It is a place, a town to be exact, that Linda and I have driven past numerous times throughout the years. Each time we did, one of us would say, “We should stop there sometime!”
It wasn’t the town that piqued our interest but rather its claim to fame. The town is Marceline, Missouri. Its claim to fame is it’s the place where Walt Disney spent his early childhood. So, as we drove down that familiar road last Monday, we decided it was time to stop.
Walt was born in Chicago but, when he was four, his father purchased a 45-acre farm, made up mostly of fruit orchards, that was located just outside of Marceline, a small community with, according to the sign as you enter town, a population of 2,233. When the Disney family arrived by train in April of 1906, the town located in northeast Missouri was at its peak with a population of nearly 4,000. But, as with many other small, Midwest farm towns, the population has been slowly but steadily declining since 1910.
Four years after arriving, the Disney family moved to Kansas City, but Walt always thought of Marceline as his “hometown” – a place he had strong feelings for and where he first nurtured his love and ability to dream and draw.
Although one wouldn’t guess it by driving the main corridor through Marceline, the “Main Streets” at the Disney parks were modeled after the Main Street in Marceline. Some of the older buildings in town were used as models for the buildings represented along “Main Street” at Disney parks; and the friendly feel and the laidback strolling experienced on “Main Street” in the parks is a reflection of how Walt remembered Marceline.
When you take the time to tour Marceline, you see numerous places where Walt’s touch has been applied.
There’s a flag pole at the Walt Disney Elementary School, which Walt donated more than a half century ago. On the pole is a plaque that reads: “This official Olympic Flagpole was used at Squaw Valley, California, in the pageantry ceremonies of the VIII Olympic Winter Games, held in February 1966.” Walt was the chairman of the pageantry and had the flagpole sent to the school when the winter games had concluded.
There’s a city park named after Walt. There once was a swimming pool named in his honor but, over time, the pool disintegrated and had to be replaced.
There’s an old student desk in which Walt carved his initials when he was in first grade. The desk, now permanently in Marceline, was once on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Perhaps the most interesting place to visit is the old Disney family farm. While you can’t tour the old farmhouse, which still stands today, a few years ago the current owners allowed the community to build a replica of the barn that once stood on the property where Walt spent much of his time.
It was in the old barn that Walt practiced his drawing skills. His father, who thought drawing was a waste of time, didn’t want his son spending a lot of time drawing. So Walt would go out to the barn and draw. His aunt, who disagreed with Walt’s father’s thinking, encouraged Walt by secretly supplying him drawing paper and pens that he would keep in the barn.
The farm is also where Walt’s favorite tree grew. He called the tree his “dream tree” and would climb the tree whenever he wanted to dream.
And of course, there’s a Walt Disney Museum that is all things Walt, or so we’re told. The museum, like a number of places in Marceline, is not open on Mondays.
But we did have a couple of unique experiences while we were walking around the outside of the museum.
Linda and I had just gotten out of our car when a SUV pulled up alongside us and a young boy got out and handled Linda a small map of the town that highlighted all the things in town related to Walt.
“Here, this will help you,” he said. (Apparently, they take tourism seriously in Marceline.)
Then, as we walked around to the side of the museum, we were greeted by a middle-aged man sweeping the brick sidewalk in front of the entrance to the museum.
He welcomed us, began telling us about various Walt-related sights to see in town and started giving us some history about Marceline and Walt’s time in the community, as well as all the times Walt came back for a visit.
After hearing several interesting points, I told the guy that I was impressed with his Disney knowledge. It was at that point, with broom in hand, that Peter Whitehead revealed that when he isn’t sweeping the sidewalk he serves as the Creative Director for the museum.
Peter, who is from Toronto, is a bit of a story himself, and one Walt would have probably enjoyed hearing.
Several years ago, Peter’s son got a job at Epcot and Peter decided to help his son make the drive from Canada to Florida. As they were driving, Peter’s son decided they should drive 400 miles out of the way so they could visit Marceline.
Having a marketing background, while visiting the museum Peter volunteered several ideas as to how the museum might better promote itself. The next thing Peter knew he had been talked into becoming the museum’s Creative Director. A job he says he loves.
Unfortunately for us, because the alarms cannot be turned off on Mondays, we were not able to tour the museum even though we got to talk to its very happy Creative Director.
Although Walt only lived in Marceline for four years, he credited the town with having played a major role in his life.
Years after becoming very successful, a reporter asked Walt what was the most important thing that happened to him throughout his career. Walt responded by saying, “More things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since … or are likely to in the future.”
As you might guess, the town has promoted that quote over and over. It’s on business cards, tee-shirts, signs and numerous other items.
Treating tourists well was a theme we experienced numerous times during our two-hour visit. Linda and I would certainly encourage Disney fans to visit the Marceline. Just don’t go there on a Monday!
— Tom Schmitt is the publisher of The Daily Nonpareil. He can be reached at email@example.com.