Disney fanatics regularly make pilgrimages to Marceline, Missouri, the boyhood home of Walter Elias “Walt” Disney. Even for casual fans of mouse ears or animation, time spent in this north-central Missouri town of 2,200 is a reminder that at the soul of Disney is a real person, not a corporate brand.
A few hours in Marceline is a chance to walk in the footsteps of Disney the man along the main street that inspired his vision of Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. and at the family farm where he said he found the magic. You can talk to residents who personally knew the Disney family and explore exhibits that preserve those connections at the Walt Disney Hometown Museum.
Laclede home of Gen Pershing, photo credit MeLinda Schnyder
Disney’s childhood stomping ground is near the midway point of The Way of American Genius, a clever marketing tagline that ties together the 195-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 36 that cuts across northern Missouri. As you drive river to river from the Mark Twain Memorial Bridge that spans the Mississippi River in Hannibal to the Pony Express Bridge over the Missouri River in St. Joseph, you’ll come across the birthplaces of innovations and the hometowns of innovators.
Highway 36 runs east–west about an hour north of Interstate 70, the more trafficked route across Missouri. In a rush to get from point A to point B, I’d lived in or traveled frequently through the state for 45 years before I took this road less traveled. When I finally did set out on U.S. 36, I found four lanes of well-maintained highway with far fewer semitrailers than on the Interstate. This quieter highway is bounded by rolling farmland, with small towns not too far from the road and plenty of reasons to linger at stops along the way.
During a road trip on The Way of American Genius, you’ll come across parks, lakes, conservation areas, museums, and shops as well as farms, wineries, breweries and distilleries that are open for tours. Stop for a snack or a meal at mom-and-pop cafés, bakeries, and ice cream shops. When you’re ready to stop for the night, you can camp, check into a name-brand hotel or stay at a bed-and-breakfast on a family farm.
Depending on when and where you visit, you might catch a weekly special event or a signature annual festival. Many communities along the route have Fourth of July celebrations that last anywhere from a day to a week. For about three weeks starting in late July, you can watch the Kansas City Chiefs training camp at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, with Super Bowl-winning coach Andy Reid and MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes on hand.
For maps, details, and audio tours for the highway’s corridor, which encompasses 36 miles north and 36 miles south of Highway 36, visit Americangeniushighway.com. Here’s a sample of what to expect at six stops along the route, traveling from east to west.
Samuel L. Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, lived in Hannibal from 1839 to 1853, from the age of 4 to 17. Many of the author’s most well-known characters and books are based on real people and places in Hannibal. While most attractions are walkable in this town of 18,000 residents, the Mark Twain Cave one mile south of the city is well worth the short drive. During the city’s bicentennial in 2019, the long-sought Clemens’ signature was found and authenticated in the cave. You can see it inside the cave, along with six miles of walls filled with 250,000 visitor signatures (a practice no longer allowed).
Walt Disney moved to Marceline with his family in 1906 at the age of four. Although the family would move to Kansas City, Missouri, when he was nine years old, “Walt would later say that it was in Marceline where he found that magic of his life,” says Kaye Malins, a family friend and the cofounder and director of the Walt Disney Hometown Museum.
The 10,000-square-foot museum in the town’s restored railroad depot houses a collection of 3,000 artifacts given to Marceline upon the death of the last of Walt’s siblings, Ruth. Except for a rotating gallery of loaned items from worldwide collectors, exhibits at the museum focus on Disney’s time in the town as a child, his return visits, and how Marceline shows up in his work.
LACLEDE—GENERAL JOHN J. PERSHING
Stop in this town of about 400 to see the General John J. Pershing Boyhood Home State Historic Site, which also has a garden featuring the Pershing poppy growing in soil imported from eight World War I American military cemeteries in Europe. After leading American Expeditionary Forces during WWI, Pershing became the only active-duty six-star general in U.S. history.
About four miles outside Laclede, Pershing State Park is a popular place for camping, hiking through wetlands, and fishing in Locust Creek and four small lakes.
Sliced Bread Innovation Center, photo credit VisitMO.com
CHILLICOTHE—HOME OF SLICED BREAD
It’s hard to imagine that before July 7, 1928, there wasn’t a standardized way to slice bread and keep it fresh. At the Grand River Historical Society Museum, visitors can see an early version of the automated slicer invented by Otto Frederick Rohwedder and first put into service at the Chillicothe Baking Company.
Local volunteers renovated the historic bakery and, in 2019, opened the Sliced Bread Innovation Center that serves as a welcome center and features a documentary and exhibits on sliced bread as well as other local innovations (open April through October). The town of 10,000 residents hosts its Sliced Bread Day Festival annually on the weekend closest to July 7, the date state legislators officially designated as Sliced Bread Day in Missouri.
HAMILTON—J.C. PENNEY AND A SEW-LEBRITY
Learn about James Cash Penney’s early life on a farm near Hamilton and about the history of one of America’s largest retail chains at the free J.C. Penney Museum, which shares a building with the community library. What primarily draws 10,000 visitors a month to this town of 1,800 residents, though, is its current retail genius: the Missouri Star Quilt Company.
Inspired by the Internet celebrity of matriarch Jenny Doan, who stars in YouTube videos teaching quilting techniques, the family-run company opened one store here in 2008. Today, 12 themed quilt shops line North Davis Street, Hamilton’s main street, ranging from those featuring collections of wool or batik fabrics to shops offering floral or seasonal patterns. There’s also a sewing center for multiday retreats and events as well as an education center for shorter classes.
Opened this past September, the Missouri Quilt Museum displays collections and exhibits on the
history of sewing, fabric, and quilting in North America, from the pilgrims to modern day. This summer, it will also showcase rotating exhibits on loan from the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky. On the same property as the museum, housed in a former high school built in 1903, is a photo op with the world’s largest spool of thread—a towering 22 feet tall.
St Joe Pony Express National MuseumI, photo by MeLinda Schnyder
ST. JOSEPH—PONY EXPRESS
Already connected to the East by railroad and telegraph, St. Joseph was the Eastern headquarters for the short-lived Pony Express that delivered mail to the West Coast twice as fast as its 1860 competitors. Learn how the delivery system revolutionized communication at the Pony Express National Museum on the site of the original stables. A replica of the station where horse and rider picked up the mail before setting off on the 1,966-mile trek can be seen at the station’s original location, now part of the first floor of the Patee House Museum. You’ll find other fascinating local history at the Patee House Museum, too. The building that was a luxury hotel in the 19th century is now a museum of communications and transportation. Part of the museum complex is the house where outlaw Jesse James was killed in 1882.
With 90,000 residents, St. Joseph is the largest city on Missouri’s Highway 36. Most of the communities along The Way of American Genius are much smaller, including at least 20 identified as scenic picnic stops, sights on the Quilt Trail or worth the short drive off Highway 36 for a dose of local flavor. While this road trip celebrates great ingenuity of the past, it also showcases people and places making their mark today.