Every day, ardent Disneyphiles arrive as tourists in this remote north-central Missouri farming community of 2,200 people. This is where Walt Disney lived from 1905 until 1910, when he grew from age 5 to 10, and the Disney admirers want to experience “where the magic began.” Walt’s early cartoons featuring barnyard animals, his desire to get into show business, and even the layout of his first theme park had their origins in this tiny Missouri town.
Disney’s parents, Elias and Flora, lived in Chicago in 1905 but thought it too large a city to raise five children. They wanted a rural atmosphere and settled on Marceline, where Walt’s uncle lived.
By 1938, Walt Disney was prospering. That same year he wrote:
“Everything connected with Marceline was a thrill. The cows, pigs and chickens. To tell the truth, more things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since, or are likely to in the future.”
In 1946, Disney returned to research his planned Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California, and took photos of everything he remembered from when he lived there.
“There is a remarkable similarity in his first theme park drawings to Marceline,” says Kaye Malins, executive director of the Walt Disney Home Town Museum in Marceline. “When placed on top of his original drawings, our lakes, parks, downtown buildings, the train station and tracks are almost a perfect overlay to his plans.”
Diane Disney Miller, Walt’s daughter, once told Malins that it wasn’t until she got older that she realized her dad had only lived in Marceline four years. “I really thought he had spent his whole life there before I was born,” she had recalled.
In 1998, Malins was surprised by a call from Ted Beecher, son of Walt Disney’s sister Ruth Disney. “Ted told me Ruth had died, and she had wanted Marceline to have some of her personal things,” Malins recalls.
A few days later, she left for the Beecher home with an empty suitcase, anticipating returning with a few mementos and wondering where she might exhibit them.
“The family started pulling things out of closets and from under beds. When finished, I had been bequeathed over 3,000 items, and knew I had the contents for a museum,” she recalls.
The museum opened in 2001 with 30,000 people attending, including 13 members of the Disney family.
Located in the old train station where Disney first arrived with his parents, the two-story building consists of nine galleries devoted to the time Disney spent in Marceline and the influence the town had on him.
On display are many items of original correspondence between family members from the early 1900s through the late 1960s, as well as one of only three copies of a recording Walt made of his parents discussing their life in Marceline.
A newspaper article on display recalls the influence Disney’s next-door neighbor “Doc” Sherwood had on his career, and how he gave Disney a quarter to draw his horse. In the article, Disney recollects that when he ran home to tell his mother, he was “squeezing the quarter until it hurt my fingers.”
Disney later told friends that of all the awards and honors he had received, none had meant as much as that first payment for his work.
Also in the museum is the wooden desk Walt used in school with the initials “WD” carved into the top; not once, but twice.
Other highlights include rare photographs and movie footage of Walt and Roy during their visits to town in the 1950s and 1960s, and a green Midget automobile donated in 1966 by Disney that was part of the original Autopia ride at Disneyland when it opened in 1955.
There are a myriad of other Disney attractions to see in Marceline. A few blocks from the museum, a well-traveled grassy path leads to where a cottonwood tree once stood that Walt named his “dreaming tree.” It is where he would sit and draw, watch the bugs and birds and listen to the sounds of nature.
“When he would come back, he would always ask for time to be alone under the tree,” Malins says. “He would spend hours there.”
Further down the path is a replica of the barn that stood on the Disney farm. The structure is a destination for tourists and animators from around the world who come to leave hand-drawn cartoons on the walls as a written tribute to whom many refer to as “Uncle Walt.”
When the new school was dedicated in 1960, Disney canceled an around-the-world trip so he could attend. Beforehand he had his favorite animator, Bob Moore, draw a series of murals of more than 20 Disney characters that still hang throughout the school. At the dedication, Disney remarked that he “was just a farm boy from Marceline who hid behind a duck and a mouse.”
The Marceline post office contains numerous photos from the day the Walt Disney stamp was issued inside on Sept. 11, 1968. Mickey Mouse arrived for the ceremony in a U.S. Mail truck from Burbank, California, a town that had competed for the honor of holding the festivities.
A very small plaque on the building that was once the Hotel Alan in town is easy to miss, but the wording is impressive. It identifies the structure as the one that was used as a model for Hotel Marceline in Disneyland.
A similar plaque on the Uptown Theater indicates it was the location for the premiere of two Disney feature films. In 1956, Disney himself introduced the “Great Locomotive Chase” at the theater. In 1998, the premier of the “Spirit of Mickey” at the Uptown featured appearances by Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto and Goofy along with 18,000 fans.
An unsuspecting visitor might never know of the town’s “magical” Disney connection. The sign in front of the museum and alongside the road into town are small and easy to miss. The three-block Kansas Street through the middle of town has been changed to “Main Street USA,” but it only appears on one street sign. It, too, is easily missed.
But ask the older residents if they have any Disney stories, and the memories blossom.
“I knew him from the time I was 6 until I was 19, and whenever he talked to me, I always felt like he was really listening,” Malins says.
Other stories come to life in the museum, where many docents have a personal recollection of Disney and a story to tell.
However, visitors need not talk to anyone to pick up on the town link to Disney. Walking down Main Street, the soundtrack of a Disney movie can be heard throughout the day emanating from a speaker wafting over town.
If you go: waltdisneymuseum.org/