Winterset is still Wayne’s world
There’s a little white house that sits on a corner of a street near the downtown part of Winterset, Iowa.
The house is really tiny – four small rooms and a bathroom. Not much else. It’s hard to imagine how a family of three could have spent much enjoyable time while living in such confining conditions.
It would have been harder to imagine that the young family living there in the early 1900s could have ever dreamed that the house would one day be so popular that nearly 40,000 visitors a year come just to walk through it, marvel at the displays and soak up the memories of that young family.
I was one such visitor on March 29.
Though I had seen the sign on Interstate 80 for years about the John Wayne Birthplace in Winterset, I had never actually toured the house until this past month. You know the excuse – “Sure, it sounds fun … but I’m too busy this trip. I’ll see it next time!”
“Next time” finally arrived for me on March 29 and it turned into a very special day.
“Step back in time and picture the life of a young Midwestern boy and his family near the turn of the 20th century,” reads the brochure about the site. “This modest four-room home has been restored to reflect its appearance in 1907, the year of the Duke’s birth.”
I have long been a fan of western films of all variety. “Shane,” the story of the enigmatic gunfighter, played to perfection by Alan Ladd in 1953, is my all-time favorite western movie. There are so many memorable characters, scenes and lines, such as Little Joe at the end shouting, “Shane! Come back!”
But I recognize that the greatest western star of all time was that Iowa lad who was born in Winterset and became known as “Duke” Wayne. While Ladd was superb in one western, Wayne fashioned a body of work portraying the western hero that is unrivaled in American film history.
Driving into Winterset on John Wayne Drive gives one the feeling that he or she is going back in time to a kinder, gentler way of life. The storefronts are attractive and well maintained, and the streets are alive with people going about the business of living in Iowa, eager to enjoy the eternal spring that flowers after each brutal winter.
When I arrived at the John Wayne Birthplace Home, I was greeted by Brian Downes, the executive director of the site. Talking with Brian offers a glimpse into the type of impact that John Wayne has exerted on the lives of so many people.
“I DIDN’T KNOW it until I moved here – but John Wayne had ‘Iowa’ written all over him,” said Brian. “It’s the lifestyle, the way people live and treat each other, the down-to-earth quality. That’s what John Wayne really was and I think he learned it here in Iowa.”
Downes grew up in Illinois and worked at the Chicago Tribune for 35 years. Wanting to play a part in the John Wayne Birthday Centennial in 2007, he brought a Wild West style show to Winterset and helped run the parade. He subsequently fell in love with the little town and the role it is playing in keeping alive the memory of its most famous son.
The society is a not-for-profit organization run by a board of directors and they were so impressed by Downes’ attitude and background in 2007 that they offered him the position of executive director. He quickly accepted and moved to Winterset in 2008.
“The people here really put out the welcome mat,” he said, sitting in his small office in the center of town. “I rented for the first two years and then bought a neat little house, built about 90 years ago. I really like it.”
Downes may like his house, but he absolutely loves working to keep alive the memory of John Wayne, a man he had admired as a youngster and met in May of 1977.
“I was working at the Tribune and called him to see if I could get an interview,” said Downes. “John Wayne was great to me – that’s what motivates me so much in this job. He was so incredibly natural and at ease around people.
“He would return phone calls – why, he even answered his own phone at home. He answered all of his mail. He was just a terrific guy; all the fame never went to his head, from all I have heard about him through the years.”
Winterset became aware of the importance of restoring the Wayne home in the late 1970s. In 1982, the home was bought by the John Wayne Birthplace Society for $25,000. It has since acquired additional property, tons of memorabilia – including original clothing worn by Duke in his movies and letters from major movie celebrities. The single greatest contribution to date is a magnificent larger-than-life bronze statue given by the John Wayne family, and valued at $175,000.
According to the birthplace brochure, “An impressive collection of John Wayne memorabilia includes unique items such as the eye-patch worn in the movie, ‘True Grit,’ a hat worn in Rio Lobo, and a prop suitcase used in the film ‘Stagecoach.’ Hundreds of rare photographs of the Duke are on display as well as letters from Lucille Ball, Gene Autry, Maureen O’Hara, Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglas, Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan and George Burns.”
The society bought an adjacent lot where a gas station once sat and went about the business of renovating the lot and planning a new museum, at a cost estimated at over six million. The State of Iowa also chipped in.
“The state paid for the removal of the gas tanks and the testing of the site to make sure it was acceptable,” said Downes. “The state did a bang-up job; we are so thankful.”
The John Wayne Birthplace site opened to the public in 1982. Its most famous visitor arrived on November 3, 1984. That’s the day President Ronald Reagan, a man with strong Iowa ties himself and a longtime friend of Wayne, toured the facility, complete with secret service and assorted associates. Carolyn Wilson has run the extensive gift ship for many years and takes great pride in the house and the many visitors that she has seen come through the doors.
“Some people think John Wayne only has older fans, but that’s definitely not the case,” said Carolyn. “We get lots of young people who are really big John Wayne fans.
“Recently, we had a family visit with a five-year-old boy. He began saying lines from John’s movies and suddenly everyone was standing around listening to him. He quoted the lines from the famous mud fight scene in ‘McClintock,’ word for word. We had a tour set to go to the house but no one wanted to leave. It was very interesting … it gives me goosebumps just talking about it.”
She also loves to tell the story about the man who came to America from England with just one goal – to see the birthplace home of his hero, John Wayne.
“He was retiring from his company after many years and they wanted to give him a very special retirement gift. They asked him what he wanted and he said to come to Iowa to see the birthplace of John Wayne.” She paused to let her words sink in. “He stayed about five days. He was so thrilled to be here.”
The entire community and the state have been very supportive of the efforts of the John Wayne Birthplace Society, said Downes.
“The chamber, the newspaper, the people here – it’s really something,” said the native of Chicago. “Winterset is a very special place to a lot of people, and a lot of the credit goes to a man named John Wayne.”
(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal. Born and raised in Waterloo, he retired from a 35-year newspaper career in 2002. He is the author of 21 books and is a public speaker. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton.)