Walt's Return to Marceline 1956

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Although I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I have always considered Glendale, California, to be my hometown because my family moved there when I was 5 years old and that is really where my childhood memories truly begin—with so many adventures and misadventures at South Florence Place.

So, I can fully understand that while he was born in Chicago, Walt Disney truly considered Marceline, Missouri, his hometown when his family moved there when he was roughly 4 years old.

Marceline is about 120 miles northeast of Kansas City and was incorporated on March 6, 1888. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway built a line from Chicago and Kansas City in 1887, and Marceline was developed along the route as a stop for refueling, water and crew changes. The train no longer stops there and hasn’t for quite a few decades.

In the Spring of 1906, Flora and Elias Disney were living in Chicago with their five children: Herbert, 17; Raymond, 15; Roy, 12; Walt, 4; and 2-year-old Ruth. Chicago was rapidly growing and as part of that growth, the violent crime rate was also increasing and this worried Elias.

The final straw was when two neighborhood boys were arrested for killing a policeman in a car barn robbery. One was sentenced to Joliet Prison for 20 years and the other to life imprisonment. The boys were about the same age of Herbert and Raymond.

Elias' brother Robert already owned a 500-acre farm in Marceline, and so Elias decided that Marceline would be a good place to raise his sons in a healthier environment. Elias purchased a one-story house and 45 acres of land just north of the city limits for $125 an acre.

Walt had fond memories of his childhood in Marceline, often corresponded with people in the town, and always made time for visitors from Marceline if they happened to drop by the Disney Studios.

For the September 23, 1938 Golden Jubilee edition of the Marceline News, Walt Disney wrote a short letter essay titled "The Marceline I Knew” that included the following memory: “Everything connected with Marceline was a thrill to us, coming as we did from a city the size of Chicago. I'm glad I'm a small town boy and I'm glad Marceline was my town.”

Walt spent roughly five formative years in Marceline and its influence on him is easily seen in Disney films and Disneyland.

With the popularity of Walt’s weekly television program and the opening of Disneyland, Walt was quite well-known so it was no surprise that Marceline decided to honor its favorite son. The city fathers wrote to the Disney Studios asking if they could have permission to name their new swimming pool and park after Walt.

At first, the Studio was suspicious that the Marceline city fathers were looking for a sizable financial contribution, but once they were assured that everything had already been paid for (approximately $78,500), they quickly agreed. Walt wrote back that he was thrilled and inquired whether there was to be an official dedication and if he could attend.

I recently got to see some “B roll” that Walt had filmed of his visit. (“B roll” is a term used in the film business to describe supplemental footage that is shot to cover a jump cut in editing or to add dimension to a story. For instance, on a local newscast, you might hear an anchor narrating about a situation at a local school over “B roll” film of the outside of the school or children playing there.)

Walt, being the visionary he was, had a film crew document his return to Marceline in silent black and white footage that could later be adapted for the Mickey Mouse Club Newsreels. We know that was his intention because of the shot at the beginning and end of the footage of a Mickey Mouse Club newsreel camera. The footage runs roughly 20 minutes and includes title cards describing what is being seen.

The Walt Disney Municipal Park and Swimming Pool was to be dedicated July 4, 1956 in Marceline. Posters and banners welcomed back the two Disney brothers. At the time, the population of the town was 3,172.

Walt, Lillian, Roy and Edna Disney flew in to the Municipal Air Terminal (now known as the Downtown Kansas City Airport) on July 3. They were met by reporters and Walt gave a short interview where he emphasized that he tried not to condescend to children and how he hated it being done to him as a child.

The Disneys drove three hours in a Cadillac Sedan and arrived in Marceline that afternoon.

Event organizers had avoided giving the Disneys room in Marceline’s Hotel Allen because it lacked air conditioning and they didn’t want the families to stay in a hotel in nearby Brookfield.

Rush and Inez Johnson had a brand new house on Kansas Avenue and the Disneys stayed there while the Johnson family stayed with neighbors. Walt and Lillian slept in the room of the Johnsons' 7-year-old daughter Kaye.

The Disneys freshened up and then drove to the Santa Fe Country Club around 10 p.m. on July 3 where they were greeted by hundreds of residents. Walt spent a good part of the evening signing autographs.

Walt recalled that in the early Disney cartoons, they sometimes used outhouses and that he got the idea of using outhouses for gags from Marceline.

“The only other place we lived was Kansas City and everything was up to date in Kansas City. We didn’t have those outhouses. But in the early days, we got a lot of laughs with that outhouse. Of course, after we got a little more money, we got a little more refined about it,” Walt said with a laugh.

The next day, Walt and Roy visited locations of some of their childhood experiences. Walt and Roy walked down Main Street and while it is apparent that Walt’s memory of this street that had changed little since he had lived there except for a few automobiles is represented at Disneyland, most Disney fans know that Harper Goff’s hometown, Fort Collins, Colo., was also a major influence on the design of Disneyland’s Main Street.

First, Walt and Roy stopped by the railroad depot.

In 1898, the Santa Fe Railroad donated land to the City of Marceline for a park that was named after the president of the railroad, E.P. Ripley. It soon became the pride of the community and a favorite meeting spot including band concerts that Walt’s sister Ruth fondly remembered the Disney family attending.

The Santa Fe Railroad had helped with the opening of Disneyland. A Santa Fe locomotive and caboose in Ripley Park bear the name Santa Fe and Disneyland Railway. This was at Walt’s suggestion and Walt and Roy climbed aboard the cab of the engine to reminisce.

Walt’s first train ride into Marceline was at the depot that preceded the present day one, which was built in 1913. The Santa Fe railroad tracks ran through the countryside, a short distance from the Disney farm. Walt's Uncle Martin was a conductor on the Marceline-Fort Madison route, and would often stay with the Disneys overnight when in town.

The depot is currently being restored into a Disney museum. Make sure you visit the Marceline Web site (link) and say “hello” to Kaye Malins when you visit because, as a 7-year-old, she first met Walt in Marceline and is the main force behind the Disney museum there.

Another photo opportunity was at Park School, a two-story red-brick building that had 200 students in grade school and high school when Walt attended. He was once again surrounded by children wanting autographs. Walt said he loved that school and remembered his first teacher Miss Brown being very strict and she remembered him as being pretty ornery.

The school had its last term in 1959. In 1960, it was torn down and it was replaced by the new Walt Disney Elementary School.

Walt squeezed into his old first-grade desk at the back of the room and noticed that the initials “W.D.” were carved in the top.

“I remember carving WD once but I forgot I carved it twice,” said Walt at the time.

There is some controversy whether it was actually Walt’s carved initials or some other student with the same initials. Walt said he couldn’t recall having done it but admitted it certainly was a possibility. In any case, it was a great story and Walt loved a great story.

Then Walt talked with a few townspeople about the fire he remembered at Grandpa Taylor’s farm. Walt remembered the time when the old house burned down several months later after Grandpa Taylor died in 1909. It went up in a tremendous blaze and made a distinct impression on the young boy who thought the whole world was going up in flames.

The Disney brothers visited their old family farm. The two men crossed a barbed wire fence, a relatively easy task for men from farm country, but more difficult for two city men who were wearing suits and ties. Townsfolk were impressed that the Disney brothers didn’t get hung up on the fence.

They walked to a large cottonwood tree, now referred to as Walt’s “Dreaming Tree,” where Walt and Ruth played and waded in the spring that runs at its base. It is about a quarter mile from the Disney family barn. It is amusing to see Walt rummage for change in his pocket to toss in a penny to make a wish and, not finding a penny, putting the change back in his pocket.

Walt and Roy climbed aboard a Peter-Schuttler wagon, made in 1903, at the Frank VanTiger farm. In this wagon in 1908, VanTiger hauled white oak posts to the Disney farm where Elias had paid about 16 cents per post delivered according to the title card in the film. On this visit, Walt made an attempt to handle the reins on two stubborn Missouri mules, but they would not hold still for him much to everyone’s amusement including his own.

Walt and Roy walked to the bridge over Yellow Creek.

Yellow Creek was young Walt’s favorite fishing spot. On hot summer days, Walt and Roy walked the few miles to Yellow Creek and cooled themselves in the slow-moving water.

“Sometimes, if Mrs. Disney would let him, we’d go fishing in the creek,” recalled Walt’s boyhood friend, Clem Flickinger, who lived in the farmhouse across the road from Disney’s farm. “We’d catch catfish and bowheads. There was a place where the water was 4 or 5 feet deep, and me and Walt would take off our clothes and swim. In the winter, a whole bunch of us would go sledding and skating with a big bonfire to keep warm.”

On his 1956 return to Marceline, Walt and Roy reminisced about past picnics, swimming, and fishing using sticks for fishing poles and safety pins for hooks. Walt was filmed flicking a little fish a young boy who was standing on the bridge had just pulled from the creek.

This was obviously a staged photo opportunity and the fish was long dead but it didn’t stop Walt from trying to manipulate the fish with his finger to give the illusion that it was still wiggling on the line.

That afternoon citizens gathered at the Uptown Theater for the Midwest premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase. Walt spoke briefly to the capacity audience, telling the children, “My best memories are the years I spent here. You are lucky children to live here.”

Walt and Roy personally greeted each child at the door. When they took the stage before the movie started, the children of Marceline sang the “Mickey Mouse Club Song” to them. Because the afternoon Disney television program was not broadcast in Marceline, the children learned this song especially for this occasion.

Officially released June 8, 1956 (roughly a month earlier), The Great Locomotive Chase starred Fess Parker and Jeff Hunter. The film recounts the true story of 22 Union spies who stole a train from 4,000 Confederate troops near Atlanta, Ga., on April 22, 1862, and began a race that might have brought an early end to the Civil War if it had succeeded.

Some children showed up in Davy Crockett T-shirts, at least one was wearing a Mickey Mouse Club T-shirt and another wore Mickey Mouse Club ears.

Walt then led the excited, admiring group of youngsters in singing Davy Crockett. He told the audience, “I read this book when I was a boy and remembered it. The picture The Great Locomotive Chase was a result of remembering what I read.”

The movie ran from 1:30 p.m. in the afternoon until late in the evening so that everyone wanting to see the movie could do so. In 1998, the world premiere of The Spirit of Mickey was held in the same theater.

Walt also stopped by St. Francis Hospital. The Sisters of St. Francis (12 of them) came from Austria to establish missions in America. The group grew and served in many venues including Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Nebraska.

In 1946, the sisters purchased a 16-bed hospital in Marceline that they named the St. Francis Hospital. In 1952, the building was expanded and the capacity rose to 30 beds. In 1964, a news hospital was built (it is now up to 54 beds) and the hospital that Walt visited became St. Joseph’s Home for the Elderly.

Watching the film, it is inspiring to see how gentle Walt is with the children in the hospital, often gentling holding their hands with both of his hands and leaning down to be eye level with them.

Later that day, more than 6,000 people turned out for the dedication of the swimming pool.

According to the Kansas City Times:

“The crowd was drawn up around the pool, standing in lines that were in some instances 12 and 13 persons deep. Above the men’s dressing room a temporary platform was erected and made into an outdoor garden with decorations of potted palm trees, baskets of gladiolas and bunting. Walt Disney and his brother, Roy, were among those seated on the elevated platform.”

U.S. Sen. Thomas C. Hennings Jr. was one of the speakers and sang the praises of Walt.

After a bathing beauty contest (won by 17-year-old Deanne Kelly) with both Walt and Roy as judges, the mayor cut the ribbon to the pool (the clock in the background says it is 9:10) and about 50 local boys christened the new pool by jumping in simultaneously creating a “resounding crash” according to the newspaper report.

“It’s particularly thrilling for me to see this fine swimming pool here, because when I was a kid here in Marceline, we swam in a cow pasture pond, after we chased the cows out. So it is wonderful to have a pool like this. I feel very humble to think that you all wish to name this the Walt Disney Municipal Pool,” said Walt at the dedication.

The day finished with a small display of fireworks in the sky.

This return visit to Marceline inspired Walt to consider a new project tentatively known as Walt Disney’s Boyhood Farm and it would have been a working farm from the turn of the century for people to visit with their children. It would have had pigs, chickens, horses, cows, a swimming hole, orchards and fields of grain. With Walt’s death, Roy cancelled the project to devote all the Disney resources to the Florida project.

In 1950, when designing a barn for his workshop on his property in California, Walt designed it as an exact replica of the one on his family farm in Marceline. Watching the film of his return to Marceline in 1956 shows Walt as relaxed and happy and apparently, for Walt it was possible to go home again…at least for a few days.