The town of Marceline, Missouri (current population: 2,308), lies in the gently rolling plains of northeast Missouri. It’s a place where the sun rises over golden fields and sunlight peaks through gently bending willow trees. There are no chain stores in its quaint downtown area, just shops, eateries, and a single movie theater. There’s no stoplight. If you’re looking for the glitz and glamour of the big city, this isn’t the place for you. But if you’re like me—a Disney fan looking to walk in Walt’s footsteps—Marceline is nothing less than an essential, and almost spiritual, destination. For Marceline shaped Walt’s vision in countless ways, and it is here that he found a way of life, an essential decency, which he would share with generations through his movies and at Disneyland.
Elias Disney, Walt’s father, arrived here in 1906, settling with his family on a 45-acre farm a few miles north of town. He brought his wife, Flora, oldest sons, Herbert and Ray, and the three youngest Disneys—Roy, Walter, and Ruth. They had come from the rough-and-tumble concrete jungle of Chicago, and Elias was eager to raise his family in America’s heartland, where his offspring could learn the value of living simply, working hard, and being close to the land. And they did.
The five years Walt and his family spent here, from 1906 to 1911, left an indelible imprint on his imagination. He never forgot the time he spent in this turn-of-the-century Eden of fields, lakes, woods, and wildlife, and he often told acquaintances just how much he cherished the time he spent here. “Everything connected with Marceline was a thrill to us, coming as we did from Chicago,” Walt said in his 1938 letter to the Marceline News. “The cows, pigs, chickens gave me a big thrill, and perhaps that’s the reason we use so many barnyard animals in the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony pictures today—who knows?”
You can still see the Disney family farm and home, owned now by Kaye Malins, the charming woman who runs Marceline’s Walt Disney Hometown Museum. Kaye’s infectious smile and thorough knowledge of Walt’s early life make her the perfect host, and I was fortunate enough to be invited into her home for a night of delicious food and magical memories. “My dad and mom first met Walt in 1956 when Walt, Lilly, Roy, and Edna traveled to Marceline to dedicate the Walt Disney Swimming Pool and Park,” she says, carving me another piece of delicious roast beef. “As they were coming in July and we had a new air-conditioned home, it was decided they should stay with my family. My parents were the Disneys’ host on that trip, and Walt and my Dad just clicked. It was during that visit that Walt first voiced his thoughts regarding a Disney project, on the farm.”
Following that visit, Kaye says her father, Rush Johnson, made many trips to California to meet with Walt and Roy regarding what they called the “Marceline Project.” “During that time it was not unusual for me to answer the phone and hear, ‘Kaye, this is Walt, I need to talk to your dad,’ she laughs. During Walt and Roy’s 1956 visit, the brothers were quite moved by their visit to the former Disney farm and home. “One night Walt said to my dad, ‘Rush, do you know who owns my boyhood farm and home?’ My dad said yes, and Walt said, ‘You can buy it cheaper than I can, so buy it.’ So Dad bought it!”
The house has changed much over the years, of course, but Kaye points out some details that haven’t. There’s the chimney in the living room that Walt’s little sister, Ruth, would rest against when she was sick. The front door is the same one Walt opened when he ran out into the golden sun to play in the swaying fields. The living room in front is essentially the same at it was when it was a bedroom for Walt’s older brothers, Herbert and Ray. Little Walter Disney couldn’t have become Walt Disney without the precious years he spent here.
Out back is Walt’s Barn, which was reconstructed in 2001. Guests have left thousands of signatures and remembrances of Walt on its walls, and it’s impossible not to feel moved by these sincerely felt expressions of what Walt Disney meant to their lives. Nearby is the Dreaming Tree, a large cottonwood Walt later remembered as a favorite boyhood spot.
Downtown Marceline’s Kansas Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, has been renamed Main Street, U.S.A. in honor of the city that Walt never forgot and for the inspiration it provided him when he was planning his Main Street for Disneyland. Murray’s department store—the same one where Walt purchased his first pair of overalls—is here, and so is the Uptown Theatre, Marceline’s lone movie house and the place where, in 1956, Walt presented a special showing of The Great Locomotive Chase, his studio’s latest release. Main Street’s one- and two-story brick buildings, the quarried silver stone hotel building, and stores with corner entrances lingered in Walt’s mind, and he would recall this pleasant thoroughfare when he was planning to build his own Main Street many years later.
The Walt Disney Hometown Museum, housed in a train station built in 1913 at the same site of the original depot where Walt and his family first arrived in Marceline in 1906, is another stirring glimpse into Walt’s boyhood. There are dozens of interpretive exhibits, hundreds of personal letters written between family members, artifacts from Disney family members, even a Midget Autopia car. (When the Midget Autopia attraction was removed from Disneyland, Walt gave it to Marceline, where it was installed in Walt Disney Municipal Park and ran from 1966 to 1977.)
“Following the death of Walt’s sister, Ruth Disney Beecher, her only son, Ted, and his wife, Carolyn, called me and said, ‘Mom wants her stuff in Marceline,’” Kaye recalls. “‘You should come out and pick it up.’ Carolyn asked that I read all of Ruth journals. Per Ruth’s instructions, Ted and Carolyn requested that we tell the story of Ruth’s family, the Disney family in Marceline. And that’s what we do at the Hometown Museum.”
Walt would return to Marceline many times during the course of his life, and it is said that whenever he rode the train back east from California, he would rouse his fellow travelers as they whisked past Marceline and point the town out to them. He once wrote, “More things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since or are likely to in the future.”
“Walt Disney experienced all of childhood firsts in Marceline, and a feeling of community that he would remember always,” Kaye says. “Walt’s Marceline memories would provide the basis for his view of what life in America should be.”
In the summer of 1911, Walter Disney’s time in Marceline came to an end. Elias had purchased a newspaper route in Kansas City, and the family boarded the Santa Fe train to Kansas City. It’s easy to imagine the young boy, staring out the window as the train surged slowly to life, not wanting to say goodbye to Marceline.
And in some ways, he never did.
By D23′s Max Lark