Proof that you can find fun things to do almost where you travel: On a recent trip to Iowa to visit my husband’s parents, we discovered Madison County, which not only has the famed bridges from the Robert James Waller book/Meryl Streep-Clint Eastwood movie, it also contains Winterset, the town where John Wayne was born in 1907.
Winterset is not very big, so it wasn’t too hard to find the birthplace (and the big picture on the side of the house kinda gave it away). The home receives between 65,000 to 70,000 visitors a year, proof that the Duke’s legend still has popular appeal. A guided tour costs $6 for adults.
The home itself is very nondescript. Built in the 1880s, the birthplace is only 4 rooms, with none of the original furnishings. There are a few authentic movie props, such as the eye patch Wayne wore in True Grit. John Wayne spent his first four years here as Marion Robert Morrison before his family found a house elsewhere in Iowa. The bulk of Wayne’s formative years took place in California, where the Morrisons moved when Marion was 8.
Understandably, Marion never liked his name as a kid. He received the nickname Duke when he was 10 on his newspaper route. He became an athletic teenager and was recruited by USC for college football. His break in show business came when he worked for 20th Century Fox studios as an intern and later as a production assistant.
As we sifted through the John Wayne memorabilia in the birthplace gift shop, I realized that I’ve only seen one of his movies: John Ford’s Stagecoach. The 1939 film wasn’t Wayne’s first movie – he had been chosen for The Big Trail in 1930 because of his looks and his voice – but it put him on the map.
Being the John Wayne birthplace puts Winterset on the map too (although Michele Bachmann famously mistook Waterloo as Wayne’s hometown in June 2011). There’s a statue of Wayne in a park next to the home, and the town is raising money to build a much larger museum. For Wayne’s Centennial in 2007, 58 of his descendants came to Iowa for the celebration.
All in all, we had more fun at the birthplace than we thought we would. I came away thinking that I needed to rent some John Wayne movies. And my husband, who did enjoy John Wayne westerns as a kid, liked learning more about the man behind the legend.