Garth Woodside Mansion
Today the road has brought me to Hannibal, MO.
I had actually had this journey on my mind for quite a while. When the opportunity arose to review a professional production of Cotton Patch Gospel, I knew I would be making my way to Hannibal and a visit to Garth Woodside Mansion, owned and operated by John and Julie Rolsen.
It was an absolutely perfect day for a road trip. The sky was sunny and clear and the temperatures were downright springish. I had a fairly smooth ride into Hannibal, though Google Maps tried to make me take a left turn at Albuquerque. I ended up finding the road I needed anyway, so neener neener Google!
The inn is located in a secluded area along a gravel road and is of great historical interest as it has a direct connection to the town’s most famous resident, Samuel Clemens AKA Mark Twain.
The original owners of the inn were John Garth, a successful Hannibal businessman, and his wife, Helen. The home was built on his farm, Woodside, in the late 1800s. John and Helen were lifelong friends of Twain who often visited the mansion. In fact, one of the rooms in the inn is called the Samuel Clemens and Twain actually stayed in the room whenever he visited the Garths.
As I pulled up to the inn, I took a moment to soak in the impressive structure. When you think bed & breakfast, this is the type of building that springs to mind. If the inside was anything like the outside, I knew I was falling into the lap of luxury. I bumped into another couple on my way to the front door and we were met by Julie Rolsen. Julie is easily one of the most gregarious innkeepers I have met on my travels and she and her husband have wickedly sharp senses of humor. If you stay here, read the book on the inn in your room and you’ll agree with me.
After giving us the nickel tour, Julie showed me to the Rosewood, my base of operations for the next few days. Admittedly, I wanted to stay in the Samuel Clemens to really absorb the inn’s sense of history, but I had been beaten to the punch. On the other hand, I did get to become a part of a unique piece of inn trivia.
The bed in my room is called the most expensive bed in Missouri. It’s a hand carved piece of artistry insured for $55K.
After settling in, I did my explorations. And there is a lot to explore. Not only is this place one of the most beautiful and luxurious inns I have visited, but it is also one of the largest. The first floor gives you a sense of history as the furniture is original to the home. The entire property is remarkably preserved which I attribute to the small number of owners which the property has had. The Rolsens are only the sixth owners. Pretty impressive for a 100 plus year old mansion.
I had scheduled a ghost tour for 7pm, so I headed to downtown Hannibal for an early dinner before learning about the haunted history of Hannibal.
I opted to try the Mark Twain Dinette and it was a bit of a mixed bag. The ambiance is quite nice, but the food was just OK. I had a Roughin It burger which included pepper jack, chili ranch, and bacon which did fill the cavity.
Afterwards, I explored the main street area. Though I, to my chagrin, failed to observe them, take a look at the artistic fire hydrants. They were all painted by Julie.
Downtown Hannibal is pretty compact and most of the interesting sites are all pretty close to one another. I went down to the Hannibal History Museum and picked up my ticket for the tour. As the trolley wouldn’t load until 6:50pm, I continued looking around the downtown area and found the Bluff City Theater and City Hall. Believe it or not, the two buildings are actually connected for my upcoming play review as the theatre is producing the show, but the play is being presented environmentally at City Hall in the council room located on the second floor.
About 6:50, I returned to the museum where I boarded the trolley. Ghost tours are always an interesting way to learn about a town’s history and Hannibal is reportedly one of the most haunted cities in the country. The tour consists of traveling to various buildings and hearing about the hauntings and there were some very interesting tales.
One such tale was the story of three boys who disappeared when they went off to explore one of the numerous caves under Hannibal. In spite of an intense search costing over one million dollars and lasting over a month, the boys were never found as the caves under the town are deep and labyrinthine.
One of the boys reportedly haunts a family, but it is a good haunting. The ghost is the friend of the family’s little girl, who calls him Shippa. Our guide showed us a photo of Shippa taken by the little girl on her fake tablet and even I admit that it is a pretty impressive piece of evidence that bears a remarkable similarity to one of the missing boys.
The other tale was a sensitive point in the history of Hannibal. There was a wealthy businessman named Amos Stillwell who had a younger wife named Fanny who was the belle of the ball. One winter’s night, Fanny was asleep with her children and her husband came home late from a card party held at the home from his good friend, Captain Munger. Not wanting to disturb his wife and children, Stillwell retired to his bedroom.
Around midnight, Fanny heard her husband stir in the other room and say, “Fanny? Is that you?” At that point a hidden intruder rose out of the darkness and killed Stillwell with a double bladed axe. Fanny stayed hidden with the children until she was certain the coast was clear, left the children with the maid, and rushed to get their family friend, a doctor, who lived a few blocks away.
The doctor told Fanny he’d be over immediately and that’s when things started getting weird. Instead of going to the police who were next door to the doctor, Fanny returned home and started cleaning up the gruesome crime scene. The doctor came over and was shocked at Fanny’s actions and called the police.
The police came with the city physician. Needless to say, the police were very upset that the crime scene had been tampered with. Then another strange thing happened. The city physician refused to let the police question Fanny Stillwell, saying she was too distraught. This further angered the police as they now had a useless crime scene and a witness whom they couldn’t question. Even with the help of the Pinkertons, the police were never able to gather much evidence in the mystery.
Nine months later, Fanny married the city physician which was very suspicious and enraged the citizens of Hannibal who literally chased the couple out of town. The couple would return to visit friends several years later and were arrested for the crime. However, with the passage of several years, there was even less evidence than before and the city physician was found not guilty and charges against Fanny were dropped.
A book was written about the case and one of the last remaining copies exists at the Hannibal Public Library. The reason for the book being out of print is that the writer did not get permission from all family members and printing was halted.
Today, it’s reported that the ghost of Amos Stillwell roams the old home of Captain Munger which is now a restaurant known as LaBinnah Bistro. The reason for this being is that Stillwell spent many happy hours at card parties here and his original home was demolished in the hopes of stopping hauntings there.
Our tour ended in an old Baptist cemetery where we were given dowsing rods to sense paranormal activity. Allegedly, spirits exude a magnetic field and the rods will be pulled towards it and cross at the point of activity. Honestly, I did feel the tug and the rods did cross, but dowsing rods also locate water, so while interesting I leave it for the reader to decide if it was science or spirits.
Still, it was a very interesting experience and, as I’ve said, always a good way to learn about local history.
From there it was back to the mansion, where the day’s long drive and activity finally caught up with me. I drew a bath in the clawfoot tub that was just the perfect temperature, soaked, then curled up in my bed to get a $55K sleep.
I awoke refreshed and hungry. About 9am, I headed downstairs to breakfast. John and Julie were clearly born to the B & B business. Both are natural hosts, chatting with guests and making sure they are provided for. I sat down to a goblet of Garth Juice. As John says, “It tastes good and it’s good for you.” Julie prepared a hot chocolate for me and John also brought me water and milk while I worked through a dish of fruit and a muffin.
The main entrée was a quiche filled with broccoli, cheese, eggs, and ham. It was a tasty way to start the day and provided needed fuel for a day filled with activities.
I got things going immediately after breakfast with a visit to Mark Twain Cave.
This name isn’t an attempt to cash in on Twain’s name. Twain often explored this cave as a boy and he uses this cave in several of his books. It’s an entertaining and informative little tour, but you may want to bring a jacket as the cave stays at 53 degrees year round.
I really wanted to explore Cameron Cave as well, but the next available tour wasn’t until noon and that tour is 90 minutes and I had an appointment at 1:30. So, it’s something to look forward to in another visit, especially since you’re provided your own lantern to explore this cave.
From Mark Twain Cave, I headed to the Haunted House on Hill Street. They were offering a special where for $10 I could tour the house and Karlocks Kars and Pop Culture. I took them up on the offer.
There isn’t much to the haunted house. It actually opens with a room filled with 25 intricately sculpted wax figures of Mark Twain, his family, and characters. Narration is provided giving a history of Mark Twain, his family, and the inspiration for his characters. Afterwards, you go through a cheesy little haunted house not unlike ones you’d find at a county fair.
Karlocks was a bit more interesting. It’s a museum filled with vintage cars and sundry pop culture items. There’s even a bit of a vintage arcade, but playing the games costs quarters.
After my brief tours, I headed over to the Mark Twain Riverboat for a little cruise on the Mississippi.
The Mark Twain
I took a seat on the top deck outside the pilot house. Before setting sail, several blasts are made on the whistle and those by the pilot house need to cover your ears. It was quite a relaxing jaunt as Captain Steve pointed out several points of interests such as Lover’s Leap and Jackson Island which also found its way into the stories of Mark Twain.
During the ride you will actually cross the state line into Illinois and you may just see some wild life. I saw a couple of alligators silently swimming in the Mississippi and I finally understood just how dangerous they could be as the way they swim do make them seem like sticks or logs.
After a journey on the mighty Mississippi, I returned to Garth Woodside to get cleaned up for church and the show.
I attended services at Holy Family Catholic Church and I would like to clone this church and replicate it for all of my journeys. This is what worship needs to be like. Everyone was happy to be there and was ready for Jesus. You could genuinely feel His presence. And they were so welcoming. Father Jim Wheeler asked if there were any visitors and asked us where we were from. The congregation was so welcoming as I had several brief conversations after church. Father Jim also gave a great sermon about us needing to be Jesus with skin on which provided a lot of inspiration and food for thought.
Worship certainly prepped me for the faith inspired play, Cotton Patch Gospel, which was being performed at Hannibal City Hall. It was an interesting and original take on the story and you can read my review here.
After the show, it was back to Garth Woodside and another good night’s sleep.
Somehow the alarm on my clock was turned on and buzzed me up at 6am. Getting back to sleep wasn’t happening so I wrote my review on the play and got back to work on this article. I got to this point and went downstairs to breakfast.
OK, I’m back. Today’s meal consisted of Garth juice, milk, fruit, peach muffin, and breakfast pizza which consisted of egg whites, bacon, sausage, and a pita or sourdough crust. Julie also made me a mug of English Toffee hot chocolate topped with crushed Heath bits because chocolate makes everything better.
I ended up having a lively little conversation with the Rolsen family before returning to my room to finish the article and dilly dally until checkout time at Julie’s insistence. 😉
And that about wraps it up for this edition. If you’re in the Hannibal area, get a room at Garth Woodside Mansion. It’s a wonderful inn hosted by great people in a private locale and the food is fantastic.
Until the next time, happy travels.