2024 Quarry Farm Fireplace Creative Writing Contest

Mark Twain on the Quarry Farm Porch

The Center for Mark Twain Studies encourages local elementary school teachers to discuss Mark Twain’s legacy in Elmira and the Southern Tier region of New York State.  2nd grade to 6th grade students from local schools are encouraged take part in this writing contest and submit their creative writing stories.  A “local school” is defined as being no more than 25 miles away from Quarry Farm.  Quarry Farm is the home where Mark Twain lived for over twenty consecutive summers and is the place where Twain penned The Adventures of Tom SawyerAdventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and many other important texts. The deadline for the stories is April 26, 2024.  Three winners from three different schools will be chosen by the CMTS Staff.  

All the fireplace tiles and a full virtual tour of Quarry Farm can be found at MarkTwainStudies.org.  The virtual tour can be found by clicking here.  The fireplace tiles can be found by clicking here.

Submit all your stories to the Center for Mark Twain Studies, Elmira College, 1 Park Place, Elmira, NY 14901

The Writing Assignment and Writing Prompt

Susan Crane on the Quarry Farm Porch

It was July of 1886 and my parents and I had been invited to join Susan Crane and her husband Theodore for dessert at Quarry Farm, their home overlooking the city of Elmira, New York, the Chemung  River Valley and the hills beyond.  As our carriage made its way up East Hill, we passed the Elmira Water Cure Sanitarium and directly across from it the home of the Reverend Thomas Beecher and his wife Julia.  Our drive up to Quarry Farm was filled with great anticipation for not only would we be spending the evening with the Cranes but also with Susan Crane’s sister Olivia, Olivia’s three daughters and her most famous husband, Mark Twain.  As our carriage stopped at the side of the big front porch, I spied out on the lawn a series of little pegs.  My parents had told me about the lawn game that Mark Twain had devised to teach his children English history and, too, about Ellerslie, the playhouse that Aunt Susie Crane had recently had built for her nieces.  I had heard that the playhouse had it’s own fireplace!

Quarry Farm Parlor and Fireplace

My thoughts were quickly interrupted by the welcoming greetings of the Susan Crane who appeared on the Quarry Farm porch, followed by Olivia, her daughters and several cats.  But, Mark Twain was nowhere to be seen!  As we were led into the cozy home, I saw the dining room to my left and on the large table I noticed that a plentiful and lovely dessert had been laid out. And then, as my eyes wandered across the hall into the parlor, I noticed a man with a big bushy mustache, smoking a cigar.  This was Mark Twain himself! He was sitting in front of a beautifully tiled fireplace, a tortoise-shell cat curled up on his lap.  As he rose from his chair, I gathered  the courage to ask the name of his cat and he replied that his name was “Sour-Mash.” Mark Twain then asked us to gather around the fireplace with him for he had a creative task for us.  This evening, instead of reading from the pages that he had written during the day, he invited us to choose a favorite tile that decorated the hearth and then to imagine a story to accompany the tile.  I noticed that there were little scenes of animals on the tiles and I was quickly engrossed by several of the scenes.  He told us that one of the best storytellers that ever lived was a person from a long time ago named Aesop and that the scenes around the fireplace were all about his stories. Mark Twain explained to us the various details that must accompany our new story and told us that we would all share our stories after dessert.  He chuckled and left us with our thoughts as we moved back into the dining room for a splendid dessert that had been prepared by Mary Ann Cord, their cook.

Here are the details that Mark Twain instructed us to consider when creating our stories.  Each storyteller should do the following:

1.  Look at the fireplace in the Quarry Farm Virtual Tour and then select one of the tiles that captures your attention.  A Virtual Tour of Quarry Farm and the Parlor can be found here.  High-definition images of each fireplace tile can be found here.

2.  Understand that the tiles illustrate fables written by the Ancient Greek storyteller Aesop whose stories are illustrated in these tiles. Almost all of Aesop’s fables contain animals who speak as humans and illustrate a moral lesson.

3.  Write your own fable, different from Aesop’s original, based on the tile that you have chosen.

4.  The narrative should include the following:

         A.  A description of what is happening in the scene.

         B.  A description of the setting (time of day, season, landscape).

         C.  A description of the relationship of the characters.  Are they strangers?  Do they know each other?

         D.  A description of what the characters are saying or feeling.

         E.  A statement of the problem or dilemma that the characters are discussing in your story.

         F.   A moral or a statement that sums up the lesson in the story

         G.  A title for your story.

When we had finished our dessert and were summoned back into the parlor, Mark Twain asked each of us to tell our story.  I was a bit timid because his daughters, Suzy, Clara and Jean, had done this many times and I was quite new at this.  But we all took our turns and shared the stories that we had created and Mark Twain seemed happy with all of our efforts…even mine!  This was an evening that I will always remember!!

For Teachers and School Administrators

CMTS has made this assignment fit neatly into the New York and Pennsylvania Common Core Standards.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

#3    Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

Grade 5: Text Types and Purposes:

  • Orient the reader by establishing a situation and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally.
  • Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, description, and pacing, to develop experiences and events or show the responses of characters to situations.
  • Use a variety of transitional words, phrases, and clauses to manage the sequence of events.
  • Use concrete words and phrases and sensory details to convey experiences and events precisely.
  • Provide a conclusion that follows from the narrated experiences or events  

While this assignment demonstrates the 5th grade Standards, these standards can apply to the 2nd trough 6th grade levels. For example the 2nd grade Standard reads: Write narratives in which they recount a well- elaborated event or short sequence of events, include details to describe actions, thoughts, and feelings, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide a sense of closure.

Many thanks to Elmira College alumna, Mary “Cookie” Shultz ‘65, and the Elmira College Education Department for their help with this project.

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