Going home again

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” – Thomas Wolfe

I venture to say that there are few people in my age group, those of us who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, who were not influenced in some way by Walt Disney. I have good memories of attending movie matinees with my mother to see Disney films – “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella” among the animated ones but every Disney movie starring Hayley Mills.

And then there was TV. It was on black and white TV that I learned of a new venture in Disney’s life – Disneyland. It opened in 1955. I was five-years-old when I made my first visit in 1956, and I surprised my parents by knowing every single ride and attraction I wanted to see. I can remember them asking each other how I knew about all of this to which I replied, “Television.” They were almost speechless. Television was a relatively new medium and they were only beginning to realize its impact on their children.

In 1949 Walt Disney released the film "So Dear To My Heart," which takes place in the early 1900s -- the same period as Walt's childhood. In the movie, oneof the structures on the farm was a barn. It was a set designed and built according to Walt's recollection of his family's barn in Marceline. This history is from a sign near the current barn on the Disney farm at Marceline.

In 1949 Walt Disney released the film “So Dear To My Heart,” which takes place in the early 1900s — the same period as Walt’s childhood.
In the movie, one of the structures on the farm was a barn. It was a set designed and built according to Walt’s recollection of his family’s barn in Marceline.
[This history is from a sign near the current barn on the Disney farm at Marceline. Photo by Gretchen Lord Anderson.]

Ironically, it was that same year, in 1956, when Walt made his first visit back to what he considered his hometown, Marceline, Mo. Marceline is about 100 miles straight east of my hometown of St. Joseph.

Walt was born in Chicago, but when he was four, his family moved to a farm on the outskirts of Marceline. They were there only five years. But in those formative years – 4 to 9 or 10-years-old – Marceline made an impression on Walt that he carried for the rest of his life. It was the Main Street of Marceline that inspired Walt’s vision of Main Street in Disneyland and, later, the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World.

Last week, I visited Marceline with my husband and brother. I didn’t expect to see much. And, really, there isn’t a lot to see. That’s no reflection on Marceline. It is, after all, a small town, not a fantasy park. There are still 70 trains a day that roar through Marceline but not one of them stops at the old Marceline Depot, a building which has been turned into a museum with the help of some of Disney’s money and which holds a treasure trove of Walt’s early years including his school desk on which he carved his initials. On that trip back home in 1956, Walt was able to walk among the school desks and pick his out because he remembered carving those initials there.

The corner of this building on Main Street U.S.A. in Marceline, Mo., held the confectionary shop when Walt Disney was a child. [Photo by Gretchen Lord Anderson]

The corner of this building on Main Street U.S.A. in Marceline, Mo., held the confectionary shop when Walt Disney was a child. [Photo by Gretchen Lord Anderson]

There’s the swimming pool on the edge of town which Walt dedicated on that trip back and which was used for the final time this past summer. And there’s the house and farm where Walt and his family lived in those five years they dwelled and worked in Marceline. The elementary school bears his name. Main Street has been redubbed Main Street U.S.A. to reflect Walt’s transference of his memories of it to his vacation parks. To its credit, and unlike many small towns these days, Marceline’s Main Street is busy with shops and at least one very busy restaurant, Ma Vick’s, which sits on the corner in the same building that held the confectionary shop when Walt was a child.

I’ve been to Disneyland twice and to Walt Disney World more times than I can remember. I seem to be as attracted to Disney movies (the animated ones) as much today as I was 60 years ago. I’ve read most of his rather large biography by Neil Gabler. And I watched with great interest the PBS American Experience program on Walt’s life. I don’t consider myself an aficionado. I am a fan.

But something happened to me in Marceline last week. In the midst of just four or five hours there, I came to an understanding of the profound effect Walt Disney had on my life. At the same time of life that he spent in Marceline and which resulted in not only his later vision for a theme park but which impacted his cartooning and his interpretations of childhood stories in movies and television, I was the recipient at the ages of 4 to 10 of much of what Walt had come to share and which had been inspired in Marceline.

I’m no authority on children, but I do know that those were years that shaped me for the rest of my life. I soaked up everything around me like a sponge, what was good and what was bad. And while my parents, my Sunday School teachers, and my teachers at Mark Twain Elementary all had a lot to do with teaching me right from wrong, I can see now that Walt Disney had just as much impact on me as any of them.

This end of the farm house served as the home for the Elias and Flora Disney family for five years in Marceline, Mo. [Photo by Terry C. Anderson]

This end of the farm house served as the home for the Elias and Flora Disney family for five years in Marceline, Mo. [Photo by Terry C. Anderson]

Excuse me for saying so, but I am no Pollyanna. I know that Walt had his downsides – but we all do. As a child, however, what I learned from Walt and what he was inspired to share from those tender years in Marceline taught me about joy and love, especially joy. He taught me that we sometimes must grieve, but even in the midst of adversity we can find joy and laughter. Even when we fail, we can learn from those failures and find joy in them. And every once in awhile, a dream or two might come true.

It took Walt maybe 50 years to return to that place that inspired him so and which he held so dear. I like to think that my first visit to Disneyland may have coincided with his first trip back home in 1956.

This connection to home and to Walt coincided last week with my own 45th high school reunion in St. Joseph. We were a class of around 500 kids and maybe a fourth of us made it back for this gathering which really hadn’t been scheduled very long in advance. Our tradition has been to regroup every 10 years, but at the 40th, many of us took note of the numbers of our classmates who had died and there was a fear, I think, that waiting a full 10 years for the next reunion would realize too much attrition.

Central High School Class of 1970, September 19, 2015; St. Joseph, Mo. [Photo by Terry C. Anderson]

I admit to some trepidation about attending the gathering – as I have felt before. I have only attended the 20th and 40th reunions in the past. But with the passing of time, with the inevitable ups and downs, successes and failures we all have experienced no matter how far and wide we have traveled, those of us in the Central High School Class of ’70 have a deep connection. Some of us share an elementary or junior high school. Those attending this reunion share the same high school.

And all of us share those years when Walt Disney and the Mousketeers had an impact on our lives (the depth of its profundity is no doubt debatable).

It is hard to go home again when you haven’t lived in your hometown for many years. Life has changed. There is disappointment that things are no longer as one might remember them. The long bike rides along the city’s expansive boulevard system may no longer be a safe thing for youngsters to do. Historic buildings are gone and replaced with empty lots. Mom and Dad are no longer living. The family home is under the care of new owners and doesn’t have a same elegant appearance that my parents gave it.

But there are wonderful surprises that can be found in going home again. Those surprises aren’t so much in the buildings or the boulevards, but in the people, the friends made 50 and 60 years ago; friends who still live in my hometown and friends who have returned as I have for just a weekend or even just an evening together.

I wonder what Walt felt when he returned to Marceline after all those years. He had romanticized it in his own mind and shared that with the world. Was he pleased to find the place as it had become? Was he able to hold on to that bit of past so that it became the present for him? We know that he ensured the old farm place would be well cared for in years to come and his family has given its assurances that they will be assisting the community in its preservation and development efforts.

Not a lot of us have the wherewithal to contribute to our hometowns as Walt was able to do when he returned. So can we go home again?

I’ve never been one to cling to the past. When I finished at one school, I just moved on to the next, never to return for a visit to the last one. When I’ve suffered loss, I’ve moved on as well – sometimes too quickly and sometimes without a proper grieving period. But I’ve moved on. There is a fine line, it would seem, between knowing when to look back and when to always move forward.

quotetestI’ve thought in recent years that Walt’s pictures of life were sugar-coated, but that wasn’t the case. Instances of what we call domestic abuse, animal abuse, ecological abuse, and the terrors of the world were all present in Walt’s productions, but he did make a successful effort to provide a happy ending in each scenario (at least for the hero or heroine). He was able to concoct joy from grief and loss.

My conclusion is, yes, we can go home again. Sometimes we have to steel ourselves for it. We have to steel ourselves for the disappointment of it. But we absolutely must be open to the little surprises, the sheer joy of the renewal of friendships we thought we had left behind and the wonderful memories that sweep in with them.

There was some kind of magic in Marceline that Walt Disney carried into his future to share with millions of others. I felt that magic in Marceline last week. But for me, it was the magic of remembering my own youth, my friends and family, and the Class of 1970.


Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. – Deuteronomy 6:4-9

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