John Wayne Birthplace Museum Grand Opening

May 25, 2015

In 1907 John Wayne was born in a modest four room house in Winterset, but a few years later his parents moved him from Iowa to California where Wayne flourished as a movie actor.  Since the 1980s, Wayne’s birth place has been open for tours but in 2008, organizers committed to expanding the experience by building a museum.  They hired Chicago Tribune travel writer and reviewer of western books, Brian Downes to be the executive director and head fundraiser.  

Sitting in the backyard of Wayne’s house, Downes says he took the job because he believes in the patriotic vision John Wayne and director John Ford portray in their movies.  “I am madly in love with the United States of America and our history and our heritage and it’s a love,” says Downes. “The same kind of love John Ford had and John Wayne had for the country and I can not imagine a better way to tell the American story than through focusing on guys like that and their work.”

Scott Eyman is the author of the biography “John Wayne: The Life and Legend.”  During the museum’s grand opening ceremony, he says to a crowd of a few hundred people he expected mostly older men would be interested in the book when it came out last year, but during the book tour he discovered something unexpected.  “At every city, at every book signing, there was always a group of young women in their 20s and 30s,” says Eyman. “And I would always take them aside at some point and ask them, what are you doing here?”

Biographer Scott Eyman stands in front of a large statue of John Wayne, at the John Wayne Birthplace Museum after giving a speech during the grand opening weekend in Winterset.
Credit Photo by John Pemble

Eyman says they shared with him fond childhood memories of watching Wayne movies with their fathers. “They had intuited that their father or their grandfather, really admired John Wayne and responded to him in some visceral almost non-verbal way.  And that it was a way of reclaiming that bond,” says Eyman.  

During his speech Eyman further elaborates, “It was only in talking to these women, that I realized that John Wayne has been passed down from generation to generation, from father to son, from father to daughter, as an American cultural heirloom.”

Executive director Brian Downes says, while most of the museum visitors are long time fans, they’re also seeing younger faces.  “John Wayne died 30 years ago before some of these youngsters were born, the little ones. But they just- they’re getting exposure.  I think John Wayne has the exact same appeal now that he always did, as long as you’re exposed to him.”

Downes says the museum’s mission is to expose visitors to Wayne’s life and work with a small theater and a large room housing memorabilia like costumes, props, letters, and even one of John Wayne’s cars.  Downes says during the past seven years, he and the museum board had to raise $2.5 million, with most of it coming from modest donations by fans.

Brian Downes is the executive director of the John Wayne Birthplace Museum. In 2008 he began heading a $2.5 million fundraising effort to create this facility near downtown Winterset.
Credit Photo by John Pemble

“We’re still short $300 thousand in loans, but this event’s going make a big dent in that.  Then going forward, our priorities starting on Tuesday is gonna be pay down our debt, continue publicity, and reaching for an endowment.”

Downes, who is 61, says being the executive director of the John Wayne Birthplace Museum is the best job he’s ever had, and he never wants to leave this small Iowa town where his favorite movie actor was born.