Hannibal, Mo. He was "ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had."
That goodhearted boy described by Mark Twain was Tom Blankenship, a childhood friend of young Samuel Clemens -- best known as Twain -- and a model for one of the most significant characters in American literary history, Huckleberry Finn.
Now, a replica of the Blankenship family's ramshackle home is being reconstructed in this Mississippi River town 100 miles north of St. Louis. It's expected to open sometime late this year.
The building will be known as "Huck Finn House," and unlike the picket fence in front of the Clemens family home, there's no whitewashing of the fact that the Blankenship family was poor, on the low end of Hannibal's society at the time.
The Huck Finn House will be part of a new effort to compare and contrast the reality of Hannibal in the mid-1800s and the fiction of Twain's writings. The Mark Twain Museum has adopted a storytelling format that walks visitors through Twain's childhood and then through the literature he created based on that childhood.
"Sort of Sam Clemens at one end of the street, Mark Twain at the other," curator Henry Sweets said.
Twain was born in 1835 in nearby Florida, Mo., but his family moved to Hill Street in Hannibal, little more than a stone's throw from the river, when he was 4. He left when he was 17.
It was here that Clemens met the people who became fodder for characters in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "Life on the Mississippi" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
Perhaps most notable among them was Blankenship, a boy from a poor family, possibly squatters. Sweets has been unable to find any evidence the Blankenships owned property. He believes they moved around, rented, maybe even took over property they didn't own.
Records from the mid-1800s are sketchy, but word of mouth over the years indicated the Blankenships lived for a time in a two-room cabin on North Street. The house was demolished in 1911, but old photos are aiding in duplicating it.
There was a hitch: A story handed down from a 13-year-old boy who helped tear down the home indicated it was made of logs covered by siding. Just as construction was to begin, a photo was discovered showing conclusively it was a frame home.
Construction was delayed as plans were redesigned to make sure the building is historically accurate. The cost of the privately-funded project was not disclosed.
Sweets said Twain clearly did not base Huck strictly on Blankenship but on a combination of childhood friends and his own imagination. For example, while Huck was alone except for his abusive father, Blankenship had a mother, father and siblings.
Still, Twain in his own autobiography wrote that, "in Huckleberry Finn, I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was."
"His liberties were totally unrestricted," Twain wrote. "He was the only really independent person -- boy or man -- in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us."
The Huck Finn House, focusing on a poor family's life along the Mississippi, will provide "an opportunity to look at another level of society from that time," Sweets said.