I spend almost three to four days a week at Walt Disney World. I cannot even begin to give a total count of the days. But one thing is for sure: the Magic Kingdom is my favorite park hands-down. For me it embodies Walt Disney, the man. The reason is that this park contains his visions, perceptions, and experiences he gleaned from the four years he lived in Marceline as a boy. Years later, his wife, Lillian, commented, “Walt remembered Marceline, Missouri more vividly than anything else in his childhood, perhaps more vividly than any place in his entire lifetime!” To understand how this small Midwestern town help shaped the life of this future animator and visionary, we need to take a trip back in time.
Walter Elias Disney was born on Sunday, December 5th, 1901 at 1249 Tripp Ave. in Chicago’s Northwest town. He was the fourth son for Elias and Flora Disney, preceded by brothers Herbert, Raymond and his later lifelong partner, Roy. How Walt got his name was the beginning of legends. A devout Christian, Elias Disney was good friends with the pastor of his church, Walter Parr. Both men’s wives were pregnant at the same time and they agreed that,if they had boys, they would be named after each other, hence the name Walter. Elias built the small house they lived in from skills he learned at the Union Pacific railroad. He made a good living building homes and furniture and selling for profit. But the neighborhood began to get worse. With crime on the increase and saloons near the home, Elias and Flora decided they needed to find a better place–a Christian place–to raise their family.
After inspecting many locations, they decided on the small railroad town of Marceline, Missouri where Elias’ brother, Robert, owned property. The town owed its existence to the railroad that ran through it: the Atchison, the Topeka, and the Santa Fe. The town had coal mines and oil wells, and Elias knew this was the place to earn a good living. In 1906 he purchased the Crane Farm from the children of a Civil War veteran who had recently died. Walt would later say he remembered nothing of his time in Chicago, but the time spent in Marceline gave him memories that lasted a lifetime. It is here where the young boy acquired his love of animals, drawing, and steam locomotives.
For young Walt, the farm was a source of wonderment and delight. He was fascinated by the livestock and claimed that his time on the farm instilled him with a special feeling towards animals that he never lost. Walt gave many of the animals names, and he loved riding the back of his pet pig porker (who to the delight of everyone would always throw him off in the mud). Walt loved the chores involving the livestock, but his interest in animals wasn’t limited to the farm. Roy and Walt would often go into the woods together, as well, observing the animals and birds as they went. This love of animals and farm life is why the majority of the cartoons Walt produced–from the Alice comedies, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Mickey Mouse, to the Silly Symphonies–revolved around stories about animals and farm life.
Another of Walt’s lifelong loves was also nurtured here at Marceline: his love of trains and steam engines. Since the Santa Fe Tracks ran through the countryside a short distance from the farm, Walt liked to put his ear to the tracks and listen for the approach of the train. His uncle, Mike Martin, was an engineer on the line between Fort Madison and Marceline, and many times he would stay overnight at the Disney farm. Walt loved the stories his uncle told about the trains. Years later, Walt’s friends and workers, Ward Kimball and machinist, Roger Broggie, intensified Walt’s love of trains by helping him build a 1/8 scale operating steam train in his backyard which Walt named the “Carolwood Pacific Railroad”. The engine was named the “Lilly Belle” in honor of his wife. This love of railroads explains why a train runs around the Magic Kingdoms. When Disneyland was in its early design stages, Walt said to one of his artists on the project, Herb Ryman, “Herbie, I just want it to look like nothing else in the world and it should be surrounded by a train.”
Perhaps the most important interest of Walt’s that was cultivated here was his love of drawing. Walt said that his interest in art began “almost as soon as I could hold a pencil.” Walt’s Aunt Margaret was his biggest supporter. She encouraged his passion for drawing and art by supplying him with crayons and pads. Walt was always drawing pictures of the animals, and since paper was usually in short supply, he would sometimes draw on toilet paper. He even quipped that it was a good thing because “that’s where most of the drawings belonged.” He recalls the time he and his sister Ruth found some tar in a barrel and drew pictures on the side of the house. His parents were furious, and since the tar would not come off, it stayed on the house even after they moved. One of Walt’s most memorable moments was when a retired Doc Sherwood asked him to draw a picture of Sherwood’s horse, Rupert. “The result was pretty terrible,” Walt recalled, but the Doctor gave Walt a nickel for his efforts. Roy Disney said later that getting paid for that drawing was “the highlight of Walt’s life.”
Despite the idyllic existence that Walt remembers of the farm, his father was not a very good farmer. After almost four years of trying to make a go of the farm, Elias caught either Typhoid Fever or Pneumonia in 1909 and was bedridden. With the bills mounting and the farm failing, Flora and he decided to sell. It was one of the saddest days in Walt Disney’s life. He remembers how he and Roy rode around in the cold winter, posting signs telling of the auction of the farm equipment and animals. But the family rented a house in town at 508 North Kansas Ave. so Walt and Ruth could finish school. Walt always considered his stay at Marceline his “Halcyon days.” And although the town changed drastically in four short years, losing its small town feel with a bigger population and more industrialization, Walt always remembered it as quiet, small town Americana. For him it was the template for how life was supposed to be, and he would spend the rest of his life trying to recover that feeling.
Walt’s short time in that memorable town helped mold and shape him for the rest of his life. It was reflected in his work and helped give rise to one of the world’s most creative geniuses. His memories of Marceline are mirrored in Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland (and to a smaller degree in Main Street U.S.A. at Walt Disney World). There is, of course, more to Walt and his creativity than Marceline gave him, but the world should be thankful that this small Midwestern town gave Walt some of his most precious memories.
Contributed by: Bill I. (NDH #35). Bill is our resident historian.