Harmon’s Histories: About that August when Mark Twain came to visit

Aboard the coach from the train station to the Florence Hotel in Missoula, he observed a man riding a bicycle and leading a horse.

He suggested that his companion snap a photo of the scene, offering up the caption: “There’s Missoula up to date.”

It was the afternoon of August 5, 1895. The man was Samuel Langhorne Clemens (aka, Mark Twain). The photo enthusiast and companion was his business agent, Major James B. Pond.

Clemens, penniless and in ill health, was on the first leg of a two-year international lecture tour to generate money to repay his creditors. Accompanying Clemens were his wife and daughter, Clara, Major Pond and his wife.

The Missoula stop was one of five in Montana, one of 23 performances in 22 cities from Cleveland to Vancouver, British Columbia.

Pond kept a journal of the trip across the continent intending later to write a book. Throughout the journal, he was consistent in referring to Clemens as “Twain.”

On Wednesday, July 31, 1895, the tour made its first Montana stop at Great Falls, where Pond wrote, “The Falls could supply power enough for all the machinery west of Chicago, with some to spare.”

As he and Twain walked about town, Pond took a number of photos in a Norwegian shanty neighborhood where children were playing with kittens. He later wrote, “Few know Mark’s great love for cats, as well as for every living creature.”

On Thursday, August 1, Twain performed in Butte, where he had an “off night.” Pond was heartbroken for his friend.

The business agent was out of sorts too, complaining of “extortions from porters, baggage men and bellboys.” He said they “surpass anything I know of. The smallest money is two bits (25 cents) here – absurd!”

Twain’s second performance in Butte, the following night, was far better. Pond wrote, “I found myself listening … enjoying every word. It actually seemed as if I had never known him to be quite so good. He was great. The house was full and very responsive.”

On Friday, August 2, 1895, the pair boarded a trolley to the train station, but within a few blocks it broke down.

“We tried to get a grocery wagon,” Pond recalled, “but the mean owner refused to take us a quarter of a mile to the depot for less than ten dollars. I told him to go to —-. I saw another grocery wagon near by and told its owner I would pay any price to reach that train.

“Mark and I mounted the seat with him. He laid the lash on his pair of broncos, and I think quicker time was never made to that depot. We reached the train just as the conductor shouted ‘All aboard!’ The driver charged me a dollar, but I handed him two.”

From Anaconda, it was on to Helena, where Pond lamented, “People did not care for lectures. They all liked Mark and enjoyed meeting him, but there was no public enthusiasm for the man that has made the early history of that mining country romantic and famous all over the world.”

Twain took the next day off, “laying around on the floor of his room all day reading and writing in his notebook and smoking.”

On Monday, August 5, 1895, the group headed to the depot to catch the train to Missoula, when they spotted Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher, an old acquaintance, and posed for a photograph.

At the Garden City, the commandant from Fort Missoula invited them all to dine with him. The ladies accepted, but Twain was tired and went to bed.

That night’s lecture at the Bennett Opera House drew praise from the local newspaper reviewer: “From the moment Mark Twain appeared before the footlights until the closing scene, the most respectful and highly appreciative attention was shown by the assemblage.”

Twain recalled youthful days and lessons learned when he stole a watermelon, only to find it was still green. He reflected that a “right-minded boy” would promptly return the stolen property to its owner. So he did.

“I told him he ought to be ashamed of himself going around working off green watermelons in that way on people who had confidence in him … and I made him give me a ripe one. Ever since that day I never stole another one,” long pause, “like that.”

Major Pond wrote, “After the lecture, the meeting took the form of a social reception, and it was midnight before it broke up. The day has been one of delight to all of us.”

Twain and his companions accepted an invitation to lunch the next day at Fort Missoula, before their departure to Spokane.

Twain rose early, deciding to leisurely walk out to the fort. The rest of the party waited for transportation (two army ambulances) sent by the commandant.

As the ambulances headed west, the party spotted a man – quite a distance away – signaling them. It was Twain.

According to Pond’s journal, Twain had “taken the wrong road, and after walking five or six miles on it, discovered his mistake, and was counter-marching when he saw our ambulance and ran across lots to meet us. He was tired – too tired to express disgust – and sat quietly inside the ambulance until we drove up to headquarters.”

Pond described the band that greeted them as “one of the finest military bands in America,” and said they “witnessed some fine drilling of the soldiers, and learned that for this kind of service the colored soldiers were more subordinate and submissive to rigid drill and discipline than white men, and that there were very few desertions from among them.”

At 2:30 that afternoon, the Twain entourage boarded the westbound Northern Pacific, departing Missoula for Spokane.

“Missoula feels honored by the courtesy of a visit from such a distinguished gentleman,” wrote the Missoulian, “and the people hope that he will meet with the success which his splendid intellectual ability and pleasant personality merits.”

By the end of his “Around the World” tour the next year, Twain had cleared his debt.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.