The city of Hannibal is beginning the long process of planning a 2019 bicentennial celebration for the city. Click here for the story.
The long list of ideas Third Ward Councilman Lou Barta proposed for the bicentennial — which the City Council sanctioned this week by passing a resolution to form the Bicentennial Commission — evoked, in my mind, everything I’ve read about Hannibal’s Mark Twain sesquicentennial. (Yes, I was alive then. No, I was not old enough to read.) Or, rather, what it was supposed to be.
A belt buckle sold at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in 1985, commemorating Twain's 150th birthday.
For some historical perspective, I suggest reading Ron Powers’ “White Town Drowsing.” Powers, a Hannibal native and Pulitzer Prize winner, has his fans and his detractors in Hannibal, and having read “White Town Drowsing” last year, I admit it can be pretty self-aggrandizing. But it’s also quite the account of the controversial planning process that led up to the 1985 celebration of Mark Twain’s 150th birthday.
The sesquicentennial was supposed to be, in outside promoters’ minds, a seven-month extravaganza drawing untold thousands of visitors from around the world. A steamboat regatta and chart-topping concerts were among the ideas they promoted and sold to local residents. As Powers tells it, it was controversial because, among other reasons, the local residents who were to benefit from the festival didn’t have much skin in the planning. However, when many of the elaborate plans fell through, locals stepped in and planned a more modest celebration.
The city’s bicentennial won’t look much like the proposed Mark Twain sesquicentennial. Steamboat regatta? Try a visit from one or two steamboats. But the concept of the event itself may bring back some memories in Hannibal, I said to Barta as I chatted with him about his plans.
Barta knows memories of the Mark Twain sesquicentennial run deep, not all of them pleasant. For one thing, as recently as last year, the City Council had a member, Jeff Lyng, whose father, former Mayor John Lyng, was the local face of the sesquicentennial process. (Several senior Herald-Whig staff members, too, were around Hannibal in those days as members of the media.)
“I do know there are a lot of people who remember those things and are are still working with us and with the city,” Barta said.
But he believes Hannibal has learned from its mistakes. He’s hoping for many chances to solicit public input, which he says will be a hallmark of this process, if he has his druthers.
Still, on the face of it, the idea of a bicentennial celebration made me wonder if Hannibal is in for some deja vu. Depending on how you look at it — and how things take shape over the next seven years — that could be a good thing or a bad thing.