HANNIBAL | A Hannibal husband and wife team has helped preserve the legacy of Laura Hawkins Frazer — Samuel Clemens' childhood sweetheart and the inspiration for his literary character, Becky Thatcher — through more than a decade of research and restoration work at the two-story home at 210 North Fifth Street which was her final residence.
By the time Nora Creason and Don Metcalf began restoration efforts in 2008, the home's entire interior had been gutted; water, termites and other neglect also took their toll. But the husband and wife team spent more than a decade researching the architecture and stories surrounding the home built in 1895, bringing together Victorian artwork, fixtures, historic reproductions like hand-pressed wallpaper and restoring details to bring the home as close as possible to its state when Frazier lived there. Throughout the process, the couple discovered rare insights into Frazer's life and a friendship with Clemens that endured for decades.
Creason remembered the beginning of the restoration when 20 fellow members from Friends of Historic Hannibal came out for a barn raising to remove the asbestos tile that covered the exterior walls. ShecommendedBobYapp for getting everyone together for the project, and Metcalf said members of the Marion County Historical Society and local contractors helped to expose the original exterior during the barn-raising.
Creason and Metcalf searched for photographs of the home, but few existed to guide their way. But they did have a video account of the interior's contents from 1999 by local auctioneer Dale DeLa-Porte, and Metcalf found several architectural clueslike paint lines and a thin strip of tin atop a square area originally thought to be a window. During her travels to antique shows across the country, Creason found a tin facade the right size with an opening for an oval stained glass window.
Creason and Metcalf recalled the condition of the home before the years of restoration work brought the first floor and exterior back to a period-correct appearance.
“Everything was stripped off out of this house,” Creason said.
“There were big holes in the hallway, and the mantles were gone,” Metcalf said. “We had to do a lot.”
Metcalffoundstampings in the gutter pipes and the last name “Garner” behind intricately-designed wallpaper Larry Garner installed — Metcalf marveled at the pride in craftsmanship the names exhibited, and Creason said it reflected the generations of Hannibal residents who lived and worked in the historic home.
As the physical restoration of the home progressed, Creason and Metcalf discovered plenty of stories through photographs, letters and postcards shared by Frazer's descendant, Boxwell Hawkins. She reached out to Hawkins, who provided copies of historic artifacts that weren't seen anywhere else.“He even gave me a copy of his years' work of genealogy and family archives, which was very, very helpful,” Creason said. “In the family archives, several family members have letters between Laura and (Samuel) in their own personal possessions. They were copied for posterity in the family archives, and he gave me a copy of all of that.”
In 1902, Clemens accepted an invitation by Mrs. John Garth to speak at Garth Mansion. He later spoke at Rockcliffe (Cruikshank) Mansion,and Frazer was in attendance at both events.
Rhonda Hall remembered a story told to her by her grandmother, Daisy Myrtle Lankford Brown, about Clemens meeting Joe Douglas following the event at Rockcliffe Mansion. But Clemens' portrayal of Douglas as the villian Injun Joe had caused some local residents to believe the fictitious details painting him in a negative light. She said Douglas started the bustling African-American neighborhood known as Douglasville, by purchasing tracts of land near his home behind Rockcliffe Mansion with his earnings.
“On his way from home from his engagement at Rockcliffe Mansion, he stopped and he spoke with Injun Joe. They chitchatted and they talked for a while and they visited with each other,” Hall said. “And (Douglas) asked (Clemens), 'why have you done this to me?' And he jokingly and half-heartedly asked the question why. And (Clemens) said, 'I'm so sorry, but you made for a good story.' ” Douglas told Clemens that some people in town thought he was like his character, pointing out “look how much I've accomplished.” Hall said after their discussion, Clemens stopped using Injun Joe's name in many of his writings.
After those speeches in Hannibal, Clemens ties to Hannibal and to Frazier remained strong, evidenced in one of the letters in Hawkins' genealogy.
“He gave her a list of names—childhood friends and some schoolmasters— and asked her if she would cross out the names of those who were no longer living,” Creason said. “Because what he was planning, he wanted a reunion of all of his old friends, Laura and the people who were composite characters in his books. And unfortunately, he died in 1910, and that didn't happen.”
Frazer served as Matron at the Home of the Friendless — a local orphanage — for 28 years, before the former Helm mansion was demolished. W.B. Pettibone commissioned the home in memory of his wife, Laura Jones Pettibone. But for reasons that are not entirely clear today, Frazer was not retained as matron after the orphanage was relocated to North Levering Avenue.
She died the day after Christmas in 1928, and she was buried with her husband, James Frazier. The inscription on her gravestone reads “Becky Thatcher” under “Laura H.”
As Metcalf and Creason move forward with restoration work upstairs, they are enthusiastic for the chance to open the home for events and share it as both a museum about Frazier's life and artwork from the Victorian era. The couple plans to have the home fully restored this year.