Steve Chou remembers how Hannibal's 1969 Sesquicentennial Celebration first inspired him to delve into historic photographs and resources. Now his passion for sharing local history has culminated in his latest book, "Bluff City Memories 1819-2019," just in time for Hannibal's bicentennial festivities.
Chou spent many childhood summers in Hannibal, and he said the Sesquicentennial Celebration featured prominent historic displays in front of local businesses. His interest in sharing local history through historical photographs and accounts was cemented as he viewed each display.
Chou began amassing hundreds of photographs and spent the past 15 years poring over countless pages of the Hannibal Courier-Post in the Hannibal Free Library collection. His latest book contains photos and descriptive passages — featuring 60 new photographs and two additional chapters to pick up where the 2002 edition of "Bluff City Memories" concluded due to space limitations.
Chou said that life-changing visit in 1969 brought about endless discoveries in images that have helped with historic restorations, shared long-lost stories and sparked memories for many local residents. His latest book encompasses two centuries of daily life, prosperity, adversity and challenges in Hannibal.
"The Courier-Post put out a souvenir volume for the sesquicentennial with lots of old pictures, and I remember laying down on the floor of the porch and paging over that and reading it," he said. "I had no idea back in 1969 that 50 years later, I would actually be part of another celebration. It's a wonderful thing."
Chou said the late Roberta and Hurley Hagoods "The Story of Hannibal" provided a comprehensive look at Hannibal's history. He credited their dedication for inspiring him to craft his books. "That fueled my passion for the history of the town," he said.
Chou commended the late Kathy Threlkeld and Archie Hayden for providing photos and information.
The Hagoods passed away in the years following 2002, and he recalled Roberta Hagood's sharp memory of various events, including the 1915 powerboat regatta she attended.
Chou thanked his wife, Linda, for her encouragement and support. Since the first book's first release, he received insight and assistance for the latest edition from collaborators including Henry Sweets, Faye Dant, Ken and Lisa Marks and Allen Ballard.
"In the 16 years since the first release of "Bluff City Memories," Hurley and Roberta Hagood and Kathy Threlkeld have since passed away," he said. "I cherish their memories, and they played a vital part in encouraging me and making the original book a reality."
Chou stressed how much life in Hannibal has changed during its history. Broadway was once called Market Street because of the large market house where residents bought and sold goods that once stood the intersection of present-day Broadway and Third Street. He said the Wedge district was home to banks, grocers, restaurants and other prosperous businesses frequented by residents walking to work at the town's shoe factory.
With the use of digital scanning and the ability to magnify photos at high quality, Chou has uncovered details that offer insight about residents from all walks of life.
Chou pointed out one of his favorite photographs, which is likely the earliest known photograph of North Main Street. It was glued to the back of an envelope mailed in 1857. The scene shows Hannibal's present-day tourist area as it was a few years after Mark Twain left town.
"With a good magnifying glass, you can pick out so many details of each of these buildings," he said. "Just go down the street, and it's like walking the street."
An overhead "figural" sign of a broad ax is visible, identifying a hardware store for people who couldn't read. Abraham Lincoln stayed in the Planters Hotel on the street, and Chou showed the crossing stones in the dirt road, so pedestrians could cross without sinking into the mud during rain. A bit farther down Main Street, furniture sits outside a used furniture or used goods store. The Pilaster House is visible at the end of the block, and Cardiff Hill towers in the background, dotted with sparse trees compared to the thick woods in the area today.
Chou also displayed a photo of the Park Opera House, which was a venue for Vaudeville stars including W.C. Fields, Harry Houdini and Buffalo Bill. Many performers signed their names on the dressing room walls, which were discovered when the inside was converted into a Masonic temple. Chou visited the structure before it was demolished in 1992, observing a 60-foot wide stage on the "gigantic" third floor.
Chou said he is excited that the new book can be used for reference, reminiscing and entertainment as Hannibal celebrates its 200th birthday. Hannibal Bicentennial Coordinator Cindy Lovell, Ph.D., commended his work in the foreword for the new release.
"With the marking of the city's bicentennial in 2019, Steve Chou has gifted us with an expanded version of "Bluff City Memories" to mark the occasion and allow readers to do more than imagine Hannibal's rich history," she wrote. And Chou's collection of stories and photos chronicle moments from every era of the town's history.
"This expanded version of 'Bluff City Memories' is a pictorial celebration of the lives and events that have been part of Hannibal's 200 years, a journey through the distant and not-so-distant past," he said.