Bringing literature to life: Archaeological dig uncovers artifacts at Twain kin's former homestead

Paul Hoer of Laddonia, Mo., finds a stash of glass shards, square nails, pottery and brick while excavating near the site of Mark Twain's uncle John Quarles home near Florida, Mo. (H-W Photo/Steve Bohnstedt)
Posted: Aug. 6, 2014 8:56 am Updated: Aug. 20, 2014 10:15 am

Herald-Whig Stafs Writer

FLORIDA, Mo. -- Keesha Stacy scraped a trowel across a patch of packed dirt, uncovering what seemed to be an ordinary stone.

But Paula Baker, a volunteer digging in a 5-foot by 5-foot square next to Stacy, knew it wasn't just a regular rock. It's a piece of painted limestone, she said, perhaps from a fireplace used more than 160 years ago.

Stacy, a reading coach completing a workshop through Quincy University, worked Monday with Baker at the John A. Quarles farmstead site, an area north of Florida that's been excavated on and off for seven years. Crews have carefully dissected the site in hopes of breathing life into descriptions penned by Quarles' famous nephew, Mark Twain.

"I feel like I'm part of history," Stacy said. "I'm bringing history to life."

That's the workshop's goal, according to Byron Holdiman, director of QU's Teaching With Primary Sources program. Funded by a grant from the Library of Congress, the program connects educators with historical documents, artifacts -- and in Monday's case -- archeological digs, so they can weave knowledge of those items into their lesson plans.

Holdiman has brought groups of teachers to the site for five years, noting that the program provides a "dimension of learning" that textbooks can't offer.

"With the teachers, it brings history to reality," Holdiman said.

There's plenty of history tucked between layers of soil and sand at the Quarles site. According to lead excavator Karen Hunt, Quarles owned the land from 1840 to 1852 before it changed hands and his home burned. However, Twain would often leave his Hannibal home to visit his Uncle John, Aunt Patsy and gaggle of cousins. Years later, Twain would incorporate the sights, sounds and people he encountered at the Quarles farm into his works, including his autobiography.

"They don't realize that Little Sam (Clemens) got most of his information on this little farmstead," she said.

For example, Hunt said Twain refers to graves in a grove just west of the Quarles site, and she came across graves there while mapping the site for her master's thesis almost four decades ago. In the years since, she and a host of volunteers have excavated the area, unearthing marbles, nails, mortar and shards of glass. They also found a coin-sized teacup and saucer, which Hunt said may have escaped Quarles' daughters before time pressed them into the ground.

This year, Hunt and volunteers will target a smokehouse and porch on the west side of the site, which is where Stacy found the chunk of limestone. Other finds Monday included pieces of bottle glass and nails.

Hunt said she didn't know when the excavation will be finished, but her intention is to turn the farmstead into a "living history" museum complete with re-enactors. She's on her way, as a structure from Paris similar to a portion of Quarles' home was reconstructed on the site in 2010. But Hunt said continued work depends on funding, adding she sets aside some of her retirement money each year.

"Through lots of volunteers and a little bit of teacher's retirement, we've gotten it here," she said.