Photographer Vernon Merritt ventured to Hannibal, Missouri, where Mark Twain had spent his youth, and chronicled how 12-year-old Patrick Powell whiled away the days in this town by the Mississippi River, and suggested that ecological degradation would soon make such pastimes impossible.
“Boyhood hasn’t changed much in Hannibal since Mark Twain’s time, but the river has,’ the story began, striking its theme. “Behind Pat’s house runs a small branch, but it’s too polluted for fishing or swimming.”
In the story Powell comments several times about how modern life is intruding on his paradise, and it wasn’t just the pollution in the river. When riding his horse or playing marbles in Huckleberry Park, Powell could smell the nearby concrete plant.
But however much modern life was encroaching on his paradise, the photos still paint the picture of a dream summer. Powell and his friends swung on tires and splashed in the river. Sometimes they laid down in the stream and let the water rush over them. They rode not only horses but also Sting-Ray bicycles. They played baseball in addition to marbles. It all looks pretty sweet.
The most disturbing detail is actually something Powell and his friends did by choice: they smoked cigarettes which is, to put it briefly, bad. If this story about Powell was a Netflix show, the cigarette smoking would earn it a warning label. (In the story Powell claimed to not even smoking, and shunted the blame for it to his older brother). But setting aside the presence of the cancer sticks, a half-century down the road, Powell’s boyhood in fact looks like a dream.
The story observed that Hannibal’s population was shrinking. Over the course of the 1960s it had dropped about 12 percent, to 18,500. The gradual erosion has continued since then, with Hannibal’s contemporary population slipping toward 17,000.
“His mother says there is no future for the family in Hannibal, but Pat can’t imagine living in any other place,” the LIFE story reported. “He says he’d feel too cooped up in the city.”
Viewing these photos, Powell’s reluctance to leave Hannibal was entirely understandable.
Patrick Powell attempted what he and his friends called a “goofy gainer” off of a rope swing in Hannibal, Mo. 1970.
Powell found this pinch bug under a railroad tie and tried to keep him as a pet. “He lived a long time, but I fed him a worm and the next day he died,” Powell told LIFE in 1970. “I guess the worm had DDT in him.”
Patrick Powell’s pastimes included smoking, which he said he didn’t like but had tried at the urging of his older brother. “Mom knows we did it but she just laughed when she found it,” Patrick told LIFE in 1970.
Powell said he disliked going to downtown Hannibal “because I hate the mean snotty kids there that throw bubblegum on the sidewalks so it sticks to your feet, and you can’t go into the store until you pick it off.”