TAHOE CITY, Calif. — The Hatfieds and the McCoys. Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier. Madonna-Elton John. The duels are well documented. At Lake Tahoe, another rivalry has reached a crescendo, and in a stirring debate one thing is certain: Mark Twain would have loved it.In a silver and golden state showdown that has been in the making for years, a pair of history authors will debate where Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, started an infamous fire during his first visit to Lake Tahoe.The principals are Tahoma, Calif., resident David Antonucci, who has a slideshow presentation which he says proves the campsite Twain described in two chapters of the novel “Roughing It” was near Stateline Point in California; and Carson City, Nev., resident Robert Stewart, who has historic documents which he says prove the campsite and fire were in a cove near Thunderbird Point on Tahoe’s Nevada side.The caveat for those who attend the “The Mark Twain Tahoe Mystery Public Festivity” June 21 at Tahoe City’s Gatekeeper’s museum: The animosity is real. While they won’t say so publicly, these guys don’t care for one another.“It’s become almost a feud,” said McAvoy Layne, a Mark Twain impersonator for 24 years.“I think I can keep my temper,” said Stewart, who called Antonucci “intransigent” in a previous Lake Tahoe Action article.“I hope it stays lighthearted and people learn something,” a confident Antonucci said. “A lot of people without a dog in the fight have come down on my side.”The first public Stewart-Antonucci fracas occurred September 2010 at the Thunderbird Lodge south of Incline Village. The Nevada Board of Geographic Names voted to designate the area, which was supported by Stewart, Layne and another Nevada historian, Larry Schmidt, who discovered what they said was the flat rock Clemens described as a faro table in “Roughing It.”At the meeting, Antonucci argued there are flat rocks all around the lake and Clemens camped on the California side.“We had it out in front of the Nevada Board of Geographic Names. He kept interrupting me,” Antonucci said of Stewart. “I finally asked, ‘Can I be allowed to talk and answer questions at the end?’”The Nevada recommendation was sent to Washington, D.C., where approval for a monument on the U.S. Forest Service land appeared certain, according to Stewart and Layne, who at the time was proprietor of the Mark Twain Cultural Center in Incline Village.“Sam Clemens Cove just rolls off the tongue,” a jubilant Stewart, who came up with the name, told Action after the meeting. “Samuel Langhorne Clemens Cove? Nah, that’s too formal.”But on May 12, 2011, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names on a 5-4 vote denied Nevada’s recommendation.The federal board cited Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit’s forest supervisor’s disapproval of the Clemens Cove designation because Twain carelessly started a fire on the land.A retired chief of Nevada public affairs, Stewart was devastated, but nevertheless glib, saying “We were shot down by Smokey Bear.”Antonucci remained contrary, saying, “That’s only half the story.”“I have a federal letter from May 12, 2011,” he said. “It did not approve because of the negative recommendation from the U.S. Forest Service and the reasonable doubt about the location. Most people forget the second part. The board based it on two reasons.”Layne wanted to host a debate at the Twain Center.“I was always ready to go any time, any place,” Antonucci said.The executive director of the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society, Marguerite Sprague, convinced Stewart to meet publicly with Antonucci.“She could persuade a fish to get out and take a walk with her,” Layne said. “So she was able to do what I couldn’t.”Layne said the feud includes a California vs. Nevada element.“I said to David, ‘Let’s have a Mark Twain Cove in California and one in Nevada — one for each. He’s not buying into it. Both David and Bob have a little bit of statehood built into their arguments.”Both have done a large amount of research on Mark Twain. Last year Antonucci published “Fairest Picture — Mark Twain at Lake Tahoe.” He has a book signing at 1 p.m. Saturday at Sundance Books and Music in Reno. Stewart is working on a book about the first 13 months Clemens spent in Nevada. “It’s about the people he was around and who they were and what they did.”While Stewart and Antonucci are passionate about their views, both anticipate a civil discussion June 21.“It’s not like a presidential debate,” Antonucci said. “We won’t be making any $10,000 bets.”
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