Inez Johnson unfurls the “we’re open” flag outside the historic, refurbished train depot in rural Marceline, Missouri. The trains still come by each day, in fact, more than 80, but its new purpose is telling the story of Mr. Disney and his relationship with his beloved hometown.
Ms. Johnson was a friend of Walt Disney for the last ten years of his life, meeting him for the first time in 1956. “My husband and I moved to town in 1948. When Walt returned, we had the only house in town with air conditioning. So, we were asked to host him during his visit to Marceline, and instantly became friends.”
Speaking to a group of about 20 visitors, sometimes loudly as trains zipped by, she shares heartfelt memories of Disney’s return to town and his generosity. “He helped pay for our community pool, which was a big deal at the time. He had other big plans for helping out Marceline but passed away before they could be realized.”
Some of the smaller kids on the tour were getting antsy but the adults in the room were all glued to the words from Ms. Johnson and she seemed to re-live each moment personally as she told us first-hand stories.
“It was quite an ordeal the first time Walt stayed with us” she says. “We didn’t have the right furniture to host someone as important as Walt Disney. So, we got rid of everything and had all new things brought in just for his visit”.
Memories of that first visit are laid out in the form of newspaper articles and photos along with other unique artifacts from Disney’s time in Marceline. “He told us of the fond memories he had growing up here, and how many of his ideas stemmed from his experience on the farm.”
The Disney Hometown Museum was a pleasant surprise with tastefully done exhibits and lots of cool collectibles. A flag from the early days of Disneyland hands in the old train station waiting room. The flag would fly whenever Walt was in his living quarters at the theme park.
Other fun items include the television set purchased for Mrs. Disney so she could watch the opening of Disneyland. She apparently hated crowds and refused to see it opened in person.
Two floors are full of Disney stories and artifacts including a desk he used for drawing, a collectible watch given to employees from Disneyland’s inaugural year and even young Walt’s high school degree.
Another childhood story, shared during that first return visit, involved Walt performing a “circus” with farm animals for other kids in the neighborhood for a ten-cent admission. The kids enjoyed the first half, but weren’t crazy about the second half – and demanded their money back. Disney’s Mom insisted he refund his friends because “they weren’t satisfied customers”. Walt walked away from that experience with a fresh outlook on customer service. A lesson that is evident in how the Disney theme parks are run today – with lots of smiles and attention to detail.
Walking through downtown Marceline, you capture the sense of how Disney, with a giant imagination, grew up with big dreams. On a Sunday afternoon, the streets were empty and the stores were closed. In a way, it almost added to the magic as this tiny town seemed like a set from a movie.
Don’t skip out on a slow drive by the Disney’s childhood home and a short walk to the spot Walt called his “happy place”. His beloved tree “dreaming tree” where he first started drawing was destroyed by lighting though a new one has grown in its place. A recreation of the barn where Walt performed his circus act is a short walk away where guests can autograph their names on the walls.
Ms. Johnson winds up her tour with a warning that she may cry when telling the story about the museum finally opening up. In fact, she does cry and it’s sincere. She’s overwhelmed with emotion talking about what this Disney connection has meant to her over the years and you can see it on her face.
As the tour group slowly moves out to the lobby, I stay behind to ask Inez how many times a day she shares that story. “Oh, about 8 or 9 times a day” she replies. And does she cry every time? “Oh, not always” as she wipes away tears with a tissue. “But you all seemed like such a nice group of people.”
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