Garth Woodside Mansion
A Relaxing Respite
Just off of a gravel road outside of Hannibal, Garth Woodside Mansion feels like Jane Austen, but is decidedly Mark Twain. The sweeping landscaping, the century-old oak trees, and the Victorian home invite guests to come in, relax. Perhaps this hominess is why Mark Twain himself stayed at Woodside during his visits back to Hannibal when the home belonged to his childhood friends.
Built in 1871, Woodside was the country estate of John Garth and Helen Kercheval Garth, Twain’s schoolmates at Mrs. Elizabeth Horr’s school. John Garth came from a wealthy tobacco family and had business dealings in tobacco as well as banking, cement, lumber, and telecommunication, among others. Twain later described Helen as “one of the prettiest of the schoolgirls.”
John, Helen, and their two children, John David and Annie, split their time between their town home in Hannibal and this country mansion with Carrera marble fireplaces, chandeliers, a three-floor floating staircase, and a wrap-around porch.
The Garths employed twelve at their town home and thirteen at Woodside. One of the current owners, John Rolsen, jokes that the thirteenth person was perhaps employed to clean the soot off of the medallions on the ceiling above each of the light fixtures in the home.
Today, the home sits on thirty-nine acres, much less than the original square mile that it once occupied, but the approximately eleven-thousand-square-foot home isn’t any less grandiose. Much of its historical character is due to a prudent purchase by the second owner of the home, Oden Rodgers. Oden, newly married at the time, purchased the property in 1911 lock, stock, and barrel, from the rugs on the floor to the bedroom sets to the chair in which Mark Twain sat. This purchase and subsequent purchases of the entire home have provided a unique setting for the current bed and breakfast.
Current owners John and Julie Rolsen bought the bed and breakfast after an extensive countrywide search and after John’s retirement from the Air Force.
“We’ve always loved Missouri, so when this place came up it was perfect,” Julie says. It is in the middle of the country; the area experiences all seasons. And “what we didn’t like about the mansion was easy to change,” Julie says while making a batch of cookies for a guest to take to a friend. “We wanted more food; we wanted chocolate chip cookies.”
With food in mind, an addition of an on-site restaurant for guests opened in January 2005. Woodside Restaurant serves in-house guests, and private parties, including weddings, can reserve the space.
The Rolsens also wanted to open it as a home where people could sit in a chair, as opposed to a museum where folks could observe the contents from behind a velvet rope. “Some threw a fit that we would let people sit in a chair that Twain sat in rather than rope it off,” Julie says. But there it is; have a seat. Visitors to Garth Mansion can sleep in the room Mr. Clemens slept in, too.
By going to seminars, reading books, and interviewing owners of bed and breakfasts, the Rolsens felt they were prepared for a bed-and breakfast business, but they have learned some things from Woodside.
“Never buy a house in a dry year,” Julie says. When they bought the home in 1999, it was a dry year. The basement was dry, and the roof didn’t have any issues. But 2000 was a wet year. The Rolsens discovered that the foundation of the home was crumbling. The wood had rotted to four feet up from the base of the home. The Rolsens have since shored up the foundation by adding concrete footings.
On the upside, one of the most pleasant surprises was the discovery of the Garths’ grandson’s growth chart. It sat hidden and undisturbed on the inside of Mrs. Garth’s closet doorjamb. Not easily discovered, it can only be seen by standing inside the closet and looking outward.
Turning the mansion into an award-winning bed and breakfast (AAA Midwest Traveler named it the Best in the Midwest in 2010) was certainly a task, and Julie feared the community might not be too welcoming to out-of-towners; however, she was pleasantly surprised. “The people here in Hannibal welcomed us with open arms,” she says.
So after stabilizing, renovating, adding a restaurant, and becoming part of the community, the bed and breakfast was ready to receive famous visitors again, and they stop by Garth Mansion when they’re in town. Missouri Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer; Joseph
Mascolo, Days of Our Lives’ “Stefano DiMera;” and John Two-Hawks, a Grammy- and Emmy-nominated American Indian flutist, have stopped for a stay. So have the Oak Ridge Boys—a couple of times. And while Mark Twain hasn’t visited in a while, Julie says, guests say they can smell cigar smoke in the middle of the night … a habit Twain said he had quit a hundred times.
Of all of the comings and goings at Garth, Julie says it’s the goings that she dreads the most—and Sundays are the worst. “That’s like everybody’s leaving,” she says. “It’s like Thanksgiving or Christmas when all of your family leaves at the same time.” But then, new guests arrive, and the inn is full once more.