By Carol Carpenter Hanson
When fans of American icon John Wayne flock to Winterset to enjoy the town’s annual John Wayne Birthday Celebration, May 27-28, they will find themselves standing at the center of all-things-Duke when it comes to his legacy and roots. After all, Winterset is where Marion Robert Morrison, a.k.a. John Wayne, was born on May 26, 1907. It’s also where fans can tour the John Wayne Birthplace that has hosted more than one million people over the years and visit the John Wayne Birthplace Museum that opened last year and houses Wayne memorabilia.
Though most Iowans know that Wayne was born in Winterset, few know the names of the other Iowa towns in which he and his family lived before moving to California. It’s a piece of Iowa trivia that is largely unknown, but can be learned firsthand by following the John Wayne Birthplace Trail that winds through Winterset, Earlham, Des Moines, Keokuk and Brooklyn.
In a letter that he wrote to me in 1962, Wayne recalled his last stop in Iowa.
“My family and I lived in Brooklyn just before we moved to California. As a matter of fact, when we were packing our things to move to California, which was in the wintertime, sparks from the pot-bellied stove set the packing materials on fire. I was six years old at the time, and I vividly remember the fire.”
Years later, research revealed that the Morrison’s home had caught fire in 1914, causing considerable damage to the house located on Jackson Street.
Wayne’s father, Clyde Morrison, was a registered pharmacist in the early 1900s. In those days, a pharmacist’s salary and responsibilities were marginally higher than those of a store clerk. So it wasn’t unusual for pharmacists to move from one job and town to another while attempting to amass a nest egg to buy their own store.
In 1909, when Wayne was 28 months old, his father left his job at Smith’s Drug Store in Winterset. From there, he moved his son and wife, Mary “Molly,” to Brooklyn. But it was a short stay, only five months; when he heard that an Earlham pharmacy was for sale he managed to secure funds for a down payment and took it over in 1910.
Although Clyde was a likable store owner — his handsome good looks attracted many lady admirers who liked to bend his ear — he wasn’t a good business manager. By December 1911, he was forced to declare bankruptcy of the Earlham store.
The Earlham newspaper reported that the Morrisons had put their goods in storage and left for their “temporary home in Des Moines.” It’s believed that the family stayed with Molly’s parents, who were listed in the 1911 Des Moines City Directory at 1402 Locust St. Molly’s father, Robert Brown, was a printer for the Register & Leader newspaper and her mother, Margret, ran a seamstress shop.
Clyde managed to land a position at a Keokuk drug store and lived there for part of 1912, taking his son with him to live in an apartment above the store. It was there, in the fall of 1912, that the future Hollywood movie star first attended school as a primary student at Keokuk’s George Washington Elementary School.
None of the numerous biographies written about Wayne, however, have correctly accounted for his Iowa years 1913 and 1914. Most only mention that his father worked odd jobs here and there before moving the family to California in May 1914.