The idea began with a late night
conversation between two men who had just met.
Walt Disney, creator of Mickey Mouse and
the entire Disney empire, was visiting his boyhood hometown of Marceline
for the dedication of a park and swimming pool named in his honor.
The town fathers
didn't want their favorite son to stay in a hotel in nearby Brookfield so
they asked local businessman Rush Johnson if he would host Disney at his
home, one of only three in Marceline that had central air conditioning in
1956. "After everything
was over he and I retired to our den," Johnson recalls of his first
meeting with Disney about something that would become known as The
Marceline Project. "First thing he asked me was 'Rush, who owns the
farm?' I told him and he said, 'You can buy it cheaper than I can. Buy
And so began a
business relationship that lasted until Disney's death 10 years later.
With Johnson's help Disney bought his father's old Marceline farm and the
land adjacent to it.
The family farm was
the inspiration for many of Disney's early cartoons and he wanted to share
his experiences with others. Long before others saw the need Disney
imagined a living history farm where young and old could relive a simpler
time and discover their roots.
"He was such a
visionary," says Kaye Malins, Johnson's daughter and the current
resident of Disney's childhood home. "He said there will come a time
when a child will not know what an acre of land is. There will come a time
when a child will not know what happens when you put a seed in the ground.
We're there now."
Disney's idea for a
park recreating his family's farm faded with his death in 1966. Through
the years, Marceline has attracted thousands of visitors but little has
been done to adequately honor its most famous citizen — until now.
Beginning with a new
museum dedicated to Disney and the Sante Fe Railroad that was so dear to
him, the north-central Missouri town is staking its future on its Disney
While the living
history farm is still a dream, the museum is well on its way and will
house temporary exhibits in time for a celebration of Walt
Disney's 100th birthday, Sept. 21-23.
The three-day event
is the first of many projects locals say will someday fulfill Disney's
dream for Marceline.
party will just be the kick-off for what we hope will happen in
Marceline," says Malins, one of many volunteers working on the
celebration. "The long-term plan is to recreate what Walt wanted to
do — a turn-of-the-century working farm
Disney spent just
five years in Marceline but they were formative years. The family moved to
Missouri in 1906, when Walt was just 5. He later said, "More things
of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since, or are
likely to in the future."
It was here that
Disney began to draw and even sold his first artwork, a picture of a
Morgan horse that earned the young artist a nickel from the horse's owner.
Disney's childhood experiences — riding a sow through the barnyard and
getting dumped in the mud, being chased by a bull and other boyhood
adventures — found their way into his cartoons.
Even the design of
Disneyland's Main Street USA is based on downtown Marceline.
Despite Disney's love
for Marceline it would be 46 years before he would come home. Although
locals tell tales of clandestine visits, Disney's first known return was
the 1956 park dedication. Later that year he and his brother and business
partner, Roy, held the Midwest premiere of his movie "The Great
Locomotive Chase" at Marceline's Uptown Theater.
"Walt and Roy
stood outside and greeted every child that went into the theater,"
recalls Malins, who attended the premiere as a child. "When Walt took
the stage that day he said, 'You children are lucky to live in Marceline.
My best memories are the years I spent here.'"
In 1960, Disney
visited again for the dedication of Walt Disney Elementary School. Not
only did Disney cancel an overseas trip in order to attend, he also had
his studio create one-of-a-kind murals which adorn the school's lobby and
gym to this day.
retired its Autopia kiddie-car ride Disney planned to attend the ceremony
marking the ride's new home in Marceline's Walt Disney Park. At the last
minute he cancelled, complaining of a cold he could not shake. The cold
turned out to be cancer and Disney died within the year.
Today thousands of
tourists travel to Marceline to see "where the magic began."
They arrive in tour buses or straggle into town alone to visit the
important places of Disney's youth and the spots he visited during his
homecomings. Townspeople — primarily schoolchildren trained as
"Disney Ambassadors" — provide guided tours or visitors may
pick up a map and take a walking tour on their own.
Bob McEowen Used with Permission. Images -Walt Disney Co. & Rural Missouri amec.org
and his brother Roy returned to Marceline in 1956
Two "Disney Ambassadors"
display a Main Street USA sign during a tour of Marceline. The high school
students and volunteer tour guides explain that Marceline's downtown
provided the inspiration for Main Street USA at Walt Disney's theme parks.
Walt Disney discovers the initials
he carved in his grade school desk. This month, the town honors its
favorite son during a 100th birthday celebration.
Local residents have
purchased Marceline's Sante Fe Railroad depot and are restoring the
building which will house a museum honoring one-time Marceline resident
School children from Walt Disney
Elementary School raise the Mickey banner in front of the school. The flag
was a gift from Walt Disney and featured colors and a design which only
flew over the school and Walt's personal apartment. This
is the only place outside of Disneyland authorized to fly this flag.