Marceline is a small town in northern Missouri some 90 miles from Kansas City with a population of less than 2,500 people. Initially this stop was not on my itinerary, but then I saw that it was pretty much directly between Valleyfair in Minnesota (where I had just left) and Worlds of Fun (where I was headed). A bit of a rural excursion off the interstate, but worth it I thought. Worth it because this is where Walt Disney lived with his family between the ages of four and nine.
So what? Well it’s quite possible that Walt overstated the influence of Marceline (nostalgic, rose-colored glasses and all), but he talked about his time there a great deal. In a letter to the town’s newspaper in 1938 he claimed, “To tell the truth, more things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since—or are likely to in the future.”
What and Where is Main Street?
Brian Burnes, Robert W. Butler, and Dan Viets note in their Walt Disney's Missouri: The Roots of a Creative Genius (2002):
Wherever you look in Walt Disney’s art there are echoes of Marceline, from Disney’s tremendous affection for small-town, turn-of-the-century life to the boyhood experiences that were echoed and in expanded in his animated cartoons. In fact, Disney’s concept of what it means to be an American was directly inspired by those five seminal years of his childhood. In the pre-television years of this century, millions around the globe got their impressions of America from our movies. And when they saw Walt Disney’s movies, they were getting a huge dose of Marceline, Missouri.
Cinematic and Americana influence aside, however, the greatest impression Marceline made on Walt Disney was spatial. And that impression has spread across the world as part of the thematic design of the Disney Parks, from Paris to Hong Kong.
“Main Street” as a concept developed after the Civil War and looks a bit different depending on which part of the United States you’re in. Marceline in particular is typical of one model that became extremely common during the 1890s–1910s, especially from the Midwest through the Great Plains to the Rockies. And this model is a cornerstone of American identity. As historian and cultural geographer Richard V. Francaviglia asserts in Main Street Revisited: Time, Space and Image Building in Small-town America (1996):
As it evolved in time and space, Main Street became the commercial and social heart of the American small town; as it developed in our collective thought, Main Street became an integral part of American culture. Because many people left small towns in the early to mid-twentieth century, these places became repositories of memories.
What Francaviglia is on about is that because daily life since the turn of the twentieth century has changed so dramatically, Main Street (as it was designed then) continues to be a source of nostalgia in American culture. It is a romantic place, a simple place, a safe place—as well as a slower place. A place before the automobile and highways and traffic and smartphones and fast food and even faster lives.
Marceline was founded in 1887 by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. The Disney family only lived in the town for a relatively short period of time, arriving in April 1906 and leaving for Kansas City in the summer of 1911. The primary downtown drag actually wasn’t called “Main Street” but rather Kansas Avenue.
Many of the buildings I found look very much the same as those times. This vantage is nearly identical to the postcard above. Both feature the Zurcher Building to the right.
Le Musée du Disney
A few blocks away off to the side of downtown is the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. Unfortunately I was passing through town on a Sunday in the early evening, and it had already closed. The museum is housed in the town’s former Santa Fe Railroad Depot which has been meticulously restored. It had been vacant since about 1975, and when the museum began organizing in 1998, the city was in their seventh year of trying to raise the money to buy it. The railroad wanted to tear it down, but thanks in no small part to four generous locals, it was saved. The Walt Disney Hometown Museum subsequently opened in 2001.
It’s an appropriate site, not only because this served as both the Marceline port of entry and departure for young Walt, but also because it reflects his lifelong love of trains (which became an integral component of the Disney theme park model).
The entrance area is paved with bricks presumably paid for by museum donors.
Members of the Disney family contributed funds, and most of the items in the museum’s collection were provided by the family of Ruth Flora Disney Beecher, Walt's younger sister (1903–1995). More than 3,000 individual artifacts, actually.
Although part of me wishes I had arrived early enough in the day to visit the museum, the other part is grateful for exploring Marceline without the benefit (or coloring) of interpretation. I can only assume a museum such as this is quite hagiographic, and no doubt also filled with apocryphal accounts of things which “inspired” Walt or “provided the basis” for such and such in his creative works. For example, I later read that longtime Marceline resident Rush Johnson once claimed that a slag pile on the Disney family farm was the source for Disneyland’s Matterhorn. Not likely!
Ripley, Believe it or Not
A few steps from the museum is Ripley Park at the northeast end of downtown. A nearby sign reads:
In 1898, the Santa Fe Railway donated land in the center of the city for a park. Walt Disney played in this very park as a child and would later name the first steam engine installed in his Disneyland Resort the E.P. Ripley. As a tribute to our railroad history, the park features both a steam engine and caboose.
Thus the name E. P. Ripley is noteworthy to both Disneyland and American railroad history. Edward Payson Ripley (1845–1920) became president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in 1895 and held the position for over a quarter of a century. The company sponsored the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad from opening day until 1974; Santa Fe was then dropped from the attraction name.
The locomotive on display dates back to 1911. Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe bought it in 1928, and it received the number 2546. When decommissioned, the company donated it to the City of Marceline. Its public display in the park was dedicated in the last weeks of 1955, the year Disneyland opened.
The very next year, brothers Walt and Roy visited Marceline and were received warmly by the town’s residents on the Fourth of July. Walt had previously returned to Marceline ten years prior, although many who have written about Disneyland’s origins don’t appear to be aware of it and presume his only recollections of the town were from childhood. He was observed taking handheld motion picture footage, and likely took still photographs as well.
Walt’s last visit to Marceline was in October of 1960, but he visited Kansas City twice more (May 1963 and October 1966) before his death.
Before the Disney brothers 1956 visit, the city added “Disneyland R.R.” to its paint job in honor of the Marceline / Santa Fe / Disneyland connection. The town owes its very existence to the railroad, after all.
I wasn’t able to find any information about the Santa Fe caboose which is also on display in the park.
A commemorative plaque notes the locomotive’s origin.
“Main Street USA”
After seeing the museum site and the park, I made my way downtown. As it was a Sunday, Marceline was completely deserted. Not even parked cars. Pretty much every business was closed. This, combined with the setting sun and then magic hour, gave things an eerie Twilight Zone kind of vibe.
The only thing the city appears to have done in the way marketing the Disney connection is to rename Kansas Avenue “Main Street USA” and install new street signs with Mickey Mouse ears up and down the drag. They’re small and inconspicuous; if I wasn’t looking for them I’m not sure I would have noticed.
Various business have adopted the new name and amended their addresses accordingly.
Kansas Avenue was bare dirt during the years the Disney family lived in Marceline. Like many such downtowns, in the rainy months the street turned into a disgusting river of mud and horse manure.
Brick paving was not added to portions of downtown until the year after Walt moved to Kansas City.
Reality, Fantasy, and Memory
I won’t lie—as I continued to poke around, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. The “Disney Version” has (for so many Americans) taken the place of the “Real” Main Street, so I too came expecting the mental images I had been primed with from years of visiting Disneyland as a child. At the very least I had anticipated some nostalgic restoration efforts, like countless small towns across the country have remodeled their own Main Streets to better reflect these popular expectations.
There’s very little actual Marceline DNA at the Disney Parks. Where the “Disney Version” lives is actually in Walt’s imagination—not even in his memory—as expressed by a number of designers who he had working on the project; men like Marvin Davis, Harper Goff, and John Hench. Yet Walt’s motivation wasn’t purely artistic. It was also psychological. In As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s, professor of art history and American studies Karal Ann R. Marling describes his thinking:
To make a model—in the case of Disneyland, to recreate the Marceline, Missouri, of a turn-of-the-century boyhood—was to return to those happy, bygone times as a competent adult. To make a model was to construct or reconstruct one’s own biography. To make a model of an ideal past was to reject an imperfect present.
To realize this “model of an ideal past,” Main Street USA was famously designed using forced perspective. This is an art direction technique used in building movie sets in which structures get smaller as they get taller, making them feel larger than they actually are. The first floor of Disneyland’s Main Street is 7/8th life-size, the second is 5/8th, and the third story is approximately 1/2 scale.
Yet what we have at Marceline today is the imperfect present, as well as the town’s imperfect past. Many—if not most—of the buildings had vacancies, boarded up windows, dilapidated fronts. But there are a few historic gems that are managing to hang on.
The Allen Hotel Building (1906) sits across the street from the Zurcher Building. When Walt lived in Marceline, the hotel was upstairs and Murray’s Department Store was on the first floor, where his mother Flora often took him. The hotel is long gone (and the second story appears to be in pretty bad shape), but Murray’s continues on as consignment story. There is also now a cafe on the corner.
While there are no structures directly resembling the Allen Hotel Building at any Disney Park, there is a tribute to Marceline’s boarding past at the original Disneyland. Tucked off Main Street USA on intersecting East Center Street (around the corner from the Market House) is the “Hotel Marceline” where ambient dialog of hotel guests can be heard from the second story window. I can’t help but think that the large, gray brickwork is perhaps a reference to the Allen Hotel. There are no other bricks like this on Main Street.
I’m not sure of the vintage of Marceline’s “post clock” or “street clock.” Although they were common throughout the United States after the Civil War, in more recent years companies have offered reproductions to small towns as nostalgic “sweeteners” for their renovated and Disneyfied Main Street districts.
The Uptown Theatre dates to well after Walt left town. A man named A.B. Canwell purchased the property in 1927 and three years later the theatre opened along with the Canwell Apartments upstairs.
Some cool neon featuring Deco Modern lettering which was very popular in 1930s.
There are a few signs around Marceline which point out Disney connections. For reasons unknown to me, the titles are set in Serpentine which dates to the early seventies and is commonly used in science fiction films and on men’s hygiene products.
As the sign notes, during their mid-century visit, Walt and Roy screened their Civil War adventure The Great Locomotive Chase (1956). Disney was quoted in the press as telling the packed house, “I lived in Marceline. My best memories are the years that I spent here. You children are lucky to live here.” On July 14, 1998, the Walt Disney Company returned to Marceline and premiered The Spirit of Mickey (1998) at the Uptown. Each child was given a nifty commemorative ticket and the movie was shown for free.
Unfortunately the theater was closed in 2014. A non-profit assumed ownership in 2016 with plans to reopen, but so far no progress has been made.
Walt did see his very first motion picture in Marceline, either at the opera house (which burned down in the fifties) or the Aerodrome which opened in town during those years. He once recalled that the film was a silent picture about the life of Jesus Christ, and although we have no confirmation, based on the release date it was probably either The Passion Play (French, 1903) or The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ (Italian, 1906).
The Main Street Cinema at Disneyland is a tribute to these early moviehouses.
I found a few buildings in Marceline that may have been movie theaters at one time or another. This one actually has similar proportions to the Main Street Cinema above, along with a long, flat marquee element.
The striped awnings pictured here were common during the first half of the twentieth century, and that’s one design element which has indeed been carried over to the Disney Main Street USA model.
Despite the awnings, on the second Main Street USA at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, all the design elements are even further removed from Marceline. In particular, both scale and voice were dialed up to hyperbolic levels. “Small Town Americana” was morphed and mutated into “Grand Victoriana.”
Marceline only has a few remaining lighted signs, neon or otherwise. The Pepsi-Cola logo on display dates to before the 1940s, but I can’t be sure if it’s original or a reproduction.
There are a good deal more signs hanging from the buildings on the Main Street USA at the Disney Parks. Naturally, there’s no neon giving the setting of 1910 or so.
I was surprised by the amount of brick in Marceline. The Disney Parks feature lots of wood paneling (or faux wood—fiberglass is actually used in construction) mixed in with brick work on their Main Streets. I couldn’t find sign of any business on the ground floor. Sadly the windows on the second floor have all been ‘bricked in.’
The other thing which surprised me overall were the proportions. Most of the buildings along Marceline’s downtown drag were long. Conversely, the Disney Parks cram many narrower structures together. This single grouping on the southeast side of the street came the closest to the visual density of the Disney Main Street USA.
On this single northeast block of Main Street USA there are ten individual facades.
Conversely, this was the most visually dense and diverse block in Marceline. Half of it unoccupied.
Main Streets Around the World
According to my research, The Zurcher Building is the only structure which can be directly dusted for fingerprints at Disneyland. It was built in 1892, with the second floor added in 1903, the year Zurcher Jewelers began occupying the place. They stayed for sixty years.
The Zurcher Building was the inspiration for Coke Corner at the northwest end of Main Street USA. Note that the original in Marceline still has a large Coca-Cola mural painted alongside it, and it also sits on a northwest corner. Obviously the Disney Version is much embellished and far more fanciful than its distant Marceline cousin.
Another nearly identical building called Main Street Sweets exists halfway around the world at Hong Kong Disneyland (2005). This is the first and only time that Main Street USA from the original Disneyland has been duplicated, most likely for cost-saving. Each and every facade is nearly identical to its twin in Anaheim, although there were small aesthetic changes made for context. For example, the “Penny Arcade” was renamed “Centennial Hall” because the site of the Hong Kong park is called “Penny’s Bay.” The street is also covered entirely in brick pavers, whereas at Disneyland only the sidewalks are bricked.
Walt Disney World opened in Orlando, Florida five years after Walt Disney died, but preliminary design work for it began before he passed away. The Magic Kingdom park is based on the layout of the original Disneyland with improvements in mostly organization and landscaping. This second Main Street USA is more broadly Victorian in design, and much larger than the one at Disneyland. Many of the same designers worked on both parks, though Walt’s Marceline memories seem to have been set aside.
It’s easily the most elaborately themed and detailed of all the Disney Parks. With so much world-class art and architecture spread across Europe, the designers felt they had to go to greater lengths to create immersive environments. Initially the plan was for a streetscape themed to the 1920s, but this was discarded in favor of the more broadly Victorian look of the Magic Kingdom. The French associate the romance of America with the bustle of business, so this Main Street USA features large billboards and other advertising graphics which are unique to this park.
It’s about as visually far removed from Marceline, Missouri as you can possibly get.
So yes, the original Main Street USA at Disneyland is based somewhat on Walt Disney’s childhood memories of the four years he lived in Marceline. Perhaps “inspired” is the better word—again the Zurcher Building is the only structure which Walt or any of his designers claimed to have given a direct nod to. And with the exception of Hong Kong’s near copy, each further iteration of the Main Street USA model gets further and further away from the source. What’s funny is that source isn’t even Marceline. While Marvin Davis oversaw the master plan for Main Street USA with Walt Disney’s personal input, the majority of the actual design work fell to studio artist Harper Goff and his own childhood memories of growing up in Ft. Collins, Colorado.
I’ll get around to detailing this Colorado connection in a future post. But before I leave town, there’s one more stop to make.
A Dream, a Tree, and a Barn
When I pulled off at the Top of Iowa Welcome Center, I picked up a tri-fold brochure on Marceline (“Where Walt Found the Magic”) which lists the number one Disney attraction in town as The Dreaming Tree and Walt’s Barn (the Walt Disney Hometown Museum was #4).
So after taking all my photos in and around downtown, I drove out to the edge of Marceline to see what all the hype was about. There was a clearing and a wide path of grass leading off the road to what looked like a farm property. Halfway down this path was a large—though rather young looking—tree. The sign posted in front of the tree (corrected for grammar, punctuation and capitalization) reads as follows:
The Son of Dreaming Tree
This Dreaming Tree Sapling was planted September 2004 by Bradford Disney Lund and Walt Disney World Ambassadors Sara Spike, Juan Aviles, and Christopher Stewart who brought Soil from the Magic Kingdom and water from the Rivers of America to be added to the soil on the Disney Farm for the planting ceremony.
The original 125 year-old Dreaming Tree fell during a windstorm in 2015; the newer sapling standing here now came from a seed harvested from the original cottonwood which once stood some 30 feet away.
The mystique is that (again, likely apocryphal territory here) young Walt used to sit under it and daydream. The Walt Disney Hometown Museum calls the site “a magical location where Walt first learned to draw, write and dream.” In a sense, this kind of reverential treatment is no different than medieval pilgrims who travelled to see a splinter of the “True Cross.” Now the only thing left is a splinter “related” to the original splinter.
Continuing forward down the path, there is a bare, dark wood picket fence to the left. And several more signs along the way which tell the story of the Disney family’s time in the area:
Coming to Marceline
Elias purchased 45 acres in Marceline from his brother Robert at a price of $125 an acre, promising installment payments with money he was to receive for houses in Chicago that Flora had designed and he had built. In the spring of 1906, the Disney family packed up their belongings and moved to Missouri.
And then another a bit further on:
Walt Disney was the age of four when his family moved from Chicago to a forty-acre farm in Marceline. Walt quickly learned to love farm life, and the old barn became his and his younger sister Ruth’s favorite place to play.
The barn provided Walt with his first show business experience when he produced a “barn circus” and charged the neighborhood kids a dime admission. When his audience discovered the circus consisted of a goat, a pig, and the family dog and cat dressed in Ruth’s doll clothes. they protested. Hearing the commotion, Walt’s mother Flora promptly ordered Walt to refund the admission with this admonishment: “If you deliver more than your audience expects—they will never be disappointed.” It’s a lesson Walt took to heart.
The path through the woods then gives way to a small clearing, with a final sign just a ways apart from a barn appearing to be from the turn of the century, but in remarkable condition for how old it looks:
The Happy Place
In 1950 Walt recreated the barn from Marceline at his home in California and used it as his personal workshop. It became his “Happy Place” and became the birthplace of “Disney Imagineering.”
There aren’t any other signs outside. So, this is the barn from California then?
As it turns out, nope. Inside there are some additional signs, and a small binder that tells the story of “Walt’s Barn” in the format of a children’s storybook. The story concludes:
Back on Walt’s boyhood farm, the old barn had been removed. Friends and neighbors got together and built a new barn to celebrate Walt’s 100th birthday. After a long tie, the barn arrived home again.
And in smaller print and more detail, presumably for the grown-ups:
The saga of Walt’s bars completed a full circle on September 22, 2001. As a part of the celebration of his 100th birthday, the townsfolk of Marceline, which has a population of 2,500, built a replica of the original barn on the farm once owned by the Disney family. Long ago, the first barn disappeared, perhaps because it was used as firewood during the Great Depression. As a fitting tribute, the humble little red barn finally came home from its long journey through the life and times of a small town farm boy who became a genuine American original: Walter Elias Disney.
Visitors are encouraged to leave notes, signatures, and otherwise write on the inside of the barn. Thankfully, I didn’t find anything disrespectful in a public restroom wall kind of way.
Along with the interpretive signage and book, there are a few props to complete the “old farm look” such as a wooden barrel, wagon, and some tools. The floor is bare gravel.
Travels in Hyperreality
Now, there’s a couple things going on here. And just like Main Street USA’s relationship to Walt’s boyhood years spent in Marceline, it gets a bit muddy. What we have is what French philosopher Jean Baudrillard in his seminal Simulacra and Simulation described as a “breakdown in the referential chain.”
The chain goes something like this: There was once a barn in Missouri. Walt Disney remembered that barn from his childhood, and then he built a barn in his backyard in California for his Carolwood Pacific Railroad. He used the structure as a workshop, and referred to it as his “happy place.” That barn—to him, to Walt—was the barn from his youth. But it was only based on his memories, some forty years on. He didn’t have any photos. No blueprints or drawings. He just remembered it, and he built it.
In a sense, it’s completely imaginary. Years after Walt Disney passed away, his daughter Diane Disney Miller recognized the importance of this backyard barn and saved it before escrow on the property closed and it was transferred to new owners. That barn has been open to the public since 1999 in Griffith Park, in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, and is maintained by the Carolwood Foundation.
As the signage here in Marceline indicates, in 2001 folks in town “built a replica of the original barn on the farm once owned by the Disney family.” But they didn’t. Because the structure they used for reference was the one Walt built in his backyard. Which has no actual connection to whatever barn once existed on this farmland, except in Walt’s mind. Granted, it’s not red like the Carolwood barn. It’s been built and finished to look “old timey.” To look “authentic.” To look like it belonged on this farm property, circa 1906–1911.
Which brings us to Baudrillard’s concern. He called things like Walt’s Barn “simulacra,” by which he meant a copy for which no original exists. Exactly like Main Street USA (and much of thematic design). Along with others such as Umberto Eco, Baudrillard argued that this “original-less copy” is a truth in its own right. He called it the hyperreal.
More on this later. Next stop: Worlds of Fun!