Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Memories of Marceline

I stood alone in the tall grass of that Missouri farm, a large pond to my right, a rebuilt barn chock-full of messages and memories to my left. Behind me in the distance was a carefully maintained farm house painted bright red with white trim. As a child, its famous former resident once marveled at how beautiful the front yard was. Nearby, a century-old cottonwood tree shattered by a lightning strike remained, tall, resolute and very much alive despite the random harshness of nature. It takes more than a bolt from the blue to destroy dreams.

This was a special place to be on that hazy Friday afternoon, because here was where it all began. As the story goes, it was this idyllic Midwestern town that, in the early years of the 20th century, inspired a young boy's creativity and sent him down a path to build a pop culture empire. His name would one day be synonymous with family entertainment, magic and mice.

Welcome to Marceline, Walt Disney's boyhood home.

The barn in Marceline
Walt's family moved to Marceline from Chicago in 1906, when he was just four years old. Though the family lived there only four more years, Walt would always claim Marceline as his hometown. "More things of importance happened to me in Marceline," he once said, "than have ever happened since, or are likely to in the future."

Walt may have spent more of his youth down the road in Kansas City, but it was Marceline that made the biggest impression. Kansas City was where an older Walt would work, starting with the paper route his father owned and ending with a bankrupt animation studio. That couldn't compare to this slice of small town America, the place a young boy caught his first fish and discovered his lifelong passion for trains. For the rest of Walt's life, Marceline would always conjure up images of green rolling hills, horse farms, gentle streams and quaint main streets.

The Walt Disney Hometown Museum
Visit Marceline today and you'll find Walt everywhere, from the elementary school and public park that bear his name to the house where he and his family lived. In an appropriate homage to the man, the Walt Disney Hometown Museum is a renovated train station. During its heyday, this station was an important rail stop on Missouri's Santa Fe line. As you enter the museum, you can still see the ornate, fully-functional grandfather clock that kept the official time for the railroad. It's said that, back in the day, whenever Mr. Zurcher sold a watch at his store around the corner, he would first walk over to set the timepiece to the station clock.

Kaye Malins knows all the stories and happily shares them with visitors to Marceline. She runs the museum and, appropriately, lives in the house once occupied by Walt and his family. To spend any time with her is to hitch a nostalgic ride on the way-back machine to Walt Disney's Missouri. To spend the better part of a day with her, like I did, is to receive a true gift, especially if you're a Disney geek with an appreciation of history.

The RCA TV Walt bought
The museum collection contains over 3,000 items, including a wide range of photos and memorabilia representative of Walt's childhood through his return visits to Marceline in the 1950s and '60s. Among the treasures are the diaries and family letters of Walt's sister Ruth, who Kaye came to know before Ruth's death in 1995. "Ruth never threw anything away," said Kaye. As proof, Kaye showed me a vintage RCA television from the 1950s. She learned about the TV when she was collecting items from Ruth's son, Ted Beecher. As Kaye explained, "I'm archiving everything and here's a receipt for a television set about the time Disneyland opened (in 1955). And I go, 'Ted, what is this?' He said, 'Well, my mother didn't like crowds, so Uncle Walt sent us money to buy a new television set to watch the opening of Disneyland on. You want the TV?' It was out in his shed."

Walt's drafting table
Another great historical item is an iron drafting table from Pesman-Rubin, the Kansas City ad agency where Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks worked briefly in 1919. It was the first artist job for both men and marked the beginning of a working relationship (and sometimes strained friendship) between the two that would last decades. The drafting table was almost certainly used by both of them and is an important artifact from their early creative careers.

And then there's the desk.

Preserved under glass is a student desk from Marceline's Park Elementary School, which young Walt Disney attended. Carved in two places on the surface are the letters "WD." In later years, Walt said he couldn't specifically recall carving his initials in the desk, but he did concede it sounded like something he would've done. Apparently, no one else with the initials W.D. ever came forward to admit the deed, so the story sticks. This was Walt's desk.

Was this Walt Disney's school desk? We think so.
Not far from the museum, next to the Walt Disney Municipal Swimming Pool, are the remains of the only Disneyland attraction to ever be transplanted to a non-Disney location. In 1966, to help make room for what would become It's a Small World, Walt Disney removed the Midget Autopia, a kiddy version of the classic Autopia car ride. He then donated the track and all the vehicles to Marceline. The town continued to operate the ride until the early 1970s, when maintenance and operation costs became a problem. The track still remains, as do a handful of cars that weren't already cannibalized for parts. Marceline even donated a vehicle back to Disneyland to display as a trackside statue on the current version of the Autopia in Tomorrowland. Kaye hopes to one day restore and relocate the Midget Autopia to an area adjacent to the museum.

The Midget Autopia track
Day or night, you can come and go as you please to Walt's Barn. You'll find it just a short stroll away from the house where the Disneys lived, on land currently owned by Kaye and her family. The barn has no turnstile and it costs you nothing to visit. The Malins maintain the barn and its grounds out of their own pockets and want nothing in return other than respect for the property. "It just seems like the right thing to do," says Kaye.

But, be sure to bring a Sharpie. You're expected to leave a message.

Pete Docter and Tom Wilson
left their marks inside Walt's Barn
The barn is a replica of the one Walt built at his 1950s home in Holmby Hills, California, the site of his beloved Carolwood Pacific model railroad. The Carolwood barn was itself built based on the blueprints for the barn Walt knew on the farm in Marceline. The new Marceline barn was built in 2001 to coincide with Walt Disney's 100th birthday celebration. And it was then that a curious thing happened. As Kaye explains, "There's a beam in (the barn) that was at Disneyland for people to autograph. And then the company sent it back to be installed in the barn. And people started seeing it and leaving their own autographs and messages. We thought, well, we might as well embrace it and make sure it happened right. It's just the dearest thing."

Taking my place
next to Tony Baxter
Inside the barn on every board and beam are hundreds, possibly thousands, of signatures and personal comments that have been left by visitors over the years. Some people just jot down their names and the dates they were there. Others compose tributes to Walt. A few noteworthy names have drawn pictures in honor of Marceline's annual celebration of cartoon art, Toonfest. Pixar director/animator Pete Docter sketched one-eyed Mike Wazowski from Monsters, Inc. Cartoonist Tom Wilson drew his comic strip creation Ziggy. Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter roughed out a picture of Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. On my visit, I took it as a good sign that there was an empty space next to Tony's drawing. I wrote a note to Walt, thanking him for his inspiration, and signed it. I felt in pretty good company.

The Dreaming Tree
If Walt's Barn is a place to share your thoughts and dreams with others, then the Dreaming Tree is made for quiet introspection. The old cottonwood tree is at the other end of the footpath leading to the barn and was a favorite spot for Walt and Ruth to play and while away the hours as kids. Even as an adult, Walt enjoyed spending quiet moments beneath the tree on his return visits to Marceline. The tree lost some of its grandeur from a lightning strike a few years back, but none of its symbolism. It still stands as a stalwart reminder of the innocent and compelling power of a child's imagination. If it could inspire magical ideas and tap into the nostalgic memories of Walt Disney, what could it do for you? A session or two under the Dreaming Tree might not motivate you to build your own fairy tale castles, but there's nothing wrong with just spending a lazy spring afternoon sitting on the grass below it, inspecting the bugs and watching the birds fly by.

It's been almost a year since I visited Marceline and Kaye reminded me recently that I need to come back. I think I'll take her up on the offer soon. Whether to immerse myself in Disney history or just take a break from the hectic pace of modern life, Marceline is worth the trip.

The Walt Disney Hometown Museum reopened this month following its annual winter hiatus. For museum hours and additional information, go to When you visit the museum, make sure to tell Kaye and her mom Inez that I said "Hi!"

The Mouse Castle Lounge 08-10-2014 - Marceline Historian Kaye Malins
Marceline Photo Gallery


  1. How many days do you recommend in order to be able to see it all? One? Two?

  2. Hi Christi. I spent the day there and had plenty of time to see everything.