Hometown Museum Celebrates John Wayne’s Life
By BARBARA RODRIGUEZ
WINTERSET, Iowa – Like many rural communities, the central Iowa city of Winterset has an idyllic town square, variety stores and a historic movie theater. But Winterset also has a unique claim to fame: It’s the birthplace of John Wayne, and a new museum opening here is celebrating the late actor’s life, career and local connections.
Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset in 1907. Although he moved to California at a young age, Winterset has been showcasing his local roots for years. In addition to the new museum, the small wooden house where he was born offers tours and there’s a large bronze statue of the actor in his signature cowboy hat.
“One of the things that keep a small town alive is to share their history,” said Shirley Roach, owner of a boutique in town that devotes a section to John Wayne merchandise. “John Wayne is a part of our history.”
The new 6,100-square-foot museum is located on the same block as his birthplace. The museum displays his film wardrobes, a signed Andy Warhol print of the actor and his customized 1972 Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon. It’s parked inside the gallery, near decorative wooden panels from the closing barroom fight scene of Wayne’s final film, “The Shootist.”
Visitors also can see an ashtray from his yacht, his briefcase, his personal address book – with contact information for Ronald Reagan when he was the California governor – and the eye patch Wayne wore in the movie “True Grit.”
Brian Downes, executive director of the $2.5 million museum, said the museum was built partly because tours of his childhood home were not enough to satisfy his fans. Long lines at the house meant the tours “could only be 20 minutes long,” he said. “There was a frustration there … It was really time to step up.”
Wayne, who was nicknamed the Duke, died in 1979.
The museum was funded over seven years through grants and private donations, including door-to-door pledges from residents of Winterset, population 5,000. “It was a dream for a little town to accomplish something like this,” Downes said.
Bill Ward, 59, of Rockford, Ill., visited the museum with his wife during a soft opening this month. “He’s part of my youth,” Ward said. “When you think of John Wayne, he’s an American. He loved America.”
Not all museums about 20th century celebrities remain successful. The Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, Pa., has seen a decrease in attendees and financial support over the years. A museum dedicated to Liberace closed in 2010 near Las Vegas after more than 30 years in business.
But Ruth Reed, a tour guide for Wayne’s birthplace, said the Duke has staying power. Over the years, she’s welcomed visitors from around the world. A recent Friday included visitors from Florida, Ireland, New Zealand and Puerto Rico.
“He’s still one of the top 10 movie stars in people’s memories,” she said. “Who do we have today that has anything that you’d even care to honor?”
The general $15 ticket to the museum includes a tour of Wayne’s birthplace, which has been restored to its appearance when Wayne lived there. The museum also suggests a trail of spots near and around town linked to Wayne’s family. Organizers are packaging the museum as part of an overall experience to Madison County, where Winterset is located. Nearby are the famous bridges that sparked “The Bridges of Madison County” novel, movie and Broadway musical.
Downes said many museum items come from a large private collection, and not everything is on display. That means organizers will change exhibits to keep things fresh for returning visitors.
“That’s what all good museums do,” he said. “Otherwise you’re stale.”