When Walt Disney arrived in Marceline, Missouri in 1906, he arrived at the Santa Fe Train Depot. Then, it was just a two story, wooden building that eventually perished in a fire. Today, the Walt Disney Hometown Museum is housed inside the depot, rebuilt in 1913. Up until 1989 this building was used as a crew change stop for the Railroad, and until 1997 it was still used as an unmanned stop for an Amtrak line. With Marceline situated in between Chicago and Kansas City, it’s still a very busy through way for trains, one every 11 minutes to be exact, but none of them stop in this little town anymore.
The building sat empty for 23 years, the town of Marceline trying for several years to raise the money to buy it before railroad executives had their way and tore it down. It seemed like the buildings fate was sealed, until one day four local donors made it possible for the town to purchase the building.
Shortly before that happened, Kaye Malins, who has lived in Marceline her whole life, got a call from Ted Beecher, the son of Walt’s sister, Ruth Disney Beecher. Sadly, Ruth had passed away, but she had some things she wanted Marceline to have.
Kaye went to Oregon, armed only with an empty suitcase, expecting to bring back some trinkets and things to open a little display with. She was floored when she arrived and saw that Walt’s sister had saved nearly everything she’d ever owned.
A few weeks later, Kaye returned to Marceline with over 3,000 items! With the collection she’d amassed and with the building now being owned in Marceline, her wish of opening up a museum dedicated to Walt’s time in the town could finally come true.
In 2001, The Walt Disney Hometown Museum opened in Marceline, Missouri.
You may be wondering why Kaye wanted so much to open this museum. Her relationship with Walt Disney isn’t limited to living in the same sleepy town.
In 1956, Walt and Roy Disney, along with their wives, Lillian and Edna, returned to Marceline for the dedication of the Walt Disney Municipal Park and Swimming Pool. The town didn’t really want them to stay in the Hotel Allen, because it didn’t have any air conditioning and it was a hot July day, so Rush and Inez Johnson, Kaye’s parents, offered up their home as lodging for the family. Walt and Lillian spent the night in Kaye’s room, she was eight years old at the time. The family kept up a friendship with Walt until he passed away eleven years later.
Today, Kaye is a founder and director of the Walt Disney Hometown Museum and Inez gives guided tours and volunteers at the museum.
I don’t want to give too much away, I recommend people go and see this amazingly well done museum whenever they have a chance, but I wanted to show a few things that I found interesting to see.
These flags were given to the Walt Disney Elementary School in Marceline in 1960 by Walt himself. They flew there for a short time, making it the only place in the world outside of Disneyland that had the authorization and pleasure to fly them. Our wonderful tour guide, Brenda, told us a cute story about how someone had asked once how on earth they’d preserved these flags so well, they showed none of the damage of a flag being folded up for years as one would expect. Well, she was the secretary at Walt Disney Elementary School for years and she had kept them nicely rolled up in a Walmart bag in her desk.
This drafting table was used by Walt and his longtime friend and business partner, Ub Iwerks when they worked together at the Pesman-Rubin Ad Agency in Kansas City, Missouri.
This isn’t just any vintage television showing clips from the ABC broadcast of Disneyland’s opening day in 1955.
Walt’s grandson, Ted, had this TV in his barn. The way he tells it, Walt had invited Ruth and her family to come to California to attend the opening day of Disneyland, but Ruth didn’t really like crowds all that much, so instead, Walt sent the family some money to purchase a TV so they could watch along with 70 million other people as Disneyland opened for the first time. The results of that opening day are a story for another time. The TV stayed with the family until Kaye Malins found it and Ted asked her if she wanted it. It now lives in the museum, showing clips of the same program Ruth and Ted had watched on it all those years before.
On the second floor of the museum is a sprawling miniature sized model of Disneyland. When you visit the Walt Disney Hometown Museum, you have a guide for your first two rooms, they fill you with information and cute and funny stories, and then they allow you to explore and discover the museum on your own time. I’m a huge fan of this type of museum and that kind of learning and viewing experience. When I left the museum I wanted to know more about this model, so I did what we all do when we are hungry for more information about something, I googled it.
Every September Marcline puts on a festival called Toonfest, a festival celebrating those in the world of animation and cartoons. In 2006 a man named Dave Varner attended Toonfest, while he was there he spoke about his concerns that this model of Disneyland he had been working on for forty years would never find a permanent home for people to view it and enjoy it. He offered it to the museum and of course they graciously accepted. In 2009 Dale passed away, and at that time he was still working on and adding to this amazing piece of art.
My favorite piece in the museum is this original car from Disneyland’s Midget Autopia.
Midget Autopia opened in Disneyland in 1957, joining the Junior Autopia next to The Storybookland Canal Boats in Fantasyland and the Tomorrowland Autopia. Midget Autopia was a tamer version of it’s predecessors, built only for the smaller children at Disneyland. Despite it’s status as a fan favorite attraction, it only lived in Disneyland for nine years. In April of 1966 the decision to get rid of the attraction to make room for a larger path for It’s a Small World. The track was paved over and the cars and structures were removed from the park.
But, that wasn’t the end. The same year, Walt Disney donated Midget Autopia to the town of Marceline. He gave them 10 cars, 603 feet of track and all of the bells and whistles that came with it. It was installed in Walt Disney Municipal Park where the children of Marceline got to enjoy it. It was and still remains the only attraction that has ever left Disneyland and operated elsewhere.
Walt had plans to attend the dedication ceremony for Midget Autopia’s opening in Marceline, but just days before he was supposed to arrive, he sent his friend Rush Johnson a letter. Unfortunately Walt was ill with a cough he just couldn’t get rid of and he wouldn’t be able to make it, but he promised to come as soon as he was well.
Unfortunately that day never came. Three months later, on December 15th, 1966, Walt Disney passed away.
In 1977 Midget Autopia fell victim to aging and disrepair. It proved too difficult and expensive for the town to maintain and it was disbanded. Marceline has plans to bring Autopia back to their town in the future. When that happens I will be one of the first in line to witness it.
The dedicated group of volunteers who keep the Walt Disney Hometown Museum running are surely a special bunch. They deserve praise and thanks for their hard work maintaining the past so those of the future can learn about it and experience it. Thank you, Kaye Malins and co. for preserving these wonderful things for Disney fans like myself.
You can visit the museum Tuesday through Sunday between April 1st and October 31st. Admission is only $10 for adults, $5 for children 6-12, and children 6 and under are free.
Once we left Marceline, we thought we were on the road to Tulsa. And then I remembered Laugh-o-Gram Studio in Kansas City, so off we went.
The short story is that Walt Disney decided it was time to open his own animation studio. He borrowed money from five backers and rented five offices on the second floor of a brick building at 1127 East 31st Street in Kansas City, Missouri. He even hired eleven of his own employees, including long time friend Ub Iwerks. He even decided at one point to stop paying rent on his apartment and was living right there in his studio.
He incorporated and started doing business at Laugh-o-Gram Studios in May of 1922. Walt and his team made two feature films and several animated and live-action shorts in this studio, it was looking to be Walt’s first great success!
Until it wasn’t. By the Summer of 1923 Walt and Laugh-o-Gram Studios was bankrupt. In August of that year Walt packed up, bought himself a one way train ticket to Los Angeles, and the rest is history.
Today Laugh-o-Gram Studios is a boarded up building that some very talented artists have taken their talent to to place homages to animation and to Walt Disney. Thank You Walt Disney, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to saving the building and turning it into a museum of sorts is working hard every day to raise the money to bring this building that is so important in the story of Disney back to life. The building was saved by a generous donation by the Disney Family Foundation and while it’s looking like it might take a while, the future is bright for Walt Disney’s first professional working studio.
The last stop on our journey with Walt was to a little brown house down a side street in Kansas City.
Walt and his family moved to this house when they left Marceline and they stayed there until 1917. It’s a private residence now, but the woman who owns the house embraces it’s past and welcomes anyone who wants to stop by and take a look at where Walt spent a handful of his childhood years. Some days you’ll even catch her sitting out on her front porch, waiting for the next person who is going to drive by and snap a few pictures, so she can share a chat with them.
This time in Kansas City wasn’t the best time for Walt, but he made the best of it. Him and Ruth would go to Electric Park, where it’s thought Walt got his very first ideas for Disneyland. A family always on the move, Elias moved his family back to Chicago in 1917 where Walt took classes at the Chicago Art Institute.
Sharing this journey with other like minded people was something I intended from the moment I started planning it. Thank you for reading along with me, and I hope anyone who spent their childhoods with Walt Disney like I did can someday take this journey themselves, it was honestly one of the best experiences of my life.