WINTERSET, Iowa — In the tiny living room of the tiny clapboard house where John Wayne was born, our tour guide explained that “The Duke’s” family moved to this town southwest of Des Moines in 1906 so his father could work in a pharmacy. They left in 1911 for Wayne’s father to take a similar job in nearby Earlham. I didn’t think much of it. None of us 16 visitors seemed to.
“Wait,” I asked the guide. “So how old was John Wayne when the family left this house?”
“Three,” she said, and continued with his life story.
Our nation’s most iconic movie star couldn’t tie his shoes when he left the house where we stood, but if you think that demeans the value of the most famous home in this little town, 30,000 annual visitors disagree. Standing in the room where little baby Wayne took his first breath — a dim, back corner space about 8 feet wide and 15 feet long — brings an inevitable hush to the tourists who come from all 50 states and dozens of countries. Some cry.
Like the rest of the house, that room is stuffed with period-era furniture and memorabilia from The Duke’s career, including photos from the 160 films starring the former Marion Robert Morrison, an eye patch he wore in the original “True Grit” and an autographed copy of “The John Wayne Story,” a 1972 biography in which he inscribed:
Haven’t read this yet. Hope I won’t regret signing it.
Though he lived in the little white house for just three years, visiting it stirs Wayne fans. It reminds them why they love John Wayne and reminds them about themselves.
“When I walked into that house, I felt a connection to my past,” Tom Rizzardo, 48, of suburban Dallas, told me as he finished the house tour I was about to begin. “I thought of playing in the street and my dad calling me inside because ‘The Cowboys’ or ‘Chisum’ was on TV.”
Wayne’s birthplace also makes clear that his greatness wasn’t just a product of the screen; it was in his journey from heartland modesty to West Coast fame. It was classic American success, even if, despite the pleas of Winterset leaders, he apparently never returned to the town.
If true, it was too bad for The Duke because the town of 4,800 could have been built on a studio back lot. A handsome limestone courthouse anchors the town square while the usual small-town suspects orbit on all sides: the movie theater, the shoe store, the coffee shop, the pharmacy (with requisite soda counter), the diner, the chiropractor and so on.
For a relatively small town, Winterset is blessed with a couple of other attractions: George Washington Carver lived here briefly in the late 1880s and is honored with a small park. It also is the seat of Madison County, as in “The Bridges of Madison County,” a book and, even more so, movie that sent countless tourists to Winterset in search of covered bridges.
In true Midwestern style, Winterset also is a friendly place. At the edge of town a sign offers greetings from the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Seventh-day Adventists, the Baptists, the Madison County Gentlemen, the Rotary Club, the Winterset Optimist Club, the VFW and, if that’s not enough, Wayne Cowden, 72, and Marilyn Hull, 73, who, in harvest season, sell freshly picked sweet corn from the back of a truck. Hull, who grew up in Winterset, takes moderate pride in coming from the same place as The Duke.
“You wouldn’t think someone like that would come from Winterset,” she said. “Then again, I didn’t know he was from here for a long time.”
A lot of people didn’t. Until Wayne died in 1979, much of Winterset didn’t give a lick about being John Wayne’s birthplace. Then, as with so many celebrities, death was a great career move. People started showing up at the house at Second and South streets, which, these days, is down the street from a video rental store and tanning salon.
“The gentleman who lived here in the early 1980s, if he forgot to lock his door, would find people standing in his living room wanting to see the birthplace of John Wayne,” my tour guide said.
In 1982, the nonprofit John Wayne Birthplace Society bought the house. It has raised $1 million of a targeted $5.5 million for a proper museum. Until then, it offers visitors a 71/2-foot bronze Wayne statue (rifle in hand, of course), a well-stocked gift shop (John Wayne beef jerky, anyone?) and 20-minute tours of the house: 10 minutes of guided talk and 10 minutes of wandering, though there isn’t far to wander in 860 square feet. Still, the memorabilia is plentiful, including his Page 4 birth announcement in the May 30, 1907, Winterset Madisonian that says, “A thirteen-pound son arrived at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Clyde Morrison Monday morning.”
That always gets the female visitors.
“Thirteen pounds?!” one said. “Where’s the whiskey?”
The main event comes around Wayne’s May 26 birthday, when the birthplace museum hosts a party that draws close to 10,000 visitors. For two days, it’s all Wayne: an auction, music, food and, of course, movie screenings. Not everyone enjoys it.
“It’s pretty interesting seeing who comes to Winterset, but every year for the party I get out of town,” said a woman who lives nearby and didn’t want to be named. “Too many people in my backyard. But I get it. Hell, it’s John Wayne. He’s an icon. And the people need to see something.”