Image Source: Bruce N. Meyer
Winterset Iowa, population 5,100, is a mere 1,700 miles from Hollywood California. But still, Hollywood and fans of the movies it produces continue to find their way to this little Midwestern community 40 miles southwest of Des Moines.
One reason is a little house on South Second Street with beautiful stained glass windows and an unusual corner door. It was in this house in 1907 that one of Hollywood's biggest names was born, an actor whose body of work would influence more than one generation of American culture.
His real name, Marion Morrison, often elicits no response, but few around the world do not recognize the 6 foot 4 inch tall, 225 pound figure and Hollywood legend known as John Wayne.
Marion Morrison came into this world at more than 13 pounds, foreshadowing the big man he later became. His father, Clyde, was a pharmacist at the Smith Drug Store, now the Village Bootery Shoe Store, at 66 Court Avenue on the town square. Little Marion was only three when the family moved to another Iowa community and he was just 14 when the Morrison family made the important move to California.
The modest four-room, 576 square feet home in Winterset has been restored to how it appeared when the Morrison family lived there in 1907. It is decorated to period and contains a small collection of John Wayne memorabilia, including Rooster Cogburn's eye patch from 1969's True Grit. Letters, autographs, and photos from his many co-stars and friends in Hollywood fill the little house to overflowing.
That's why everyone in Winterset and fans of The Duke are so excited about the opening of the John Wayne Museum in May 2015, coinciding with Marion Morrison's birthday. The 5,000 square feet museum will include hundreds of scripts, guns, hats and other wardrobe items from the more than 150 movies that starred John Wayne.
The bar from his last film, The Shootist, released in 1976, will be a part of the decor as will be a 1972 Pontiac station wagon, the last vehicle John Wayne owned before his death on June 11, 1979 of lung and stomach cancer.
But John Wayne is not the only reason Hollywood knows about little Winterset Iowa. In 1992, Iowa author Robert James Waller released a book called The Bridges of Madison County, a love story set in the rural areas around Winterset and six covered wooden bridges that date to the 1870's.
The book led to a 1995 movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, for which Streep was nominated for an Academy Award. A Broadway musical by the same name opened in February 2014 and is now touring the U.S.
People from around the world travel to Iowa to experience a bit of history and perhaps some of the romance of the bridges, particularly the Roseman Bridge. That's the one that brought Robert and Francesca together, where she left a note inviting him to dinner, where her ashes were spread near the end of the movie, leaving some wondering if cremation is even Christian.
A driving map and GPS coordinates help today's travelers find the bridges, which are really out there in the boonies along dusty, gravel roads. It's an adventure just to find them, but another fun way to experience the bridges is by canoe or kayak.
The Roseman Bridge and the Holliwell Bridge both cross the Middle River, one of the many great paddling rivers in Iowa. The Department of Natural Resources has recently developed portage sites at both bridges, about 20 miles apart, as well as other stops in between. Outfitters in Winterset and Des Moines can help with details for a fun covered bridge paddling getaway.
Get out there and experience it soon, before Hollywood finds out what its missing.