Hanging on the Line

From time to time, we will be posting random finds or donations that provide a little bit of insight on the lives Hannibalians used to lead. This picture is part of a folder we received out of the blue from Karen Lucas (Thank you!)

Welcome to the nerve center of the town's telephone system, circa 1913, at the Missouri & Kansas Telephone Company on 818 Broadway. According to the back of the photo, Ms. Lucas' maternal grandmother - Ada Mason - is the fourth operator from the left:

(Note the number of operators needed for the long-distance and local calls!)

For those too young to remember, switchboard operators were necessary to manually 'patch' a caller to the desired recipient. Not that telephones had become standard in every household; by 1913, a promotional pamphlet on the history of Hannibal's telephone system boasts of servicing over 2700 people (in a community of roughly 18,000!) The town can boast of being (technically) the first community in Missouri to have a telephone system, though it was in a virtual tie with St. Louis for the honor in 1879. At first, the system had a whopping 25 subscribers, with 3-5 subscribers assigned to share a given line, a practice still found in some rural areas of Missouri into the 1980s. By 1882, the list of patrons had grown:

At the switchboard, the operator originally received an electronic signal that would ring a bell at the desk, while a flag-like structure would vibrate, instructing which line to pull. Next, the operator would reconnect the line with the number that was requested - the first phones did not have a rotary dial system, so handle cranks at the phone receiver were the signals used. Yes, it was a human-dependent system for years; incidentally, the first few phone lines were run through the town without poles, instead being connected across the tops of buildings.

By 1913, a job once assigned to boys had been largely occupied by women: a quick Google of the term "Telephone Girl" will show how ubiquitous a symbol the phone operator had become in American society, even becoming the topic of several films, a Broadway musical, and several other writings. This anonymous poem had made the rounds for a few years by the time it was typed on this stationary from Al S. Schorr's City Brewery:

The Telephone Girl (original, in slightly different order than above:)

The telephone girl sits in her chair,
And listens to voices from everywhere,
She knows who is happy and who has the blues;
She knows all the gossip, she knows all the news;
She knows our sorrows, she knows our joy;
She knows the girls who are playing with toys;
She knows every time we are out with the boys.,
She knows the excuse, each fellow employs;
She knows our trouble, she knows our strife;
She knows the man, who is mean to his wife.
If the telephone girl should tell all she knows,
It would turn our friends into bitterest foes.
She could sow a wind that would soon be a gale,
Engulf us in trouble and land us in jail
She could get our churches mixed in a fight,
She could start a story which gaining in force,
Would cause many wives to sue for divorce;
She could turn our day into sorrowing night.
In fact she could keep the town in a stew,
If she told one-tenth of the things she knew.
Gee! Doesn’t it make your head just whirl,
When you think what you owe to the telephone girl.

We are always looking for items and information to add to our digital archive; if you have a 'window into the past' you'd like to share, please contact us at info@hannibalhistorymuseum.com.

-Ken Marks

For Some of Us, Winter Is a Time To Harvest....

A group of ice delivery men outside Storrs Ice and Coal Company, on the riverfront several blocks north of  North St.  The Mississippi River's relatively shallow depth at Hannibal (plus the transportation network here, among other factors) made the town a desirable destination for ice harvesting and distribution. Photo Courtesy of  the Charles Webster Collection.

   As winter approaches and the riverfront freezes nearly all activity for the next few months, it would be easy to assume that the downtown area simply slips into hibernation until spring break - but not us! The Hannibal History Museum is planning and fundraising to expand its services to the community, just in time for the town's bicentennial year.


    What Is In the Works For 2019 (Fingers Crossed)

1. Adding permanent displays to the museum that explain the how and why of Hannibal's story, as well as adding temporary and traveling exhibits on topics that affected Hannibal...and the rest of the country.

2. Beginning an ongoing oral history archive that may eventually double as an internet-accessible podcast. For those who believe they can be of help on this project, contact us at info@hannibalhistorymuseum.com.

3. History After Dark: A new monthly program designed to be an entertaining, informal approach to appreciating history of all sorts (starting in February - look here and on Facebook for dates and location.)

4. For those curious about how people not only fought but lived in antebellum and Civil War - era America, we will be sponsoring a new weekend event near Bear Creek on May 4th and 5th. More details will be coming in the next two months, as we work on all the moving parts required to make a spectacle like this possible.

5. Oh, yes - a second steampunk event for those who can't wait for the Big River Steampunk Festival next Labor Day weekend. The Big River Steam Faire, a more intimate, DIY-centered offshoot of the Festival, will be held at the Admiral Coontz Armory (and at other undisclosed locations) on March 30th and 31st. Details will be posted on the Faire at www.bigriversteampunkfestival.com by mid-December.

6. Coordinating small history displays at various buildings throughout Hannibal as part of a 'museum of the city' project, in conjunction with the Hannibal Bicentennial Committee. Please subscribe to the 'Hannibal Bicentennial 2019' Facebook page to keep up with everything our community is planning for the coming year; it is inspiring to see how many groups have shown interest and pride in Hannibal's past!

    Fundraising, or How the Sausage Is Made

  The museum is a 501 (c)(3) corporation that functions as a free (or donation-based) museum because we believe it to be the best means to reach the largest audience possible to promote the history and attributes of Hannibal to residents and the rest of the world. However, this also means that fundraising is even more critical for the museum than an entity that receives a significant amount of funding through admissions and/or a private foundation.  

   Our budget is quite modest for the number of people we reach each year (20,000 - 25,000 visitors/year, not including crowds from the Big River Steampunk Festival), and proceeds from fundraising go toward overhead and programming/displays - there are no paid positions at the museum. This time of year is the most important for us, since gift shop sales and special events are at a low ebb throughout the winter, yet the costs of continuing the museum keep chugging along. We have started a fundraising page on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/donate/268331197200854/?fundraiser_source=external_url through December 5th - for those who have already contributed, thank you so much for believing in our mission!

  For those with experience in fundraising who are looking for a new challenge, drop us a line through this website! We are working on a new committee for 2019 to ensure the museum's long-term future, and we'd love to have you on board.

     About the Photo

  Before technology allowed for the manufacturing of ice at will, the next best option would be to harvest the ice when nature made it possible. When the river would recede to levels such as 6-8 feet, and the currents were still, winter temperatures could allow to river to freeze. At a minimum depth (6-9 inches), horse-driven plows carved up the ice, and the resulting blocks would be transported through a conveyor system to a building like the one above. A solid building with ventilation (to remove heat) and insulated interior could hold the ice for months, even a year; one method to extend the life of the ice was to embed it in sawdust within the building. Some receipts from 1890s-1900s show that an icebox in a family home would expend 100 pounds of ice per week in the summertime to preserve its contents!

   On that chilling note, we at the museum wish you a happy, stress-reduced holiday shopping season! Please subscribe to our facebook page for more updates.

- Ken and Lisa Marks, Hannibal History Museum co-founders


the incredible line up of entertainment coming to the
Big River Steampunk Festival
August 31 - September 3, 2018

The Cog is Dead
Frenchy and the Punk
Doc Phineas T. Kastle
The Ragged Blade Band
Carnival Epsilon
The Rum Runners
Thomas Dean Willeford
Amy Wilder
Little Beard and the Scally Wags
Airship Isabella with Cedric Whittaker
Judas and Magnolia
Sammy Tramp and Darling Violet
Eva La Feva
Sio Bast
Sally Marvel
Miss Jubilee and the Humdingers
Children of Proteus
Airship Iron Rose
Melinda Kaye
Violin Dragoness
Professor Jefferson Parker and his Penny Farthing


Museum Featured on PBS "Illinois Stories"

Hannibal History Museum was proud to be featured on the Emmy-award winning PBS show "Illinois Stories" hosted by Mark McDonald -- this episode aired January, 2015

About the Hannibal History Museum:

Friends, we've produced this video featuring some of our accomplishments through 2014 -- promoting Hannibal's history and tourism, providing education and entertainment, and having a doggone good time! Won't you please join the fun and help us continue our mission in 2017? Simply click the "Donate" button to the left to contribute via PayPal -- all donations are tax-deductible. Together we can make history! Thank you!!!

Why Local History Matters (for Hannibal)

   In the December issue of Hannibal Magazine, we wrote an article concerning the potential future of vacant historic buildings in our downtown area, and how supporting a historic district or maintaining local history can provide real benefits to a town whose interest to the outside world is its heritage.  Thanks to publisher Rich Heiser, we are able to post the article in full below....

(By Ken and Lisa Marks)
    Recently, the building formerly known as the Murphy’s Motors building on North Main Street has been purchased by the City of Hannibal. One of the prospective plans being considered for the property is to raze the structure and create a space meant to augment several festivals held downtown each year. One problem: the over-130-year old building happens to be part of the Mark Twain Historic District and does not show signs of immediate distress. Moreover, acre after acre of underutilized open space exists just on the opposite side of the downtown levy wall that could be used for additional festival space. The concern that demolition of a building considered by many to be ‘historic’ in a part of town venerated for its historical content begs the question: why should local history matter to Hannibalians?
A view of North Main Street looking south from Holiday's Hill (now Cardiff Hill), c. 1900-1910; what eventually became known as the Murphy's Motors building is in the left foreground below as a wagon factory. Photo courtesy Steve Chou.
Hannibal’s history is more than its past – it is what sets the town apart from most other small communities. 

     If a small town is like an extended family, then history is its version of genealogy, a lineage that answers the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of Hannibal’s development.  Thanks to so many local resources, from the Missouri Room in the Hannibal Free Public Library and the volumes of information chronicled by Roberta and J. Hurley Hagood to the ephemera and photographic archives of Steve Chou, access to pieces of the past are more available in Hannibal than in most communities of similar size.  The trick is to synthesize these materials into a cohesive narrative that is accessible to all and representative of the town’s character; without this, all of these elements can be seen separately as trivial or nostalgic, rather than taken as a whole as the living DNA of today’s Hannibal.

     In other words, what we look like today as a community is not our full identity. Though our economy has suffered in the past few decades, for many years throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hannibal was surprisingly strong in manufacturing. While most Mississippi river towns were known for one major industry in their past, Hannibal experienced industrial ‘booms’ repeatedly throughout its history. Initially, the steamboat trade brought commerce to Hannibal’s shore. Next, Hannibal became a major railroad hub; these railroads facilitated the massive lumber firms of the Reconstruction years that brought great wealth and prosperity. By the end of the 1920s, mostly because of the International Shoe Company and related industries, Hannibal had the fourth largest industrial base in Missouri despite having a population in the low-20,000s. For decades, Hannibal managed to overachieve in spite of its population, a small city that accomplished big things. To be aware of what those who came before us were able to accomplish can inspire today’s Hannibalians to strive to achieve the same level of civic progress.