Adventures Mark Twain House and Harriett Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford - 5 Stars
As the managing editor of Events INSIDER for more than a decade, I've been to a lot of historic homes in New England, and none is more fun than The Mark Twain House. Together with its neighbor, the Harriett Beecher Stowe Center, they hold creative events and host speakers of national stature all year long.
Mark Twain, of course, was America's most famous 19th century author, and unlike many old timey heroes (Washington, Jefferson, Franklin) he owned no slaves. In fact, Twain seemed to be on the right side of history for just about everything, at least by the end of his life. He advocated for women, Native Americans, and African-Americans. He was against the overseas imperialism of America and other countries, supported labor unions and animal rights. He supported science and was critical of organized religion. He was vain but brave in speaking his mind, even when he was reversing a previous opinion. It's all that a modern person could want in a hero.
The Mark Twain House, his historic home that still stands in Hartford, Connecticut, is where this mustacioed, wild-haired author wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and most of his other famous books. It is worth the trip from Boston, especially if you also visit the Harriett Beecher Stowe house a few steps away on the same grounds, and make your trip an excuse to stop by other attractions such as the Connecticut Science Center, Dinosaur State Park, or one of Hartford's many parks and performance venues.
By itself the Mark Twain House is worth the visit. The family was theatrical and fun, and that shows in the rooms themselves, where plays were staged, and in the stories you'll hear about visitors. They even have a billiards room. Twain also had tragedy in his life, both things he caused and things he didn't cause but blamed himself for. Unlike most historic homes, next door to the old home is a large, modern museum. Their permanent exhibit is limited to one room, though it is an interesting one, because the majority of the space is reserved for events. They have a movie theatre, a performance theatre, a cafe, a children's crafts center, and a large space for rotating exhibits.
Most historic homes will repeat their greatest hits, and I don't discourage that at all. In Salem, Massachusetts, the House of Seven Gables will have spooky theatre shows every Halloween. In Waltham, the Gore House has regular moonlit tours and their annual sheepshearing show. However, the Mark Twain House really goes out of its way to put on a variety or repeating but also one-time events, many of which bring national speakers to New England.
For example, on my visit I got to take the CLUE tours. These are tours of the historic home based on the board game CLUE. As you travel from room to room, you meet improv comedians who act out characters from Twain's books and give you clues to solve a murder mystery. By the end, you and the entire group have solved the crime! To me, the murder mystery was a bit simple compared to other murder mystery theatre events, and we were rushed a bit through, not learning much about the literary characters. But the comedy was great and it was a real adventure to do something silly in such a prestigious location. We bonded with both the tour guides and the others in our tour group.
Also coming up at the Mark Twain House on their event calendar:
-- Graveyard Shift Ghost Tours, Feb 26 and 27
-- Azar Nafisi, a world-famous Iranian writer
-- A Celtic magician and storyteller, Daniel GreenWolf
-- A writers' event where you can write your Great American Novel in Twain's library
-- A Jewish community film screening, Are You Joking?, with the filmmakers
-- A national public radio storytelling series, The MOuTH
-- A staged theatrical reading of King Arthur in Contemporary Connecticut, a reversal of Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
And so much more. It's the only event calendar outside of Massachusetts that I have on my A-list for regular review, because it changes so frequently but has so many interesting items.
Next door, visit the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, which is almost entirely filled with original items from the Stowe family. Abraham Lincoln called Stowe the “little lady who started this great war”, speaking of the US Civil War, because she was the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the landmark anti-slavery book that was her first ever novel.
The Stowe Center co-sponsors many of the events in the Mark Twain museum and holds their own events such as a marathon reading of Uncle Tom's Cabin, March 19-20. Their tour is creative and interactive. As I wrote earlier, I've been to many historic homes, and they are always interesting intellectually but sometimes, you know, it's a lot of names and facts that seem disconnected from my own experiences. The Stowe Center will not disappoint. You get to see and even handle parts of the past (well, reproductions), and at the start and during part of the tour, they let you take a load off your feet, something that I wish other historic homes would do. You sit in a group discussion format and the tour guide helps guests, even the shy ones, to ask their questions about the past. They also bend over backwards to place Stowe in historical context but also modern context, connecting her work to famous people throughout history and also to other authors who spoke out for social progress.
Stowe and Twain were opposites in a sense. Stowe was a serious Christian who was not up for nonsense. Twain liked to say, "Children should obey their parents... when they are present." But they were both brave in their writing and public speaking, and you'll be shocked to hear about the additional obstacles that Stowe had to overcome as a woman. You will feel inspired by history in both locations, get your photo taken with LEGO Mark Twain, and there's a wide variety in the gift shop to get something for a loved one. Together they are nothing less than my favorite destinations in Connecticut, a well deserved 5 stars.