This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
-- Newspaper editor in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."This is the Midwest, sir. Here, we deal in facts.
John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907, in the only bedroom of a house that still stands on 2nd Street in Winterset. He was 13 pounds when he greeted the world, and given the size of that bedroom, he probably filled it.
He left Winterset, with his parents, as a 3-year-old toddler. Nearly a century later, it hasn't changed much. Today's Winterset is a lovely, viable Iowa town. Many of its 5,000 residents work in Des Moines, but it has a sense of itself and of its own history.
George Washington Carver lived and worked here en route to greatness. It's pleased to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, the county Historical Complex features a gathering of old structures, and its six remaining covered bridges -- young Marion might have traveled across some of them -- still attract crowds 15 years after "The Bridges of Madison County" (and the movie Clint Eastwood filmed here) created a trashy sensation.
That's faded a bit.
"It's nothing like there was," said Joanne Nichols, once a tour guide who now works the gift shop at Roseman Bridge (1883). "We'd have four or five buses a day," said Carolyn Wilson, manager of the John Wayne birthplace house. "We're down to two a week, three a week now."
The courthouse was built in 1876 -- the year of Custer's Last Misjudgment -- to replace the one that burned down a year earlier. It's still there. So is the Northside Cafe, which was already selling ham and eggs when that new courthouse opened across Jefferson Street. So are almost all the storefronts on courthouse square, some dating to the 1860s.
The movie house, that wasn't there yet. The Iowa Theatre went up in the 19-teens.
Scheduled for showing, for free, at the Iowa on what would have been John Wayne's 100th birthday: "Rio Lobo," "The Sands of Iwo Jima" and "Rio Bravo" -- all starring Marion Morrison of Winterset, Iowa.
Followed, for $7, by the latest "Pirates of the Caribbean."
The cavalry hat he wore in "Rio Lobo" is in a showcase in that little bedroom in the house today called "the Birthplace of John Wayne," an earnest tribute. Modest admission charged.
In a couple of years, it'll be in the John Wayne Museum, over on 1st Street -- now John Wayne Drive -- where the old Conoco gas station has been a shell for years . . . not that it would probably matter to The Duke.
"He never came back," Wilson said -- though there were rumors of a furtive visit. "People did see a stretch limo driving around, but stretch limos weren't John's style."
"It was no big deal to him," said Gary Hood, who sells antiques and collectibles (including some Wayne items) on Jefferson Street. "He lived here when he was 3 years old. I don't remember anything from when I was 3 years old. The only communication [the town] ever had with him was sending a request here for a birth certificate."
John Wayne has been dead since 1979. Stomach cancer got him after lung cancer didn't. His last movie, "The Shootist," came out three years earlier, in 1976 -- and yet:
"It's because of what he represents," said Wayne Davis, coordinator for the town's centennial weekend events, which were to include concerts by Michael Martin Murphey, a Wild West show and a groundbreaking for the museum.
"Particularly for people overseas, John Wayne is America and the values America stands for: independent, responsible for his actions, loyal -- almost to a fault -- and somebody who won't take a lot of guff, somebody who believes in what's right."
Plus, he made westerns.
"If you watch 'McQ' [Wayne as a Seattle cop], you go, 'Wow, look at all those '73 Chevies,' " Davis said. "But 'Stagecoach,' which was made in 1939, can still be as relevant as the westerns they make today."
The Wayne legend is the Wayne legend. The facts: He was a man married three times and separated from No. 3 at the end. He was never really a cowboy and, though we're told he tried to enlist, certainly not a soldier. ("I believe that's part of the reason he became a superpatriot -- a certain embarrassment he wasn't in the war," said Davis.) And in small ways, he maybe wasn't all he seemed.
"He wore a hairpiece from very, very early in his career," noted birthplace guide Lorrie Saveraid.
How close was the man to the man on the screen?
"He was about 75 percent the same way," said frequent co-star Harry Carey Jr., "except that in person he had a lot more humor. He had a great sense of humor."
And will the museum be more about legend or fact?
"That's hard to say," said Caroline Wilson. "He was a real person, but he created the legend. A legend lives on and on in history."
So The Duke, in a way, is coming back to Winterset at last. Whether this new $5.5 million museum, which boosters insist will be state of the art, lives on and on in Iowa is a fair question.
"I know my kids know John Wayne," said Nichols, "but is it because they were raised one block from the John Wayne birthplace? I don't know."
"I personally don't know," concurred Hood. "It'll be a nice addition to that corner, and it's going to be more than a tourist trap -- let's put it that way."
As for the legend John Wayne created:
"He's what all of us want to be."
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IF YOU GOGETTING THERE
Winterset, Iowa, is about 30 minutes southwest of Des Moines and about 370 miles from Chicago, almost all those miles on Interstate Highways 88 and/or 80. Figure about 6 hours from the city by car.
The John Wayne birthplace house is a couple of blocks from the Madison County courthouse; the county's covered bridges, made famous by "Bridges of Madison County," are scattered about. If not on a tour, you'll need a vehicle.
Winterset's only commercial lodging is a Super 8 north of town off Iowa Highway 92 (515-462-4888 or 800-800-8000; www.super8.com). Doubles, $65; subject to change. There also are a couple of small motels in De Soto (I-80 exit 110, the Winterset exit), and plenty of rooms in all price ranges near the junction of Interstates 80 and 35, west of Des Moines.
Best full-service restaurant is the new (since December) Keystone Steak House, north of town, which adds a few creative flourishes (e.g., Southwest egg rolls) to the standard fare. Chancer's Bar and Grill, a sort of family sports bar, is nearby. In town by the courthouse are several family-friendly options, most notably Northside Cafe (circa 1876), featured in the "Bridges" movie; Cooking From the Heart, with hearty country fare; and the lunch counter at Montross Pharmacy. Locals fill cozy Rudy's, south of town, at breakfast. Also around: a couple of pizza franchises, a Subway and a Hardee's.
COVERED BRIDGE FESTIVAL
Since 1970, long before the novel or the movie, celebrating the county's six surviving covered bridges (www.madisoncounty.com/index.php?page=covered-bridge-festival). The usual festival food and fun each year on the second full weekend in October.
Madison County Chamber of Commerce: 800-298-6119; www.madisoncounty.com. Birthplace of John Wayne: 515-462-1044; www.johnwaynebirthplace.org.