introducing yourself to the local diet is one of the novelties of living in a small town. Dining on hand-breaded tenderloins, huge & tender steaks, maid-rites, and an occasional BBQ are sinful indulgences for someone used to dining on sushi, Vietnamese spring rolls and Pho, and steamed veggies and octopus (for breakfast!).

Standard Hannibal fare is cheap and plentiful. Here’s a sampling:

• Huge platter size tenderloin sandwiches - $4 at the Becky Thatcher Restaurant

• 8-oz prime rib with stuffed potato, salad and eat & peel shrimp - $11 during early-bird hours at Lula Belle’s. Website:

• Two Maid-Rites, onion rings and a root beer - $7.50 at the Mark Twain Family Restaurant (formerly the Mark Twain Dinette). Website:

After awhile, the novelty wears off and this former urbanite is swinging-from-the chandelier crazy for her native diet. This happens to all of us transplanted urbanites, so these tips are to be shared with other second-lifers like yourself:

1) The Post Office Is Your Best Friend.
Do your normal dry-goods shopping locally (if on urban soil) or online (eBay, if not) and ship your specialty teas, asian noodles, seaweed, wasabi, and any other such goodies to yourself. Make sure a good neighbor intercepts these things for you, as lonely packages tend to walk off within a day of sitting at your doorstep. Send enough for yourself and your neighbor who no doubt experiences the same withdraw symptoms as you.

Some of my favorite things...


Penn Cove Mussels

Specialty Teas

Rishi is absolutely the best tea brand out there. Other great brands are Mighty Leaf and Taylors of Harrogate.

2) Consider Building a Mini Greenhouse or Growing/Drying Your Own Herbs.
I’ve yet to encounter a bulk bin in any Hannibal grocer. I know these things don’t exist ever since the day I frantically left my house in search of dried lavender for my tea. I discovered every grocer in town and upon asking, locals looked at me like the lavender freak I was – I just had to have my fix.

3) Invest in Reusable Ice Packs and a High-Performance Travel Cooler.
If you stay in your midwest small town for extended periods of time, you will crave those perishables which simply don’t exist there (at least not with the quality of freshness you are used to). In my case, this includes salmon steaks, dungeness crab, and octopus. You can usually take these items with you on an airplane with no problem (call and ask the airline if you have reservations about these items’ admittance). If you need to use real dry ice (available at most metropolitan grocers), just label the package or whatever “dry ice”. It is best to freeze perishables for about 3-4 days before your trip. Here's an important tool for toting salmon from Seattle to Hannibal:

Technic Ice. This lasts much longer than dry ice, is reusable, and does not leave a mess. Available on eBay for $3.99.

Oh yes, remember that your neighbors would much appreciate a nicely cooked salmon steak, so make sure you bring enough. You probably could care less about sharing with your neighbor(s) within your metropolitan turf. You likely don't even know them, but things are definitely different in a much smaller town.

4) Learn to Bake If You Love Artisian Bread.

5) Frequent Your Small Town Farmer’s Market Whenever You Get a Chance.
Why is it lettuce in the heartland is served yellow and of no other variety than iceberg? Or worse, hydroponically grown and fossil-fuel trucked to the small town local grocer? I mean, I’m in America’s bread-basket! Farmer’s Market to the rescue… I purchase a variety of the fresh stuff for a mere $2.00 per large baggie. Good news – salad dressing at most grocers will be about 1/2 the price of what you’d pay in a large metropolitan area.

This should be enough to get you started. Do these things before you become known as the wild-eyed, lavender freak in your small town.

Ivy Removal & Reflections on a New Life

This time two years ago, My husband & I took a 2-week vacation where we drove all the way from Seattle to Hannibal and back. Actually, it was more a work mission than a vacation. We hauled very heavy furniture and other items from Seattle, and also from Chicago where we purchased a huge hotel mattress on eBay. For much of this trip we slaved away, extricating hundreds of pounds of ivy from the brick exterior.

Vine removal underway.

The ivy sure kept the downspouts in place.

Very pretty to look at, but deadly for brick and mortar.

Some areas were too high to reach. Once the roots were cut, the rest of the ivy was left to die.

Over many years, the ivy had matted itself against the brick walls, windows and any other flat exposed surface. In a lot of areas, we used crowbars to remove it.

Here's what one of the critters looked like after removal. These things infiltrated the house through windows and crevices between walls.

This critter drunk the pigment of the brick over its hundred-year life.

There were no less than six bird's nests embedded throughout the infrastructure, and some of those nests appeared reused several times over. During ivy extrication, dried bird feces "powderized", requiring us to wear face masks.

In addition to removing ivy, we pulled up carpeting from the 2nd floor of the house. In one room, we discovered that the two layers of carpeting had covered floor areas that were wet with - pet urine. Yes, a pet(s) had actually peed in the corner and lack of exposed air kept the residue in its perpetual fluid state. A little scrubbing with a mixture of water and vanilla extract, and the urine smell vaporized.

Our final job for the trip was scrubbing & restoring the backyard deck.

Here's a partial view of our heavily foliaged backyard (photo taken from our back porch). Such a lovely, private retreat. See the gazebo? We plan to reconstructed it into a barbeque with rock walls and metal posts and roof.

Here's a ground-level veiw of our gazebo and garage, the back of which leads to an alley. "Old" Hannibal is full of alleyways.

Though exhausted at the end of each day, we treated ourselves to the numerous restaurants Hannibal offers. Quickly becoming among our favorites was Lula Belle's:

Lula Belle's:

Once a brothell, this restaurant is a favorite among tourists and locals. Photo is from Lula Belle's website:

Ole Planters and TJ's Supper Club soon became our favorites as well. Ole Planters is another favorite among tourists and locals, and TJ's has good entertainment on Tuesday & Wednesday nights. TJ's is off the tourist path and frequented by locals.


During our trip, we luxuriated in leisurely walks to the library and the downtown area, visited antique shops, and purchased local groceries at mouth-gaping discounts (in comparison to Seattle prices). We awoke in the morning with no agenda other than to work on our house and enjoy the day.

Leaving behind the work-a-day world for two weeks altered some of our life perceptions. Working on our house required we share a purpose and live for each other (instead of working for some corporation for material rewards). As corny as it sounds, we came to view ourselves as more "others-sensitive" and less as efficient, rational, productive employees.

Like many Americans, we we'd become more concerned about the increase in selfishness, looking out for number one, materialism and extreme individualism that increasingly pervades everyone's lives. Working all day in an economy (often in huge corporations) teaches that money and power govern the "real world", and that one's worldly worth depends on showing a boss your contributions to this materialistic bottom line. Selfishness and materialism hence are learned, and materialism and selfishness make it hard for people to sustain nurturing, loving relationships.

My husband & I could get used to living in Hannibal for long, extended periods. Our freedom, our serenity, and the slower living pace during our stay were priceless. We couldn't wait for our next visit which was to come in a couple of months.

Back in Seattle, I began a new contract while my husband returned to his work-a-day world, traffic got worse, the city was reeling from a recent mass murder in Capitol Hill, the Alaskan Way Viaduct was threatening to crumble (amazingly enough, it's still standing), a major earthquake becomes ever more imminent, and Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier continue their threats to erupt in this area's backyard. Yada, yada, yada.