My name is Kevin, your tour guide for today. Welcome to a personal, up-close, first hand look at the little town that shaped Walt Disney's future - Marceline, Missouri.
So who am I? Well, like a lot of people you'll find on this site, I'm a lifelong Disney fanatic. From the first time I saw Pinocchio from the back seat of my parent's station wagon in 1970, I was hooked. I've spent the past 33 years living, loving and enjoying the magic that Walt Disney and his team of creative geniuses brought forth.
Like our host Matthew, I too was a Disney Store Cast Member, and I also competed in the National Disney Store Trivia Showdown, although I participated a couple of years after Matt did. I finished in fourth place in 1998, and won it in 1999. Sadly, the contest was eliminated after my win, so barring a pixie dust-laced miracle, I'll go down in history as the last Disney Store Trivia Champion.
Over the course of my four years of studying everything there was to know about Walter Elias Disney, I came to know of the little Missouri town of Marceline. Bob Thomas' excellent biographies of both Walt and Roy Disney colorfully described what life was like for the Disney brothers during their time here.
Living in Iowa, I was only 300 miles or so from Marceline, but yet I had never made the trek there. I had considered visiting during the Walt Disney 100th birthday celebration in Marceline back in 2001, but the thought of trying to experience the small town when there were several thousand other tourists there made me dizzy. So I decided to wait.
Fast forward two years. I had registered for a weekend writing seminar at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, and since I had to drive across Iowa to attend the class, I decided it would be worth it to make a slight detour in my driving plans and head southeast to Marceline on my way. Sure, it was out of my way, but when would I be any closer than that? So I extended my vacation by a day, loaded up my car, and off I went - to spend a day in Walt's town.
Over the next four articles I'll share with you the details of my recent trip to Marceline, and try to show you what I was fortunate enough to see. So come along, because the magic is just beginning!
Marceline - The Town
Marceline, which is about 120 miles northeast of Kansas City, was incorporated on March 6, 1888. The town was literally grown out of the railroad - The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway built a line from Chicago and Kansas City in 1887, and the town was developed along the route as a stop for refueling, water and crew changes.
There are two stories behind the origin of the name "Marceline." One has it that the daughter of one of the railroad superintendent was named "Marceline," and the town was named in her honor, while another story says that Marceline Sivadon, one of the first residents and property owners in the newly formed town, was the actual source.
Today, Marceline sports a population of around 2,500, and although the railroad is no longer the central focus, the town continues to thrive as an agricultural center, an industrial community, and is home to one of the largest publishing industries in the Midwest. Yet Marceline has managed to hold onto its small town vibe and feeling of community, and has an incredible amount of charm within its relatively small size.
Marceline and the Disney Family
In the Spring of 1906, Flora and Elias Disney were living in Chicago with their five children: Herbert, age 17; Raymond, age 15; Roy, age 12; Walt, age 4; and 2-year-old Ruth. Chicago was rapidly growing, and with the growth came all of the problems that haunt fast-growing cities. The crime rate was rising, so Elias and Flora decided it was time to move on.
Elias' brother Robert already owned a 500-acre farm in Marceline, and so Elias too decided that Marceline would be a good place to settle down. Purchasing a one-story house and 45 acres of land just north of the city limits for $125.00 an acre, Elias put his house in Chicago up for sale. Flora, Roy, Walt and Ruth arrived in Marceline first, where they briefly stayed with family until Elias and the two older boys could arrive by train with a boxcar filled with their possessions.
For young Walt, Marceline was a wonderful new world waiting to be explored. The farm had 5 acres of orchards, which provided the family with fresh apples, plums and peaches, and the rest of the land was farmed for corn, sorghum and wheat. They also raised hogs, chickens, dairy cows and horses. Walt, Roy and Ruth would go around town selling their apples and Flora's homemade butter, and in the summer heat they'd swim in nearby Yellow Creek.
Another of Walt's favorite pastimes was to walk down to the nearby Santa Fe Railroad tracks and watch the trains come and go. Walt's Uncle Martin was a conductor on the Marceline-Fort Madison route, and would often stay with the Disneys overnight when in town.
It was also in Marceline that young Walt's artistic abilities first blossomed. He and Ruth found a barrel of tar one day, and deciding that the farmhouse could use some artwork, proceeded to adorn the white walls of the home with black tar drawings. Although he was punished by a furious Elias for the artwork, Walt was eventually given drawing materials by his Aunt Margaret, which as we all know, he was able to put to good use. He sold his first drawing in Marceline; an illustration of a neighbor's horse.
The Disneys lived in Marceline until 1910, when Elias' failing health forced him to give up the farm. Sadly, the Disneys sold their house and property, and moved to Kansas City, where Elias purchased a newspaper distributorship.
Although Walt was no longer physically living in Marceline, his memories of the town stayed with him for the rest of his life. You will see a lot of Marceline in his early illustrations and cartoons, and in 1950, when designing a barn for his workshop on his property in California, he designed it as an exact replica of the one on his family farm in Marceline.
Yes, Walt never forgot Marceline. And so it would seem, Marceline never forgot Walt. In 1956, the city named its new swimming pool and recreation center after him. For the first time since moving away, Walt and Roy returned to Marceline to dedicate the new facilities. Walt also returned four years later, when on October 13, 1960, the new elementary school was christened "Walt Disney Elementary." Walt naturally arrived for the dedication ceremony by train; the first time that the Santa Fe Super Chief had ever stopped in Marceline.
(For you Disney trivia buffs: Did you know that Marceline was not the first city to have a Walt Disney Elementary school? The first was actually in Tullytown, Pennsylvania. Marceline was second. The third Walt Disney Elementary was naturally in Anaheim, where Walt surprised the school officials and students by declaring it a school holiday, and inviting all of the students to come to Disneyland for the day.)
Walt donated playground equipment to the new Marceline school, and also gave them a flagpole that had flown flags over the 1960 Winter Olympic ceremonies in Squaw Valley, California during the games. He also gave the school an official Disneyland flag to fly, making Walt Disney Elementary the only place outside of Disneyland authorized to fly the Disneyland flag.
Okay, Mouseketeers -- you've done good for the first day. In our next installment, we visit the Walt Disney and Santa Fe Railroad Museum!
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