Q&A X10: John Wayne Birthplace Museum

The John Wayne Birthplace Museum in Winterset, Iowa has been a huge hit since its grand opening just a couple of years back.  Each time I’m in town (I love Winterset and visit as often as I can) I notice visitors from all over stopping by to learn about John Wayne.

Brian Downes, the Executive Director of the museum was nice enough to answer a few questions about the museum, John Wayne fans and more for this edition of 10 Questions.

1. The John Wayne Birthplace Museum opened to rave reviews just a couple of years ago.  What has been the most exciting part of getting this long overdue museum up and running.

Most thrilling to me is the outpouring of support from the fans.  People the world over literally LOVE John Wayne and his durability is amazing.  When our capital campaign kicked into gear we learned quickly how widespread that support would be.  Our project was completed for $2.5 million and fully 2/3rds of those dollars were provided by ordinary fans.

2.  John Wayne passed away in 1979. and his last film The Shootist was released back in 1976. How does the museum help keep his name and legacy alive to generations of Americans that didn’t grow up with him as a household name?

John Wayne endures for a number of reasons.  People relate to his likability today as much as they did during the peak of his career.  While he remains an ideal symbol of the American Spirit he is first and foremost a legendary film star.  That point is driven home the moment visitors enter our doors where the first thing they see is a 1930s movie marquee above our theater entrance. The museum tells Duke’s story through fine art (sculpture and art prints) and artifacts.  There is something remarkably appealing about being inches away from John Wayne’s personal automobile, wardrobe from his most classic movies and hand-signed letters to ordinary fans.

3.   The collection of John Wayne artifacts and memorabilia will delight any fan that visits.  Which piece was the hardest to obtain?

Opinions on this will vary but, for me, it would have to be the actual horse drawn jaunting car from The Quiet Man. I heard rumors that it still existed back in 1990, long before I was associated with the museum.  We became very close to Quiet Man star Maureen O’Hara in her later years. In 2013 we hosted a dinner in her honor in Winterset and she thoroughly enjoyed herself.  She passed away two years later and we worked very closely with her family to allow us to exhibit the vehicle in our museum.

4.   What item do you have in the collection that surprises most visitors?

That’s another difficult question.  So many fans and so many favorite movies.  One writer was excited that we had John Wayne’s saddle from The Cowboys since that was his favorite movie. I’ve seen folks linger at the case that contains the iconic hat Duke wore in Rio Bravo and some are intrigued to read a letter Wayne wrote to the Madison County Iowa recorder’s office requesting a copy of his birth certificate.  I think what surprises visitors most is to learn that our hero is such an ordinary fellow.

5.   How long did John Wayne actually live in Winterset, Iowa?

Our best estimate is 3-4 years.

6.   The bronze statue in front of the museum is a favorite photo op for tourists – how big is it?

Pretty close to 7 feet tall.  Wayne was 6’4″.  Figure a tall hat, high heeled boots and the statue’s base, the sculpture is darned close to life size.


7.   Winterset prides itself on being John Wayne’s birthplace but did he ever return to visit later in life?

Probably not.  Some wishful thinkers tell a story about a limo with tinted windows rolling through here maybe fifty years ago but, if that happened, nobody actually saw the actor.  Remember, there was nothing special about the Morrison (Duke’s real last name) family.  Just another little family with a baby.  They had no lasting roots to the community, no relatives and no property. The future star had no lasting memories of our town and certainly would never have thought of his birthplace as anything special. Tell you the truth, I’ve never visited my own first home.

8.    Your gift shop is packed with John Wayne merchandise.  What is the most popular thing people buy?

Because of their affordability and ease in carrying, we’d have to say coffee mugs, T-shirts and John Wayne DVDs.

9. People from all over the world loved John Wayne.  How far have people traveled to visit the new museum?

We get plenty of Australians. Is there anyplace further than Australia?


10.  Someone reading this right now may have little or no interest in learning about John Wayne.  Give them one good reason why they should absolutely know about him.

There is no “one good reason.” The story of John Wayne is the American Dream itself.  The legend began in the most ordinary circumstances in an ordinary heart-of-America community.  The values Duke championed–hard work, honesty, determination, patriotism–are as healthy as ever and his life is an example of what can be achieved when you never give up.


To learn more about the John Wayne Birthplace Museum you can visit:  http://www.johnwaynebirthplace.museum/

To learn more about Madison County, Iowa:  http://www.madisoncounty.com/


Did you know that Winterset, Iowa is featured in Bill’s book – 100 Things To Do In America Before You Die? 

Check it out and buy a signed copy in time for the holidays!

Click HERE.


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