Years before Marion Robert Morrison became actor John Wayne, he already had a claim to fame in his hometown of Winterset, Iowa. It happened 100 years ago, in the wee hours of May 26, 1907.
“He weighed 13 pounds—the biggest baby in the area!” says Elinor “Buzz” Walters, who has lived in Winterset (pop. 4,768) for nearly 50 years and today guides tours of the house in which the movie-star-to-be was born. The four-room home where Wayne spent his first three years now attracts visitors from around the world.
The John Wayne Birthplace Society, a local non-profit organization, purchased the home in 1980 and opened it to the public a short time later.
“There continues to be a demand to see where he was born, even from younger people,” Walters says. “His movies made such an impression with people that they want to know everything about him, starting with where he came from.”
Tours begin in the home’s kitchen, which looks much like it would have in the early 1900s. Wayne’s pharmacist father, Clyde, and mother, Mary, moved their family to Earlham, 12 miles north of Winterset, when Marion was a toddler because Clyde had purchased a drugstore there. In 1911, the family relocated to Glendale, Calif., where young Marion was nicknamed “Big Duke” by neighbors because he never was seen without his terrier, Little Duke.
“Naturally, he preferred the name ‘Duke’ to the name ‘Marion,’ and it stuck,” Walters says. Once he got his foot in the movie business, Marion changed his name to the more masculine “John Wayne” in the 1930s.
In the home’s parlor and adjoining rooms are hundreds of photographs, posters and other memorabilia featuring the Hollywood actor and his life. Walters is especially fond of a note from former President Ronald Reagan, who visited the birthplace in 1984, five years after Wayne’s death.
“Ronald Reagan went right over and signed the guest book with his address as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.,” she says. “He was probably our most famous visitor.”
The attraction—open seven days a week, year-round (except holidays)—draws visitors from each of the 50 states as well as several countries.
“I’ve always wanted to come here, ever since I knew about it,” says Debbie Durbin of Custer, Wash., who made the trip with her husband, Tim. “I was very close to my grandfather, and he was not impressed by anyone but John Wayne. I remember watching his movies with my grandfather, and being here reminds me of those days.”
Tim Durbin, who worked in the visit during a business trip to LeMars, Iowa, says Wayne represents a “piece of Americana. The persona of John Wayne is huge.”
Walters agrees. “When people come through here it’s almost as if they’re walking into a church,” she says. “For them, there was no bigger hero than John Wayne.”