- Historic Sites
Our Neighbor Mark Twain
The years the famous writer spent in their town were magic to a young boy and his sister.
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
“My fellow farmers of this vicinity have gathered together some hundreds of books and instituted a public library and given it my name. Large contributions of books have been sent to it by Robert Collier of Collier’s Weekly , by Colonel Harvey of Harper & Brothers, and by Doubleday, Page & Company—all these without coercion; indeed upon the merest hint. The other great publishers will do the like as soon as they hear about this enterprise.…And so, we have a library. Also, my fellow farmers have arranged for the librarian’s salary and the other running expenses, and will furnish the necessary money themselves. There is yet one detail lacking: a building for the library. Mr. Theodore Adams gives the ground for it. Mr. Sunderland furnishes, gratis, the plans and specifications, and will let the contracts and superintend the erection of the house. The library building will cost about two thousand dollars. Everybody will have a chance to contribute to this fund. Everybody, including my guests—I mean guests from a distance. It seems best to use coercion in this case. Therefore I have levied a tax—a Guests’ Mark Twain Library Building Tax, of one dollar, not upon the valuable sex, but only upon the other one.”
Everyone howled with laughter, as usual.
There was a women’s group that met fairly often to sew clean strips of rags of all colors and fabrics for making braided rugs to sell at an annual fair for the library building fund. We children went to the meetings too; there were no baby-sitters then; we could roll the long strips into balls. It was my job to turn the ice-cream freezer for the cake-and-ice-cream binge later.
The annual fair was held late in August to attract the summer people, who would leave for their homes by Labor Day. There weren’t many in Redding, but the lake resorts near Danbury and a noted summer colony in nearby Ridgefield provided the necessary crowds, together with local residents. All kinds of things were sold at the fair: cakes, pies, jellies, pickles, canned fruits in glass jars, salads, the rag rugs, and secondhand furniture, which was grabbed up as antiques. A long picnic table under a tent was loaded with food, providing luncheon for the guests—at a price, of course.
I do not remember meeting Jean Clemens at any of her father’s parties. She was the sick daughter, and I believe she avoided all exciting situations. After her mother’s death in 1904, the family had returned from Italy and lived in the charming old brick Gothic mansion at 21 Fifth Avenue. But New York life was hazardous for Jean Clemens; she had to live much of the time in a nursing home until her father built Stormfield.
We children were devoted to her. My sisters and 1 had a big goat, Billy; we drove up and down the road by the hour, one of us in the wagon and the others impatiently waiting their turn. Father commanded us to turn out to the side of the road when a team of horses or a horse and buggy—or, most unlikely, an automobile—came along. The first time we saw Jean Clemens coming, on horseback, we hurried into the ditch, an exciting matter since Billy had no love of ditches. His was a strictly middle-of-theroad temperament. The strange lady drew up and introduced herself and asked our names and where we lived. Then she told us that we must never turn out for her. “The carriage always has the right of way,” she said. “And you have the carriage, so I must take to the side of the road.”
We talked for some time. When she rode away we were firm friends. Whenever she saw us, she stopped to talk. Somewhat later she told us that she had bought the farm across the road from us, gave us permission to roam all over it, and asked us to visit her. In the autumn she asked us to drive off any hunters we caught there. We exchanged information, in season, about the best berry patches or where to find the best hazelnuts, butternuts, and hickory nuts.
The most significant meeting that I had with Mark Twain was on the old stone bridge one afternoon. He was alone; it is likely, however, that Miss Jean was nearby in the glen. I was glad that he was alone. I had wanted to tell him how much I had enjoyed Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn . He listened to me and then, to my surprise, he bent over and shook his finger at me and scolded: “You shouldn’t read those books about bad boys! Why, the librarians won’t allow them in the children’s rooms in the libraries! Now don’t you go and imitate those rascals Tom and Huck.” He continued to shake his finger in my face. “Now listen to what an old man tells you. My best book is my Recollections of Joan of Arc . You are too young to understand and enjoy it now, but read it when you are older. Remember then what I tell you now. Joan of Arc is my very best book.” I had never seen him so cross. I can see him yet, shaking that long forefinger at me.