At Home in the Finger Lakes

Few American writers have captivated readers and bridged generations more than Mark Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Twain’s humorous stories frequently play out against a rustic background, while just below the surface flows a current of social and political awareness glowing with the embers of a roguish wit, often poking fun at the human condition.

Readers of all ages take pleasure in Mark Twain’s work and many circumstances of his life are familiar, but just for fun, test your knowledge of the author by answering the following questions:

• Where was Mark Twain when he wrote major portions of many of his most famous works, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?
• Where was the setting for Mark Twain’s marriage and the location where all three of his daughters were born?
• In 1889, famed English author Rudyard Kipling, then a young man of just 24, visited Clemens, saying, “I have seen Mark Twain this golden morning, have shaken his hand, and smoked a cigar – no, two cigars – with him.” Where did this visit take place?
• In what city is the site of Mark Twain’s grave, a spot that stands on a shaded hillside beneath a stand of tall oak trees?

You are surely forgiven if your answers focus on Twain’s Missouri upbringing on the shores of the Mississippi or the many years he spent with his family in Hartford, a noted literary and publishing center of the day, or even the American West where he spent time as a young journalist. Yet, the truth is that one response correctly answers all four questions, and many will find the answer surprising. That place is right here in the Finger Lakes region of New York: Elmira. It was in Elmira that Mark Twain penned many of his finest works and was married. Elmira was where his daughters were born and where he entertained some notable guests, including the literary Kipling, and it was in Elmira in 1910 that the famed American humorist was laid to rest.

Of a cozy farm nestled in the wooded hills surrounding Elmira, the author once said, “The three months which I spend here are usually my working months. I am free here and can work uninterruptedly.” He fondly labeled this spot as “a place in which to take a foretaste of Heaven.” The transition from Twain’s beloved Mississippi riverbanks to the comfortable country atmosphere of upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region makes quite an interesting story.

In 1867, Samuel Clemens, then in his early 30s, booked passage on the steamship Quaker City for a journalistic trip to the Holy Land. During the journey he became acquainted with a young traveler by the name of Charles Langdon, son of a wealthy Elmira businessman, and the two soon established a friendship. As the story goes, Langdon showed Mr. Clemens a miniature photograph he carried of his older sister, Olivia. Samuel was immediately taken with the charming image and pressed for a meeting with this gentle looking girl, an encounter he was able to arrange in December of the same year in New York City with Charles, Olivia, and their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Jervis Langdon. Of that meeting Mr. Clemens would later recall, “I saw her in the flesh for the first time in New York in the following December. She was slender and beautiful and girlish – she was both girl and woman.  She remained both girl and woman to the last day of her life.”

Several visits to Olivia in Elmira followed, a courtship ensued, and in February of 1870 Samuel, the rustic Western journalist, and “Livy,” the kindhearted and well-bred New Yorker were married at the Langdon home in Elmira. Further, the strong connection the Clemens family now had with Elmira did not end with the wedding. Instead, it would lead to an environment which nurtured the writings of Mark Twain for many years to come.  It was there that he would produce many of his most enduring works, among them Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Prince and the Pauper.

Olivia’s older sister, Susan Crane, and her husband Theodore lived at the Quarry Farm high on a hill overlooking Elmira and the rolling green hills beyond. For over 20 years the Clemens family returned to Elmira to reside with the Cranes during the summer months, the tranquility of the spot giving Mark Twain perhaps his most peaceful and productive time to write. It was a time each year when the author was able to separate himself from the busyness, lectures, visitors, and other common distractions he found when the family was in residence at their Hartford, Connecticut, home. During one summer at the breezy hill-side farm he wrote, with typical wit, “This summer it is no more trouble to me to write than it is to lie.”

In 1874, Susan Crane, who was very fond of her broth-er-in-law, created for him a unique octagonal study some 100 yards from the main farmhouse atop a promontory in the woods. “It is the loveliest study you ever saw, it is octagonal with a peaked roof, each face filled with a spacious window, and sits perched in complete isolation on top of an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills,” Twain wrote. “I haven’t piled up MS (manuscript) so in years as I have done since we came here to the farm…Why, it’s like old times, to step right into the study, damp from the breakfast table, and sail right in and sail right on, the whole day long, with-out thought of running short of stuff or words.”

Summers at Quarry Farm were not all work and no play for Mr. Clemens. He quite regularly walked the two miles to downtown Elmira on summer afternoons, dressed in white suit and hat, to play billiards with some local friends. Later, a stop at his favorite tavern usually provided sufficient refreshment and enough conversation to bolster Clemens for the long, uphill walk back to the farm. Samuel Clemens was deeply devoted to his wife, Olivia, and their four children, three of whom were born in Elmira. Of Olivia he wrote, “Under a grave and gentle exterior burned inextinguishable fires of sympathy, energy, devotion, enthusiasm, and absolutely limitless affection. She was always frail in body and she lived upon her spirit, whose hopefulness and courage were indestructible.” Also, he retained great affection over the years for Susan Crane with whom he often teased as they argued 2 philosophies. Samuel
shared common interests with Theodore Crane, as well, spending many relaxing afternoons at the farm with him reading and discussing books in which they shared a mutual interest.

It is safe to say that the Clemens family spent some of their happiest times together summering at the Quarry Farm, with Mr. Clemens creating his great works in the solace of the study as the children romped through the woods and fields with their games. Speaking of those pleasant times, Clemens said, “The farm is perfectly delightful this season. It is as quiet and peaceful as a South Sea Island. Some of the sun-sets which we have witnessed from this commanding eminence were marvelous.” Describing one particularly beautiful sunset, he wrote, “The wonder, with its constant, stately, and always surprising changes, lasted upwards of two hours, and we all stood on the top of the hill by my study till the final miracle was complete and the greatest day ended that we ever saw.”

The pleasant summers at Quarry Farm were not to go on forever. One of the Clemens daughters, Susy, died at the age of 24 in 1896 and Samuel’s beloved Olivia suffered from continuing health problems. The last long visit to the Quarry Farm was in the summer of 1903. After that, Mr. Clemens’ visits to Elmira were brief and mostly for sad occasions, including the death of Mrs. Clemens in 1904. Samuel Clemens’ own death brought him back to Elmira one final time in 1910 for his funeral and burial at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Langdon-Clemens plot. It has been said by some of Mark Twain, “He might have been laid to rest in the bed of that great river which must always be associated with his name.” His niece, Dr. Ida Langdon, daughter of Charles, felt differently. “My uncle would not have been one of those. I know that he would have said that the happiest days of his life and among the most productive, were those spent in Elmira. It was beyond question that he should return to Elmira in the end.”
The focus today of Mark Twain’s legacy in Elmira is centered through Elmira College, an institution closely connected to the Clemens and Langdon families. Jervis Langdon, the father-in-law of Samuel Clemens was prominent in the founding of the college in 1855 and Olivia Langdon Clemens was an Elmira College alumna, class of 1864. The aforementioned Dr. Ida Langdon served as professor of English Literature there from 1920 through 1942.

The Quarry Farm was donated to the college in 1983 by the Langdon family and is now an integral part of the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies. It serves academically as a residence for visiting scholars, and as a site for periodic lectures, conferences, and seminars pertaining to the literature of Mark Twain. The octagonal Mark Twain Study was donated and moved from the farm to the Elmira College campus in 1952. It may be visited along with the Mark Twain Exhibit in Hamilton Hall
throughout the summer months.

Mark Twain once stated, in a letter to a London correspondent of the New York Journal, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” In a sense his quote is as significant now as it was then. The memory of Mark Twain lives on each day in a place always very dear to him, the Finger Lakes city of Elmira.


by Jim Hughes
Jim Hughes is a retired high school mathematics teacher living in Syracuse. He loves to travel around the Finger Lakes region and upstate New York and is avidly interested in the history of the area.