For as long as I can remember I’ve had a dream of visiting the boyhood hometown of my personal American hero, Walt Disney. I was sure it was one of those things that would always just be a thought, an idea, something to talk about but never really follow through on. I had read extensively on the small town, home to only just over 2,000 people as of 2014, and fell in love with their embrace of the man who was so touched by the place that he carried it with him for the rest of his life.
About a year ago, some friends and I began planning a road trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma for an event that gets put on every year there and I realized that it wouldn’t take us too far out of our way to stop off in the quiet little town and check it out for a day.
For those who don’t know, Walt and his family moved from Chicago to Marceline, Missouri in April of 1906, when Walt was just four years old. While the family only stayed in Marceline for four years, moving to Kansas City after, Marceline had a large impact on Walt, who considered it his hometown. Walt was quoted in the Marceline News in 1938 as saying, “To tell the truth more things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since—or are likely to in the future.”
This can be seen whenever you walk into any Disney Park around the world. That view of Main Street USA that we all know and love? That was modeled after Marceline, Missouri. Walt was so impressed upon and touched by this little town he only spent four years of his life in that he carried that into his work for the rest of his life.
There is a popular story about Walt Disney as a child, drawing all over his family home in tar. He thought that the drawings would wash off, little did he know, that wouldn’t be the case. Needless to say, his parents weren’t all too happy with him when they realized what he had done, but it shows that even as a child, Walt’s creative mind was strong.
The home the Disney family lived in for most of their time in Marceline is still there. It looks a little different today than it did in the early 1900’s and it is now a private residence, but it still stands in the same place it did then. For me, it was an experience to stand in front of the place where, as just a child, a man who went on to do such great things spent his days.
A spot that is considered a mecca for Disney fans to see is Walt’s Dreaming Tree and Barn.
As the story goes, when Elias Disney bought the 40 acre farm in Marceline, he expected his three older children to work it daily, while Walt’s job was to take care of his younger sister, Ruth. Well, Walt and Ruth would spend hours sitting under and playing around a large Cottonwood tree on their property. It is said that it’s here Walt dreamed up many of the ideas that would someday be given to the world by him. He sat and watched the wildlife around him, absorbing their actions and movements, daydreaming. He called this “belly botany” and these times were instrumental in his later creation of the Silly Symphony’s and Mickey Mouse cartoons.
Walt would always make time when he returned to Marceline to find his Dreaming Tree and sit under it, reflecting and remembering the good years he had spent there. It was a place he loved until the day he died.
Near Walt’s Dreaming Tree was another place he loved, his barn. As a child he had one of his first brushes with failure at this barn. Walt and Ruth decided to put on a circus of sorts for the neighborhood children. They planned and told everyone when to come, they charged everyone ten cents admission to enter. Well, once the kids were inside this Disney Circus they discovered that all Walt and Ruth had done was dress up some farm animals in doll clothes. Needless to say, the kids were disappointed, maybe a bit annoyed, and everyone wanted their money back. No way, was Walt and Ruth’s reaction, but their mother, Flora, insisted they refund every child who had paid. This experience granted Walt the wisdom of making sure that all of your customers leave happy, every time.
In 1949 Walt Disney released a film called “So Dear To My Heart.” This movie takes place around the same time Walt would have been growing up in Marceline, Missouri. The barn in that film was recreated completely to Walt’s recollection of the family barn.
Unfortunately neither of these structures are still standing in their original form. Finally succumbing to years of lightening strikes, inclement weather and disease, Walt’s Dreaming Tree was lost to us in May of 2015. But, it’s not really gone. In 2004 Walt’s grandson and some Disney Ambassadors took some saplings from the Dreaming Tree, took some soil from the Magic Kingdom and some water from the Rivers of America and planted The Son of the Dreaming Tree, right near where the original stood. That tree is thriving today.
As for the barn, in 2001, Marceline had a three day barn raising, where Walt’s barn was rebuilt on the family farm. People from all over the world come to step inside and leave Walt messages on the walls.
Standing in that field, knowing what a special place it was for Walt Disney was really special for me. More than a couple of times I felt a bit choked up with the emotion of knowing I was standing in the place where someone I consider a hero, a marvel and someone to look up to stood. Picturing him as a child, dressing animals up in doll clothes and painting on the family home, sitting under a giant tree and dreaming up the tales he would gift to us later in life gave me a feeling I can’t describe.
I highly suggest anyone who is a Disney fan to take this trip. Get in the car and map out a day or two to explore the place that made Walt Disney the man he was. My only regret is that I didn’t have more time to spend there.
Up next: Learning more about Walt Disney at the Walt Disney Hometown Museum, and checking out his first studio space in Kansas City.