The town where dreams were born

We made a fascinating stop today on the way to St. Joseph, Missouri. This was the town of Marceline, which has the distinction of likely affecting all of our lives, at some point and in some way.

Marceline was the town that a family named Disney moved to in 1906 from Chicago, hoping for a new and better life as farmers. While that dream did not come to fruition, the dreams that young Walt created in his impressionable four years there up to age ten can be credited with so much of what we identify as “Disney,” even to “Main Street, USA” in both parks, which is modeled on Marceline. A city kid, Walt was enthralled with farm animals and those in the wild, and with the natural world all around him. He was surrounded by people who were friendly and generous, just because they were neighbors. And he had the time and space to let his imagination run free.

As you know, we have been to many birthplaces and childhood homes on our trips. But what is rare is the celebrity or hero or leader who returns the favor to a location that was pivotal in his life. Walt Disney never forgot Marceline. And he did more than just remember it fondly. He asked to come to the dedication of the public swimming pool named in his honor, along with his brother Roy and their wives. He had his staff create wonderful and unique Disney murals for the new school. He donated a Disney ride and premiered a movie here.

When invited, he came. And he came back before he was invited, before he was quite as famous as he became, just to see the place. He would wake everyone up at night on the train passing through Marceline from Chicago to California, telling them that this was his home town! He found his school desk, where he had carved his initials, which were not appreciated at the time.  The original desk is here – you may have seen a reproduction at DisneyWorld. Both parks pay homage to Marceline, and it seems that Main Street USA is just chock-full of references to his Marceline past. And he made friends all over again in this small town, after he had achieved world-wide fame.

The museum is in the old train station, past which over 70 trains a day scream by.  Trust me – you do notice them. They no longer stop, but the train station is lovingly preserved, and serves a great memorial to this town’s place in Walt Disney’s heart and his imagination. (He adored trains, and this is where he got to watch and ride them.)There was too much to see for the time we had to spend, but this is definitely the place where the back story to Walt Disney can be found.

All of that would have made this a very special stop.  But there’s more.

Two lovely ladies were volunteering at the museum this morning. We were given our tour by Inez, who – we suddenly realized – was far more than your average well-informed docent. The icing on our cake was the fact that we were talking to a lady who had met Walt many times as an adult when he came to town. But, there’s still more…

When Walt agreed to come in 1956, there was a bit of consternation in the town. Where would the Disneys stay? The only hotel was a bit run-down, and just wouldn’t do. But Mr. and Mrs. Rush Johnson had just built a new house with the only central air-conditioning in Marceline. They stepped up as hosts to the Disneys and the rest is Johnson family history. Their young daughter confided to Walt that her all-pink room was the best bedroom in the house, and that he really ought to stay there. And so he did.

And would you believe our guide was the very Mrs. Johnson who invited the Disneys in as guests, and had them stay in her family’s life as a friend? Well, that send shivers down my spine. What a special treat for us – which is just more of the Disney legacy being passed along. Also shown is a picture of her husband with Walt.  That spunky daughter is now the curator of this museum. Of course she is!

We also took a quick drive through the town, which has every right to call itself Main Street USA. We should all have been as lucky as Walt to grow up in such a charming place.

Just a bit outside of town is what was the Disney farm – now in the Johnson family’s care. There is something special to see here, and it was something that Walt returned to several times.  He called it his “Dreaming Tree” – a big old cottonwood that he would lie under as a child and imagine all kinds of stories and fantasies.  As an adult, he often returned to spend time alone there. The tree died, but you can still see the romance in the part of the trunk that remains, along with the old barn that survives to this day. And if you have ever seen The Tree of Life in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, you are seeing the tree that Disney Imagineers created after studying the Dreaming Tree.

Here is what he had to say about his life in Marceline.

Thanks, Walt, for everything.  And thanks, little Marceline, for being his inspiration.

Then it was off to the big city, St. Joseph, Missouri.  My great-grandfather used to drive cattle here from Nebraska, and this was quite the boom town in its day. It’s still quite something, but we have mostly limited our exposure to a very impressive museum – The Patee House Museum and the home of the Pony Express. Built in 1858 as a luxury hotel, it served as the Pony Express headquarters from 1860 to 1861.  During the Civil War, the Union Army occupied the building, using it as their Provost Marshal’s office and holding war trials in the ballroom.


You can see much of the original hotel, and still admire the Pony Express office.

And then there is the rest of the museum. That, my friends, is where I started going a bit crazy. Far too many things started mashing up at Patee House. Abe Lincoln and Mark Twain passed through – as did John Wilkes Booth. And then there was a ball of twine that was in Guinness before our ball of twine in Minnesota won the crown. Oh, and did you know that Jane Wyman was from here – the movie star who married Ronnie Reagan? And would you believe that Walter Cronkite’s father and grandfather were dentists here in St. Joe, his birthplace? And that while Jesse James was being murdered up the street, Oscar Wilde was staying in the hotel and wondering what all the commotion was about? I tell you, it was like reading Ragtime and marveling at how all these characters got in this one place! It was just all too too much.  Helen Keller hasn’t shown up as of this writing, or Buddy Holly, but we haven’t left town yet…

Oh, and by the way? Jesse James’s house was right around the corner, so we got to tour the room where he got shot by one of his gang for the reward money. He was standing on a chair,straightening the sampler and BAM! For real. End of Jesse James.  And poor Oscar Wilde is minding his own business at the hotel, wondering what on earth is going on.


5 thoughts on “The town where dreams were born

    1. St. Joe was the jumping-off point for the West in the mid-1800’s, which was then called the Oregon Territory. Last place to stock up and enjoy the offerings of civilization before the big push on to the prairie and the mountains, hence its popularity. The railroad went that far, and of course the Pony Express started there, so that was a town that had everything going for it.

  1. Did I ever tell you that Jesse James is fourth cousin three times removed to Tom? It was a hushed rumor in his family so I did a genealogy search and up popped Jesse.

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