HANNIBAL, Mo. -- As Hannibal celebrates its bicentennial throughout the year, some well-deserved attention is being paid to the city's storied history.
One notable historical event took place 50 years ago this spring. It involved two Hannibal men -- Bob Usherwood and Allen McClain -- who were determined to set world records for pole sitting.
As it turned out, Usherwood and McClain accomplished their goals by simultaneously staying off the ground for 88 days, but they did it separately.
Usherwood took a position in a small shack perched atop a 44-foot-high tower that he erected at the corner of Fourth and Broadway next to Hannibal's Central Park. McClain, meanwhile, took an elevated position inside a 25-square-foot room about three-quarters of the way up the lighthouse on Cardiff Hill.
According to Herald-Whig news archives, both men ascended their positions at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 1, 1969, with the goal of beating the world record of 77 days set by Jim Church of Clarksville in 1964.
The men had to stay in their lofty perches for the minimum number of days -- without touching a foot to the ground -- in order to qualify for the record.
"I'm the greatest, and I'll prove it," Usherwood declared as he mounted his tower, taunting McClain as he waved to the assembled crowd below.
McClain also had a group of supporters wishing him well as he took his elevated position, including Mayor Harry Musgrove and the contestants from the Miss Hannibal pageant.
Both men received meals in buckets that they pulled up to their perches by ropes. Most of the food was provided by local businesses that supported their spirited efforts to promote the city's sesquicentennial celebration.
The men had some other creature comforts as well. They both passed the time listening to the radio, watching TV and talking to friends by telephone.
McClain's phone eventually became a pest, however. Even though he had an unlisted telephone number, he kept getting crank calls at all hours of the night. So while he was aloft, he made arrangements to get a new phone number that he kept secret. "Don't call me. I'll call you," he said, according to The Herald-Whig.
According to Herald-Whig accounts, McClain celebrated his 21st birthday in early April while stationed in his lighthouse perch, and Usherwood celebrated his 22nd birthday on April 14. Both sent each other some of the cake and ice cream they were given to celebrate their birthdays.
The newspaper reported that both men set a minimum goal of staying in their perches for at least 88 days to beat the old 77-day record, but they also talked about possibly staying off the ground for 100 days or more.
In the end, they settled for 88 days and agreed to share the world record by coming off their perches at precisely the same moment -- a move that they coordinated by telephone.
According to a story in the Hannibal Courier-Post, the two rival pole sitters came down from their perches at 5 a.m. Thursday, June 26.
"Their decent was unexpected," the newspaper reported. "Neither man expressed a burning desire to perform the feat again."
Steve Chou, author of the 2002 pictorial history book "Hannibal: Bluff City Memories" and its updated bicentennial edition published earlier this year, provided The Herald-Whig with a photo of Usherwood's elevated platform from his historic photo collection.
"I remember seeing the little shack -- or birdhouse -- up there," Chou recalled. "We'd drive by it and say, ‘There's somebody up in there.' "
Chou was 12 years old at the time. A St. Louis native, he spent most of his boyhood summers at his grandparents' home just outside of Hannibal and came to know and love the town. He became intrigued by Hannibal's history when he saw all the sesquicentennial hoopla. He would go on to become one of the greatest chroniclers of the city's history.
Chou said the pole-sitting competition was one of the highlights from a busy year of festive sesquicentennial activities in 1969.
"The pole sitting fad actually started in the 1920s," he said. "It died out, but then around that time (the 1960s) it was revived. Somebody thought it would be a great idea. There was a flurry of individuals trying to one-up the record."
Chou said Hannibal's pole sitters had it much easier than some of the early pole sitters in the 1920s.
"Some of the original pole sitters literally had a little seat on top of a flagpole. But these guys were protected from the weather somewhat," he said. "But I think the weather and the bugs kind of got to them."(Jason put "Central Park Pole Sitter" photo in Photo Raw.)
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