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Rural Missouri Magazine

Marceline's Favorite Son
A small town honors hometown boy Walt Disney

by Bob McEowen

Walt Disney, center, and his brother Roy, at right, returned to Marceline in 1956.

The idea began with a late night conversation between two men who had just met.

Walt Disney, creator of Mickey Mouse and the entire Disney empire, was visiting his boyhood hometown of Marceline for the dedication of a park and swimming pool named in his honor. The town fathers didn't want their favorite son to stay in a hotel in nearby Brookfield so they asked local businesman Rush Johnson if he would host Disney at his home, one of only three in Marceline that had central air conditioning in 1956.

"After everything was over he and I retired to our den," Johnson recalls of his first meeting with Disney about something that would become known as The Marceline Project. "First thing he asked me was 'Rush, who owns the farm?' I told him and he said, 'You can buy it cheaper than I can. Buy it.'"

And so began a business relationship that lasted until Disney's death 10 years later. With Johnson's help Disney bought his father's old Marceline farm and the land adjacent to it.

The family farm was the inspiration for many of Disney's early cartoons and he wanted to share his experiences with others. Long before others saw the need Disney imagined a living history farm where young and old could relive a simpler time and discover their roots.

"He was such a visionary," says Kaye Malins, Johnson's daughter and the current resident of Disney's childhood home. "He said there will come a time when a child will not know what an acre of land is. There will come a time when a child will not know what happens when you put a seed in the ground. We're there now."

Two "Disney Ambassadors" display a Main Street USA sign during a tour of Marceline. The high school students and volunteer tour guides explain that Marceline's downtown provided the inspiration for Main Street USA at Walt Disney's theme parks.

Disney's idea for a park recreating his family's farm faded with his death in 1966. Through the years, Marceline has attracted thousands of visitors but little has been done to adequately honor its most famous citizen — until now.

Beginning with a new museum dedicated to Disney and the Sante Fe Railroad that was so dear to him, the north-central Missouri town is staking its future on its Disney past.

While the living history farm is still a dream, the museum is well on its way and will house temporary exhibits in time for a celebration of Walt Disney's 100th birthday, Sept. 21-23. (See "A party for Walt".)

The three-day event is the first of many projects locals say will someday fulfill Disney's dream for Marceline.

"The birthday party will just be the kick-off for what we hope will happen in Marceline," says Malins, one of many volunteers working on the celebration. "The long-term plan is to recreate what Walt wanted to do — a turn-of-the-century working farm."

Disney spent just five years in Marceline but they were formative years. The family moved to Missouri in 1906, when Walt was just 5. He later said, "More things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since, or are likely to in the future."

It was here that Disney began to draw and even sold his first artwork, a picture of a Morgan horse that earned the young artist a nickel from the horse's owner. Disney's childhood experiences — riding a sow through the barnyard and getting dumped in the mud, being chased by a bull and other boyhood adventures — found their way into his cartoons.

Even the design of Disneyland's Main Street USA is based on downtown Marceline.

Disney discovers the initials he carved in his grade school desk. This month, the town honors its favorite son during a 100th birthday celebration.

Despite Disney's love for Marceline it would be 46 years before he would come home. Although locals tell tales of clandestine visits, Disney's first known return was the 1956 park dedication. Later that year he and his brother and business partner, Roy, held the Midwest premiere of his movie "The Great Locomotive Chase" at Marceline's Uptown Theater.

"Walt and Roy stood outside and greeted every child that went into the theater," recalls Malins, who attended the premiere as a child. "When Walt took the stage that day he said, 'You children are lucky to live in Marceline. My best memories are the years I spent here.'"

In 1960, Disney visited again for the dedication of Walt Disney Elementary School. Not only did Disney cancel an overseas trip in order to attend, he also had his studio create one-of-a-kind murals which adorn the school's lobby and gym to this day.

When Disneyland retired its Autopia kiddie-car ride Disney planned to attend the ceremony marking the ride's new home in Marceline's Walt Disney Park. At the last minute he cancelled, complaining of a cold he could not shake. The cold turned out to be cancer and Disney died within the year.

Today thousands of tourists travel to Marceline to see "where the magic began." They arrive in tour buses or straggle into town alone to visit the important places of Disney's youth and the spots he visited during his homecomings. Townspeople — primarily schoolchildren trained as "Disney Ambassadors" — provide guided tours or visitors may pick up a map and take a walking tour on their own.

Local residents have purchased Marceline's Sante Fe Railroad depot and are restoring the building which will house a museum honoring one-time Marceline resident Walt Disney.

Many of the visitors travel from overseas. Recently, Marceline has hosted travel writers from Europe and several Japanese film crews. The first tickets to the birthday celebration sold on the Internet went to Tokyo.

It is these Disney faithful that Marceline hopes to attract not only to the 100th birthday celebration but to the museum and some day the living history farm Disney envisioned.

"Almost on a weekly basis people come in making a pilgrimage to Mecca," says birthday party chairman Richard Switzer. "All we're doing is giving them more things to do when they arrive."

Clearly the most significant new attraction will be the museum, the first anywhere to honor Disney. Rush Johnson and a few friends — "former Marceliners who've done well elsewhere," he says — bought the old two-story Sante Fe depot. Local donations, state and federal grants and Disney Corp. stock donated by Walt's descendents are paying for a total restoration of the building. The Disney family is also providing many of the artifacts that will fill the museum.

A feasibility study funded by the state of Missouri and USDA found the museum will prove to be a major tourism draw in northern Missouri — especially once Highway 36 is expanded to four lanes across the state.

Misato Ochi, a Japanese television personality, takes photos from a tour bus during a visit to Marceline. The small north-central Missouri town attracts thousands of visitors each year. Tourists, many of them from foreign countries, come to trace Walt Disney's roots. Ochi was in town filming segments for a Japanese television show.

"They came up with the figures that we'd hit 210,000 people a year. We have no reason to doubt their estimates," Johnson says.

"Let's say that's too optimistic. Let's cut that down to 50,000. Wouldn't that make a huge difference to Marceline?" asks Switzer. "If we had 50,000 people come in we're going to have more retail business on Main Street. We're going to have people staying in the hotels in Brookfield and Macon."

And that, at least as much as honoring the town's favorite son, is reason enough for Marceline to finally celebrate Disney in a big way. With several major industries Marceline fares better than most small towns, but conditions could be better.

Disney-related tourism — beginning with the 100th birthday celebration in September — may make the difference.

"We've seen the decline like any small town," Switzer says. "Bringing people to Marceline during this three-day celebration is really the initial step in bringing more tourism to north Missouri."

Marceline is preparing for 50,000 visitors during the Disney birthday. The museum will soon be a reality. Discussions with state tourism and agriculture officials have already begun with an eye toward a living history farm.

So while it might seem an insurmountable task to finally realize Walt Disney's dream of the Marceline Project nearly four decades after his death, those who remember him are determined to make it a reality.

"I don't think there's any doubt about it. There's enough of us that are going to work hard enough to see that it happens," Johnson says. "What we're doing, Walt would want that achieved."

For more information, write the Marceline Disney 100th Birthday office, 207 North Main Street USA Marceline, MO 64658; phone (660) 376-WALT or email: 100birthday@shighway.com

 

 

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