Did you know that Winterset, Iowa is the home of the John Wayne Birthplace Museum? Since we love John Wayne movies and are raising our kids to love these classics, a visit to this museum was an exciting part of our trip. We expected that we would spend a little time looking at some memorabilia and walking through his home and then be on our way, but what we discovered while we were there was something else entirely. Learning about the life of Marion Robert Morrison was only half the fun of this stop; the best part was getting to hear personal stories of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara from the museum director, Brian Downes.
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John Wayne Birthplace Museum
The town of Winterset may not be familiar at first to many people but some of you may recognize the county instead. Madison County, Iowa is the Covered Bridge Capital of Iowa, with the largest group of covered bridges that exists in one area in the western half of the Mississippi Valley. It is also the inspiration for the movie Bridges of Madison County (Meryl Streep & Clint Eastwood).
When you first arrive at the John Wayne Birthplace Museum, you are going to want to spend some time out front getting the perfect photo with the legendary film star John Wayne!
You start your tour with a short film that showcases the legendary roles of John Wayne. This montage of film clips from some of his iconic roles helps sets the stage for all the exhibits that you can see in the museum.
The museum part of the experience is not large but is full of pieces that tell the story of John Wayne. This is one of those places that you could possibly fly through in an hour, but if you do, you will miss the stories that each exhibit tells.
Some of the highlights of the museum:
Fans of The Quiet Man will recognize this wagon as the one that John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara rode in the movie. It was donated by Maureen O’hara’s family after her death.
Seeing the wagon was neat, but hearing the stories of Maureen O’hara by a personal friend brought the movie magic to life. We were honored to have a tour directed by Executive Director Brian Downes. As a childhood fan of John Wayne who grew up to be a personal friend of both John Wayne and Maureen O’hara, Brian had so many stories to share of these two iconic film stars.
There was the personal calendar showing the time that Director Downes first met with John Wayne.
As a former travel writer for the Chicago Tribune and personal friend of the Wayne family, Brian Downes understands the importance of verifying and authenticating all exhibits. As we moved through the museum, he had stories to tell of where the exhibits came from and how they were acquired.
There’s the valise that belonged to Wayne that his daughter rescued after his death.
Recognize these wood panels from John Wayne’s last movie, The Shootist? They were donated to the museum and are original pieces of the movie set!
Fans of John Wayne often assume that he was an avid horseman on and off the set. But in reality, Wayne preferred his boat. John Wayne said that he only rode horses when he was being paid! His preferred vacation pastime was to spend time on his boat!
There are so many things to see and take in when you visit the John Wayne Birthplace Museum and I don’t want to ruin the trip for you by showing you everything. So next time you are near Des Moines, Iowa, stop in and say hi!
Fun fact: Two presidents have visited this museum: Ronald Reagan visited in 1984 and President Trump has visited twice!
Once you finish touring the museum, you take a short walk around the block to visit the birthplace home of Marion Robert Morrison
He was delivered by a female doctor and weighed 13 pounds at birth.
About that name….
People often wonder when Marion Morrison became John Wayne and where the nickname “Duke” came from. The story goes that he had a dog named Duke and he hated his name, Marion. When he moved to California, he left his dog at a local fire station while he would go to school each day. He wouldn’t tell the fireman his name, so they started calling him Big Duke and his dog Little Duke. The rest you could say is history. “Duke” he became to so many thousands of fans.
When he started his film career, a producer decided that the name Marion Morrison would never work on a marquee so he dubbed him John Wayne and the name stuck.
Things to Know
- The Museums is handicap accessible and is all on one floor. There are no steps at the museum. When you walk around the block to the house, there are a few steps to enter the birthplace.
- Restrooms are available in the gift shop area.
- Brush up on your John Wayne movies before you go so you will recognize the exhibits that are on display.
- There is an admission fee for entrance to the Museum and birthplace. If you just want to visit the gift shop, there is no charge.
Find John Wayne Birthplace Museum
205 S. John Wayne Dr.
Winterset, IA 50273
Open Daily: 10am to 5pm
Winter Hours 10am to 4pm, Dec. through Feb.
Looking for more things to do near the John Wayne Birthplace Museum? Check out the SPAM Museum just a few hours north!