Disney's grand idea
Rush Johnson, now 77 and president of the Disney museum, said the idea was hatched over a scotch in his basement. Disney was in town for the pool dedication, and he stayed at Johnson's home, one of the few then in town with air conditioning.
"He envisioned a working farm," Johnson said. It would be a place to teach children what an acre was and where their food came from.
The first order of business was to buy the old Disney home. Johnson was given that job. "Walt said, 'You can buy it cheaper than I can.' "
Over the years, Johnson and Disney were in frequent contact. Eventually they amassed seven properties, covering 75 acres. "It would have worked," Johnson said, recalling Disney's promise that when he invited the viewers of his television show to visit his hometown, they would come.
But the idea died shortly after Disney's death in 1966.
Johnson moved into the Disney home and expanded it carefully, leaving the farmhouse in its original shape by building an addition around it. The whole thing could be removed some day, if history or tourism requires.
Johnson's daughter, who now lives there, has developed part of the property into a free park devoted to Disney. Its two attractions are a tree and a barn.
The young Walt used to sit under a cottonwood and muse. He said he practiced "belly botany" there, examining bugs and plants. The Dreaming Tree, as it became known, has been struck by lightning and looks to be in its final years.
Recently a group called American Forests collected seeds and is selling saplings in its Historic Tree catalog along with descendants of trees associated with Andrew Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Johnny Appleseed, among many others.
The barn is a replica of the original barn that stood on the property. Disney loved it so much that he had a copy built in California to use as his office. He called it the "Happy Place." In 2001, to honor Disney's 100th birthday, Marceline erected its own replica. Both buildings were purposely constructed with a swayed roof, the way Disney remembered it.
Inside, hundreds of fans have scribbled tributes in pen on walls and beams. "Walt, thanks for the magic & fun," reads one signed by Chris Linn in 2002.
I stopped by before the morning parade on festival day and met two couples who became friends though a club of Disney memorabilia collectors.
Yvonne Anderson, of Arvada, Colo., built a wing of her house to hold her collectibles. She said she's drawn to Marceline because it is so closely linked to Disney. "If you love Disney," she says, "you've got to separate the corporate Disney from Walt Disney. There is no corporate Disney here."
A fun place
That may be true, but there's no shortage of Disney memorabilia for sale in Marceline. Like its theme-park counterpart, the town's main street will assist any visitor interested in taking home a souvenir.
The Treasure & Trash store has Disney-themed magnets, postcards, key chains, coffee cups, tote bags, aprons and plush animals. And then there are older pieces. One collectible windup train topped with a character that vaguely resembles Pluto is marked $1,500.
"Price is negotiable," the clerk says.
A Ludwig Von Drake cup seems practically reasonable at a mere $75.
Across the street at the 3D antiques store, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive as well. Bags of dirt from the main street go for $1 a pop.
But visitors don't seem to mind the commercialism.
Amy Berger, 29, who drove three hours from Independence, Mo., with her mother, was tickled with her find: a Fantasia teapot for $40.
"That was pretty cheap," she said after posing for a picture with a human-sized plush Minnie Mouse, who was seated in front of the Marceline museum. But even more than the shopping, she said, she was taken with Marceline itself.
"It's happy here."
With the amplified sounds of Zip a Dee Doo Dah echoing across the park, and hundreds of smiling faces walking the street on this festival day, I could only agree.
Earlier in the day, children took turns at a "barnyard circus." Some practiced milking cows, actually wood cutouts with rubber gloves as udders. Nearby, the cry of a squealing piglet indicated the greased-pig-catching contest was in full swing.
But all activity stopped for the parade. Marching bands, beauty queens and Shriners made their way down the main street. Then when they got to the end, they turned around and retraced their steps, parading a second time by the still-eager crowd.
But the next morning, Marceline had returned to normal. I drive the main street one last time and pause by the parking lot leading to the Dreaming Tree. I haven't seen another car since leaving my motel.
I can't help but compare this town with other ones in central Florida and California -- once out-of-the-way places surrounded by orange groves.
And as I steer toward the highway to drive two hours to the Kansas City airport, it strikes me: Perhaps Walt's dream of preserving small-town America has come true after all.
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