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In Walt Disney's Missouri: Marceline

Marceline, in north central Missouri, is a town of around twenty-five hundred people, its population today about the same as it was when Elias Disney moved his family there ninety-nine years ago. Marceline was built in the 1880s as a railroad town, to serve the Santa Fe line's trains, and its fortunes rose and fell with those of the railroad. The population peaked at around four thousand while the Disneys were living there (they left in 1911), before beginning a slow decline.

Marceline's loss is our gain: It's because Marceline has stayed small that it still feels much like the town that Walt Disney enjoyed as a boy, almost a century ago. Were he to come back today, he would have no trouble finding his way around.

The Disneys lived in this farmhouse—older than Marceline itself—just outside the town. It's now privately owned, and has been added to, but in a way that hasn't compromised the architectural integrity of the original house.

This is "Walt's dreaming tree," the cottonwood tree on the Disneys' 45-acre farm where Walt whiled away the hours daydreaming (but probably not on a chilly day in March, which is when I took this photo). The tree is accessible to the public without charge, as is the farm's reconstructed barn in the background. Hundreds of Disney fans have left their autographs inside the barn.

This depot was built after the Disneys left (click here to go to a picture of the original depot, the one the Disneys would have seen when they arrived in Marceline). When I visited in March, the depot was a construction site, the museum still some weeks away from opening. From what I saw of the new exhibits—devoted largely to the Disney family—they will be strikingly professional, with none of the thrown-together look so common in small-town museums.

Marceline's main street was called Kansas Avenue when the Disneys lived there but was redubbed Main Street U.S.A. a few years ago, in emulation of Disneyland's Main Street. Marceline boosters like to say Disneyland's street was modeled on Marceline's, but that's open to question, and probably irrelevant in any case. It's not in architectural details but in Walt Disney's nostalgia for small-town life, as evidenced not just at Disneyland but also in many of his films, that Marceline's influence can most strongly be felt.

Kaye Malins met Walt Disney when he visited Marceline in 1956 and stayed at her family's home (her father, Rush Johnson, was Marceline's mayor). She has since become Marceline's most ardent and effective booster, the sparkplug behind not just the museum but other Disney-related projects as well, including the annual September "Toonfest." That festival originated in 2001, with a celebration of Walt Disney's hundredth birthday, and has continued every year since then, attracting hundreds of Disney fans as well as such pros as Pete Docter, the director of Monsters, Inc.

[Posted April 4, 2005]