Andrews, Gregg. _City of Dust: A Cement Company Town in the Land
of Tom Sawyer_. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press,
1996. Pp. xii + 360. Cloth, 6-1/4" x 9-1/2". Bibliography,
index, illustrations. $42.50. ISBN 0-8262-1074-0.
Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Mary Leah Christmas
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Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1996. This review may not be
published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
The city of Hannibal, Missouri, is built upon, and in places with,
limestone. This limestone has provided a bedrock for industry and a
backdrop for tourism. Just south of Hannibal, the two forces joined to
bring about what is a little-known (or intentionally-forgotten) aspect of
Hannibal's history: the destruction of the little company town of Ilasco
to further the "construction" of the Mark Twain industry.
Hannibal is known almost exclusively these days for Mark Twain, with "The
Unsinkable Molly Brown" a distant second, and other noteworthy citizens to
an even lesser extent. _City of Dust_ by Gregg Andrews, Associate
Professor of History at Southwest Texas State University, is the saga of
those who lived and died but a half mile from the storied cave of Mark
Twain lore, having achieved little or no recognition whatsoever. This book
is a laudable contribution toward correcting that imbalance.
Gregg Andrews is correct in stating that, "Strangers are surprised to learn
that Ilasco...was once a thriving community with perhaps as many as 3,000
residents before World War I." This reviewer was indeed surprised to learn
that Ilasco was ever anything more than it appears today: a cement plant,
a smattering of houses, a small church, and a defunct looking tavern.
Andrews is thorough in documenting the rise and orchestrated fall of the
"cement company town in the land of Tom Sawyer"--a story that might
otherwise have been missed. Born in Monkey Run, a "suburb" of Ilasco, as
he quaintly puts it, Andrews has "deep roots in the community on both
sides" of his family. Drawing from his exhaustive research and sincere
interest in the subject, Andrews paints a bittersweet portrait of the
events of years ago.
Other Ilasco families and their descendants were also willing to help with
the project. The acknowledgments make it evident that many still remember
the Ilasco of old. No doubt the information was given gladly because
Andrews took the time to ask, to sort through the old photographs, and to
listen to their stories from their own lips, instead of merely parroting
official "facts" taken from microfiche of old newspapers.
Andrews asserts that this "wider treatment of the cement industry...has
scarcely been touched by labor historians." This is surely new territory,
and an investigation into an unpleasant aspect of Hannibal's past.
Andrews's treatment of the subject will be mollifying to former residents
and their families, as well as enlightening to scholars and general
readers. _City of Dust_ is a thorough study of the machinations of
immigration, prejudice, industry, and tourism.
Ilasco was a labor camp, turned company town, turned stretch of macadam.
The little community was unceremoniously torn down and paved over, in the
mid-1960s, in the name of what Andrews wryly calls the "commercial
construction of Mark Twain." Instead of "giving back to the community,"
as is popular to say today, the community was taken away. "The extinction
of Ilasco wiped out more than sixty years of community building." Therein
lies the story.
Without hands for building, nothing could have be built in the first place.
The hands that so readily sought work at the Atlas Cement Company in
Ilasco, in the early 1900s, had traveled in great numbers from eastern
Europe. The mostly-immigrant population was willing to work, and wanting
to work, in what would be dirty, dangerous, and thankless jobs.
The cement company was located a mere three miles south of Hannibal, along
the Mississippi River, where repositories of limestone and shale were
extensive. Andrews states, "Industrialization reshaped the image of
Hannibal as a sleepy, Southern river town and encroached upon the terrain
that had provided a playground for [Twain] and his boyhood friends."
LeBaume Cave, on cement company property, "[was] once mistakenly thought to
have been an old entrance to the same cave used by Samuel Clemens." Just
north of the plant, also on cement company property, is "another of Tom
The first cement production began in March 1903. "As Twain noted, the cave
hollow finally yielded riches not in gold but in the form of portland
cement." Ilasco "had taken shape in the shadow of the sprawling plant,
partly on land owned by Atlas and partly on adjacent noncompany land." The
very name "Ilasco" signifies the hold the industry would ultimately have
over its citizens, for it is an acronym for cement's manufacturing
ingredients: Iron, Lime, Aluminum, Silica, Calcium, and Oxygen.
Rumanian, Slovak, Italian, Hungarian, and other Balkan immigrants formed
the bulk of the plant's labor force. Hannibal residents and business
people "valued Ilasco primarily for its economic worth to Hannibal and
reacted to Ilasco with a blend of curiosity, humor, fear, and at times
outright contempt." Many were foreign and did not speak English, and most
were illiterate. The pervading sentiment documented in _City of Dust_ is
that the workers were seen to be expendable.
"For about sixty years, native-born and immigrant residents struggled to
forge a community identity and build a better life in Ilasco," although
"job-related accidents killed or crippled many." These were "people who
fought tooth and nail for dignity and self-respect in an often hostile
environment." Dangerous, filthy, and overcrowded conditions prevailed at
work and at home. Tempers flared, discord rose. "Ilasco's critics did not
acknowledge the connections between the squalid living conditions, poverty,
and the workers' relationship with Atlas." In fact, "they blamed the
victims for their own degradation and poverty."
Atlas increasingly sought control over the workers' lives. After a fire in
Ilasco's business district in 1906, the plans were to rebuild with more
solid, permanent buildings. "As residents busily built a community,
putting up new houses and remodeling old ones, Atlas continued efforts to
hamper the formation of a central community." Pressures continued to
mount, culminating in a strike in 1910 and the town's occupation by the
Missouri National Guard. The strike had broken out the day before Mark
According to Andrews's sources, Twain did not revisit the caves of
childhood memory during his last visit to Hannibal, in 1902. Perhaps he
didn't want to see what had become of the area. In 1906, asked his
feelings about his childhood playground being used to make cement, Twain is
quoted as saying, "...it was not worth while to talk about it at this late
day and, to take it all around, it was a painful subject anyway." It was
Mark Twain--or rather, the marketing of Mark Twain after his death--that
would lead to Ilasco's literal downfall.
The death of Ilasco did not come about through a clash of big-time show-biz
with small-town culture, as the 1985 Mark Twain Sesquicentennial was
portrayed in Ron Powers's _White Town Drowsing_. Instead, the beginning
of the end started with the 1935 Centennial celebration of Mark Twain's
birth. These were not cosmopolitan marketing and PR people challenging the
the small-town status quo. Rather, they were local businessmen pitted
against the interests of mostly-immigrant, blue-collar laborers.
"The forces of commercialization set in motion by the Mark Twain Centennial
celebration in 1935 picked up steam as civic leaders and politicians urged
new, upgraded highways to stimulate travel and tourism after World War II."
The Great River Road project fit the bill, with the system to run along the
Mississippi River from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Initially, the
proposed course of Highway 79 did not run through Ilasco at all, but swung
southwest of Hannibal, the official report noting "that care had been taken
to locate the route close to the river while avoiding towns and villages
where possible." However, "local businessmen, some of whom were directly
linked to the Mark Twain tourist industry, insisted that Highway 79 be
routed due south out of Hannibal past the Mark Twain Cave and cement plant
to Saverton. The only obstacle was a logistical one: Ilasco stood
directly in the way."
Through a series of seemingly unstoppable events, the unthinkable happened.
Ilasco was nearly wiped off the map. First came the lightning-quick
demolishing of their homes, and then the thunder of heavy paving equipment.
"By the spring of 1964...the destruction of Ilasco [allowed] a drastic
reduction of its labor force made possible by an expanded, modernized new
plant that would soon be built." Such maneuvers give new meaning to the
term "corporate downsizing."
Many will find the story of the rise and fall of Ilasco troubling. This
reviewer, having lived in Hannibal for several years, and also having
Eastern European immigrant ancestry, could feel for the workers at Ilasco's
cement plant. In fact, the Atlas holdings in Pennsylvania were closeby to
where this reviewer's immigrant ancestors were working to make new lives
for themselves in the knitting mills in the early 1900s.
The power of the printed word is manifest in _City of Dust_, specifically
the media influence throughout the Ilasco saga. The local papers, in
encouraging location of plant near Hannibal, shamelessly made an advance
withdrawal against the very Twain legacy they would posthumously seek to
shape. In 1901, endorsement for the plant was sought and gotten from
"Elijah Hawkins, the father of Laura Hawkins Frazier [sic]," the model for
Becky Thatcher, encouraging the creation of the portland cement plant at
The subsequent treatment of the workers and Ilasco residents by the local
media was alarming, at least to modern sensibilities. The very media that
had campaigned for Atlas Cement, once it was established took to bashing
and propagandizing against the "foreign colony." This from a town that had
earlier been explored and settled by the French and Spanish! The local
newspapers "at times dehumanized Ilasco's immigrants in references to them
as 'exports of Europe' whose names were 'unspellable and unpronounceable in
an English tone of voice.' In some cases, reporters never bothered to
learn the names of immigrants who appeared in their newspaper accounts
'because of the fact that it makes no particular difference.'"
Today, Hannibal is an unusual dichotomy of tourism and industry, with
sometimes ironic results. For instance, on a promontory in Riverview Park
stands a statue of Mark Twain. Is the author really gazing out at the
river he loved so much, or at the grain-shipping complex on the Illinois
bank? Riverfront silos dominate Hannibal's downtown tourist area as well.
This reviewer further recalls that an expanded facility in Hannibal
recently started producing a nationally-known brand of taco shells. Yes,
the town that so readily ridiculed its immigrants now makes, among other
things, Mexican-style food products! It is Andrews, however, who points
out the ultimate irony: The portland cement plant at Ilasco has in recent
years been foreign owned, and the industry itself is now largely under
Times may have changed, but problems at Ilasco have not. The cultural
problems of old have given way to environmental concerns about emissions,
and Ilasco is still looked at askance. "As this simmering environmental
controversy further suggests, the history of Ilasco and workers at the
cement plant illustrates the overwhelming power of the twentieth-century
alliance between big business and the State."
If one is unaware of its tumultous history, Ilasco is easy to overlook. To
this reviewer's knowledge, tourists are never told about Ilasco. This
reviewer wasn't, either as a tourist or as a resident. That such an
important story goes unmentioned of course may be a bit of face-saving, of
"making nice" for the tourists. But with the current interest in multi-
culturalism, all could learn from the painful history of the ill-fated
cement company town.
Some tourists still manage to find their way to Ilasco. Andrews observes:
"It is here perhaps that some tourists find a slice of American history
infinitely richer and more meaningful than that served up by an endless
number of Hannibal shops, hotels, restaurants, and other commercial
enterprises that bear the name of Mark Twain or his fictional characters."
Andrews does give a nod to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home Foundation, and
director Henry Sweets, for the "impressive restoration of the Mark Twain
Boyhood Home [that] has taken place in recent years. Beyond that, however,
routine commercialization has left Twain, his thought, and his writings
devoid of meaning in most quarters of Hannibal....The appropriation of
Twain by local restaurants, hotels, stores, and even the community mental
health center has created among residents 'a weariness bordering on
contempt' for his very name."
Although this reviewer is familiar with the area of Hannibal, Ilasco, New
London, etc., many readers may not be. The one thing _City of Dust_ lacks
is maps. A map of the area would be a useful addition. Also illustrative
would be the juxtaposition of the old and new of Ilasco--maps or diagrams
showing what she was in her heyday, and what was lost to Highway 79. In
its day, Ilasco had "as many as three thousand people, seven saloons, five
churches, and numerous small businesses....a dynamic town, culturally
unique in Missouri's Little Dixie." Certainly one does not need diagrams
in order to appreciate the history of Ilasco, but such visuals would make
A quiet stretch of road is almost all that remains of a company town that
was, then wasn't--a settlement as contentious then as it is nearly
unrecognizable now. "How quickly brush, trees, dynamite, and bulldozers
can bury the history of a community." How quickly and thoroughly Gregg
Andrews has uncovered it. He has done a lot of research and knows his
subject well, resulting in a work that is both scholarly and heartfelt.
This reviewer does not claim to be a prognosticator, but there are awards
in the future for this book. Of course, Andrews has already been reaping
the rewards of this labor of love, stating that working on the book has
enriched his life. The research also fostered his "personal rediscovery of
Mark Twain," especially the complexities of his thought and his writings as
"How tenaciously we still cling to Ilasco." One can hardly blame them,
after reading this book and gazing at the old photographs. So many
descendants of immigrant families in the United States have photographs and
memories with which to weigh what they left behind against what they have
gained. In the case of Ilasco, "Former residents and workers at the
present time can only express their sense of loss through their private
thoughts, anger, and cultural tenacity as they try to hang on to their past
and perhaps consider alternative strategies of resistance." Such as this
Ilasco today "ain't nothin' but a spot in the road," as one Hannibal
resident termed such places to this reviewer. But at one time, Ilasco was
much more than that, and we have Gregg Andrews to thank for edifying us