CHILO – A 9-year-old girl in a black ball cap approached quietly, but quickly started talking books with the white-haired, white-suited man before her.
Apropos considering the man – living historian Eric Rotsinger – portrays one of the most celebrated authors in American letters, Mark Twain.
Twain served as the featured entertainment for the Clermont County Park District’s second annual Steamboat Days celebration at Chilo Lock 34 Park Aug. 10. Guests of all ages packed the picnic shelter for more than an hour to hear him speak.
Several – like the girl – stuck around longer to pose for pictures and continue chatting.
Twain discussed his life on the river, including tales of traveling the Ohio and how Cincinnati once produced and shipped more barrels of whiskey than the salt pork which earned the town its Porkopolis nickname.
“I myself will take a little nip of whiskey from time to time,” he said. “Mostly for snake bites.”
Twain mentioned travelers of his generation often needed nine months to go down river from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi, south to New Orleans and back. He also said working on and near the river equaled an ideal democracy.
“Nobody cared where you were from, what color you were or how much money you had,” he said. “It was hard work and all people cared about is whether or not you pulled your own weight.”
Twain served up some of his classic one liners – “When I was a younger man, I could remember everything, whether it happened or not” – along with observations of pompous politicians out of touch with the people they served.
“And the guy stood up there on the floor of the Senate and he says, ‘Ohio River? There ain’t no such thing. The darn thing’s dry six months of the year and froze the other six.’ Well, that’s not exactly right, is it? And that doesn’t mean it ain’t a river.”
Comments like the senator’s led Twain to a life in satire.
“We didn’t have much growing up,” he said. “Just newspapers and books. I leaned toward books and satire to make fun of stupid people, make fun of stupid institutions, make fun of and expose … the frailties of humans in a way they could read it and not really get it for a while.”
While Twain entertained outside, the legendary River Men – some of the Park District’s most veteran volunteers – shared their expertise on steamboats and river lore inside. (And manned the grill to cook up some jumbo hot dogs for the guests.)
“It was a beautiful day, a great crowd and a lot of fun, said Mark D. Motz, community relations manager for the Park District. “We are lucky to be able to tell the history of the river right on the river. None of the other museums dealing with river history have our proximity to the water itself. Our location brings that history to life in a tangible way.”