The following review appeared 11 December 1996 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1996.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Mary Leah Christmas
The city of Hannibal, Missouri, is built upon, and in places with, limestone. This limestone has provided a bedrock for industry and a backdrop for tourism. Just south of Hannibal, the two forces joined to bring about what is a little-known (or intentionally forgotten) aspect of Hannibal's history: the destruction of the little company town of Ilasco to further the "construction" of the Mark Twain industry.
Hannibal is known almost exclusively these days for Mark Twain, with "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" a distant second, and other noteworthy citizens to an even lesser extent. City of Dust by Gregg Andrews, Associate Professor of History at Southwest Texas State University, is the saga of those who lived and died but a half mile from the storied cave of Mark Twain lore, having achieved little or no recognition whatsoever. This book is a laudable contribution toward correcting that imbalance.
Gregg Andrews is correct in stating that, "Strangers are surprised to learn that Ilasco . . . was once a thriving community with perhaps as many as 3,000 residents before World War I." This reviewer was indeed surprised to learn that Ilasco was ever anything more than it appears today: a cement plant, a smattering of houses, a small church, and a defunct- looking tavern.
Andrews is thorough in documenting the rise and orchestrated fall of the "cement company town in the land of Tom Sawyer"--a story that might otherwise have been missed. Born in Monkey Run, a "suburb" of Ilasco, as he quaintly puts it, Andrews has "deep roots in the community on both sides" of his family. Drawing from his exhaustive research and sincere interest in the subject, Andrews paints a bittersweet portrait of the events of years ago.
Other Ilasco families and their descendants were also willing to help with the project. The acknowledgments make it evident that many still remember the Ilasco of old. No doubt the information was given gladly because Andrews took the time to ask, to sort through the old photographs, and to listen to their stories from their own lips, instead of merely parroting official "facts" taken from microfiche of old newspapers.
Andrews asserts that this "wider treatment of the cement industry . . . has scarcely been touched by labor historians." This is surely new territory, and an investigation into an unpleasant aspect of Hannibal's past. Andrews's treatment of the subject will be mollifying to former residents and their families, as well as enlightening to scholars and general readers. City of Dust is a thorough study of the machinations of immigration, prejudice, industry, and tourism.
Ilasco was a labor camp, turned company town, turned stretch of macadam. The little community was unceremoniously torn down and paved over, in the mid-1960s, in the name of what Andrews wryly calls the "commercial construction of Mark Twain." Instead of "giving back to the community," as is popular to say today, the community was taken away. "The extinction of Ilasco wiped out more than sixty years of community building." Therein lies the story.
Without hands for building, nothing could have been built in the first place. The hands that so readily sought work at the Atlas Cement Company in Ilasco, in the early 1900s, had traveled in great numbers from eastern Europe. The mostly immigrant population was willing to work, and wanting to work, in what would be dirty, dangerous, and thankless jobs.
The cement company was located a mere three miles south of Hannibal, along the Mississippi River, where repositories of limestone and shale were extensive. Andrews states, "Industrialization reshaped the image of Hannibal as a sleepy, Southern river town and encroached upon the terrain that had provided a playground for [Twain] and his boyhood friends." LeBaume Cave, on cement company property, "[was] once mistakenly thought to have been an old entrance to the same cave used by Samuel Clemens." Just north of the plant, also on cement company property, is "another of Tom Sawyer's caves."
The first cement production began in March 1903. "As Twain noted, the cave hollow finally yielded riches not in gold but in the form of portland cement." Ilasco "had taken shape in the shadow of the sprawling plant, partly on land owned by Atlas and partly on adjacent noncompany land." The very name "Ilasco" signifies the hold the industry would ultimately have over its citizens, for it is an acronym for cement's manufacturing ingredients: Iron, Lime, Aluminum, Silica, Calcium, and Oxygen.
Rumanian, Slovak, Italian, Hungarian, and other Balkan immigrants formed the bulk of the plant's labor force. Hannibal residents and business people "valued Ilasco primarily for its economic worth to Hannibal and reacted to Ilasco with a blend of curiosity, humor, fear, and at times outright contempt." Many of the workers were foreign and did not speak English, and most were illiterate; the pervading sentiment documented in City of Dust is that they were seen to be expendable.
"For about sixty years, native-born and immigrant residents struggled to forge a community identity and build a better life in Ilasco," although "job-related accidents killed or crippled many." These were "people who fought tooth and nail for dignity and self-respect in an often hostile environment." Dangerous, filthy, and overcrowded conditions prevailed at work and at home. Tempers flared, discord rose. "Ilasco's critics did not acknowledge the connections between the squalid living conditions, poverty, and the workers' relationship with Atlas." In fact, "they blamed the victims for their own degradation and poverty."
Atlas increasingly sought control over the workers' lives. After a fire in Ilasco's business district in 1906, the plans were to rebuild with more solid, permanent buildings. "As residents busily built a community, putting up new houses and remodeling old ones, Atlas continued efforts to hamper the formation of a central community." Pressures continued to mount, culminating in a strike in 1910 and the town's occupation by the Missouri National Guard. The strike had broken out the day before Mark Twain's death.
According to Andrews's sources, Twain did not revisit the caves of childhood memory during his last visit to Hannibal, in 1902. Perhaps he didn't want to see what had become of the area. In 1906, asked his feelings about his childhood playground being used to make cement, Twain said, " . . . it was not worth while to talk about it at this late day and, to take it all around, it was a painful subject anyway." It was Mark Twain--or rather, the marketing of Mark Twain after his death--that would lead to Ilasco's downfall.
The death of Ilasco did not come about through a clash of big-time show-biz with small-town culture, as the 1985 Mark Twain Sesquicentennial was portrayed in Ron Powers's White Town Drowsing (1986). Instead, the beginning of the end started with the 1935 Centennial celebration of Mark Twain's birth. These were not cosmopolitan marketing and PR people challenging the small-town status quo. Rather, they were local businessmen pitted against the interests of mostly immigrant, blue-collar laborers.
"The forces of commercialization set in motion by the Mark Twain Centennial celebration in 1935 picked up steam as civic leaders and politicians urged new, upgraded highways to stimulate travel and tourism after World War II." The Great River Road project fit the bill, with the system to run along the Mississippi River from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Initially, the proposed course of Highway 79 did not run through Ilasco at all, but swung southwest of Hannibal, the official report noting "that care had been taken to locate the route close to the river while avoiding towns and villages where possible." However, "local businessmen, some of whom were directly linked to the Mark Twain tourist industry, insisted that Highway 79 be routed due south out of Hannibal past the Mark Twain Cave and cement plant to Saverton. The only obstacle was a logistical one: Ilasco stood directly in the way."
Through a series of seemingly unstoppable events, the unthinkable happened. Ilasco was nearly wiped off the map. First came the lightning-quick demolishing of their homes, and then the thunder of heavy paving equipment. "By the spring of 1964 . . . the destruction of Ilasco [allowed] a drastic reduction of its labor force made possible by an expanded, modernized new plant that would soon be built." Such maneuvers give new meaning to the term "corporate downsizing."
Many will find the story of the rise and fall of Ilasco troubling. This reviewer, having lived in Hannibal for several years, and also having Eastern European immigrant ancestry, could feel for the workers at Ilasco's cement plant. In fact, the Atlas holdings in Pennsylvania were closeby to where this reviewer's immigrant ancestors were working to make new lives for themselves in the knitting mills in the early 1900s.
The power of the printed word is manifest in City of Dust, specifically the media influence throughout the Ilasco saga. The local papers, in encouraging the location of the plant near Hannibal, shamelessly made an advance withdrawal against the very Twain legacy they would posthumously seek to shape. In 1901, endorsement for the plant was sought and gotten from "Elijah Hawkins, the father of Laura Hawkins Frazier [sic]," the model for Becky Thatcher, encouraging the creation of the portland cement plant at Ilasco.
The subsequent treatment of the workers and Ilasco residents by the local media was alarming, at least to modern sensibilities. The very media that had campaigned for Atlas Cement, once it was established took to bashing and propagandizing against the "foreign colony"--this from a town that had earlier been explored and settled by the French and Spanish! The local newspapers "at times dehumanized Ilasco's immigrants in references to them as 'exports of Europe' whose names were 'unspellable and unpronounceable in an English tone of voice.' In some cases, reporters never bothered to learn the names of immigrants who appeared in their newspaper accounts 'because of the fact that it makes no particular difference.'"
Today, Hannibal is an unusual dichotomy of tourism and industry, with sometimes ironic results. For instance, on a promontory in Riverview Park stands a statue of Mark Twain. Is the author really gazing out at the river he loved so much, or at the grain-shipping complex on the Illinois bank? Riverfront silos dominate Hannibal's downtown tourist area as well.
This reviewer further recalls that an expanded facility in Hannibal recently started producing a nationally known brand of taco shells. Yes, the town that so readily ridiculed its immigrants now makes, among other things, Mexican-style food products! It is Andrews, however, who points out the ultimate irony: the portland cement plant at Ilasco has in recent years been foreign owned, and the industry itself is now largely under foreign control.
Times may have changed, but problems at Ilasco have not. The cultural problems of old have given way to environmental concerns about emissions, and Ilasco is still looked at askance. "As this simmering environmental controversy further suggests, the history of Ilasco and workers at the cement plant illustrates the overwhelming power of the twentieth-century alliance between big business and the State."
If one is unaware of its tumultuous history, Ilasco is easy to overlook. To this reviewer's knowledge, tourists are never told about Ilasco; this reviewer wasn't, either as a tourist or as a resident. That such an important story goes unmentioned of course may be a bit of face-saving, of "making nice" for the tourists. But with the current interest in multi-culturalism, all could learn from the painful history of the ill-fated cement company town.
Some tourists still manage to find their way to Ilasco. Andrews observes: "It is here perhaps that some tourists find a slice of American history infinitely richer and more meaningful than that served up by an endless number of Hannibal shops, hotels, restaurants, and other commercial enterprises that bear the name of Mark Twain or his fictional characters." Andrews does give a nod to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home Foundation, and director Henry Sweets, for the "impressive restoration of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home [that] has taken place in recent years. Beyond that, however, routine commercialization has left Twain, his thought, and his writings devoid of meaning in most quarters of Hannibal. . . . The appropriation of Twain by local restaurants, hotels, stores, and even the community mental health center has created among residents 'a weariness bordering on contempt' for his very name."
Although this reviewer is familiar with the area of Hannibal, Ilasco, New London, etc., many readers may not be. The one thing City of Dust lacks is maps. A map of the area would be a useful addition. Also illustrative would be the juxtaposition of the old and new of Ilasco--maps or diagrams showing what she was in her heyday, and what was lost to Highway 79. In its day, Ilasco had "as many as three thousand people, seven saloons, five churches, and numerous small businesses. . . . a dynamic town, culturally unique in Missouri's Little Dixie." Certainly one does not need diagrams in order to appreciate the history of Ilasco, but such visuals would make effective object-lessons.
A quiet stretch of road is almost all that remains of a company town that was, then wasn't--a settlement as contentious then as it is nearly unrecognizable now. "How quickly brush, trees, dynamite, and bulldozers can bury the history of a community." How quickly and thoroughly Gregg Andrews has uncovered it. He has done a lot of research and knows his subject well, resulting in a work that is both scholarly and heartfelt.
This reviewer does not claim to be a prognosticator, but there are awards in the future for this book. Of course, Andrews has already been reaping the rewards of this labor of love, stating that working on the book has enriched his life. The research also fostered his "personal rediscovery of Mark Twain," especially the complexities of his thought and his writings as social critic.
"How tenaciously we still cling to Ilasco." One can hardly blame them, after reading this book and gazing at the old photographs. So many descendants of immigrant families in the United States have photographs and memories with which to weigh what they left behind against what they have gained. In the case of Ilasco, "Former residents and workers at the present time can only express their sense of loss through their private thoughts, anger, and cultural tenacity as they try to hang on to their past and perhaps consider alternative strategies of resistance." Such as this book.
Ilasco today "ain't nothin' but a spot in the road," as one Hannibal resident termed such places to this reviewer. But at one time, Ilasco was much more than that, and we have Gregg Andrews to thank for edifying us all.