I am very excited to write this article, as it’s been something I’ve always wanted to write about- a visit to John Wayne’s hometown of Winterset, Iowa. I’d like to dedicate this article to the owners of The Heavenly Habitat Bed and Breakfast we stayed at, Steve and Nancy, as well as my Mom, Sandra, and (as always when it comes to The Duke) my late Grandfather Joseph Kasper, the man who introduced me to John Wayne in the first place.
My mom and I took the trip specifically to see the John Wayne Birthplace Museum, as we are both major fans (thanks to Joseph Kasper!!!) but we soon discovered the small town of Winterset to be absolutely delightful. The drive was 5 ½ hours from our hometown of Tinley Park IL (outside Chicago) but the drive seemed to fly by, as the open road was calming (well that, and we had good music to listen to- KISS, Def Leppard, Ozzy Osbourne, the RENT soundtrack, The Beach Boys- my request!).
We got into Winterset and the first thing I noticed that got me really excited was the John Wayne Drive sign- it’s not every day you cruise down a street named after an American Icon! We drove down to the Heavenly Habitat Bed and Breakfast (Maureen O’Hara stayed here in 2013 for the ground breaking ceremony for the building of the JW museum; we stayed in the same room she did) but because we were early for check in, we decided to walk down to the John Wayne Museum and look into the gift shop (the first of many trips!!). We also had the opportunity to take some great pics outside the museum.
Maureen O’Hara (rightfully) donated this diamond on the Duke’s Movie Diamond Walk outside the museum
Taken moments after we got there
Cut out Duke
In the Gift Shop!!
While inside the gift shop, I was really ecstatic about just being in Iowa and being in the town Duke was born in!!! My Mom and I took some pictures and I can positively absolutely say I’ve never been more excited just to look around a gift shop.
This is the entrance to the little vignette that plays
After the gift shop and photo taking session, we went back to The Heavenly Habitat Bed and Breakfast and met the owners Steve and Nancy (please please click the link at the end for their website and to learn more about them) The Heavenly Habitat name sounds exactly as the name suggests, heavenly; it was an old church converted to a B&B. My Mom chose this place because of its amazing reviews- and the fact Maureen O’Hara stayed there in 2013 made it even more of a reason to stay there (my Mom made sure to reserve the room that she stayed in). At first, that was what made me really excited to stay, but as we got more acquainted with both the place and Steve and Nancy, I felt extremely comfortable there, and I’m the type of person who has a hard time opening up to new people and places. Towards the end of the visit I felt as comfortable at the B&B as I do in my own room at home- I didn’t want to leave!!
Heavenly Habitat- aka The Perfect B&B
With Nancy & Steve- Two Lovely People
Maureen O’Hara stayed in this room in 2013- and I got to stay there too!!!!!!
Steve and Nancy are the nicest couple and they are the most wonderful people. Like I mentioned earlier, I have a hard time opening up to people, but they were so friendly and easy to talk to they had me talking with them in no time. They told me stories of when Maureen O’Hara stayed with them- how the paparazzi created a frenzy, Maureen’s memories making McLintock, how she had to put on make -up and do her hair before she went out on the town- and every one was priceless! But the most touching thing Steve told me was how much Ms. O’Hara enjoyed her stay in Winterset. He told me of how she said the rolling hills in Iowa reminded her of Ireland and that she wanted so very badly to come back to Winterset one day.
Maureen O’Hara’s signature in the guestbook- above her’s is her caretaker and below is her great-granddaughter (she didn’t stay but signed anyway!)
But it was really the second day in Winterset that the real fun began. It all started with breakfast, when Steve and Nancy made us Maureen O’Hara’s favorite eggs: Emeril Lagasse’s Shirred Eggs and they were absolutely delicious. We stayed and chatted with them for a while until the JW Museum opened up at 10- and I was literally jumping out of my skin when we got there.
The JW museum is small in space, but packed to the max with artifacts, props, costumes, pictures and other memorabilia from his life and movies.
I’ll let the pictures and comments do the talking, as this is just a small sample of what we saw. I was so busy reading and fawning I didn’t get as many pics as I wanted to and I thank my Mom for taking the pics I slacked off on (even though I thought she was taking too many at the time, I now thank her!!!).
Panels from The Shootist (1976). Amazing to be with these pieces that were in the final scene ever of John Wayne on film.
With the actual Jaunting Car used in The Quiet Man (1952). It came all the way from Ireland and placed in the JW Museum at Maureen O’Hara’s request. I was beaming
It was truly amazing and I can’t really say much in words about it other than the fact it was just the coolest thing ever.
After doing the Museum part we then went over to the little theater area where a 15 minute clip reel/ vignette plays. There were so many posters of Duke’s movies, but there’s not really time to take pics inside because there’s always people waiting for the next running of the clip reel. I was lucky enough to be standing next to The Horse Soldiers (1959) poster and asked my mom to snap a pic of me with it (my inner Bill Holden fan was also really excited for that!)
Me and The Horse Soldiers poster– Duke and Bill Holden!!!
After the museum part we then walked down to Duke’s childhood home and birthplace. Going down to and being inside his home was extremely humbling. It was a four room house with just a front room, little parlor, bedroom and kitchen. John Wayne came from the most humble of roots and it was in that moment when I was in his house where I realized how much of Winterset, Iowa was present in his overall personality. He didn’t spend too much of his life here, but the spirit of his hometown was forever embedded in him. Looking back at it all, I really feel like I was able to capture John Wayne’s spirit by making a visit there and a part of it is now a part of me. I don’t have too many pictures of the inside part of the house, I was too busy being amazed, but I will say I’m OK with that, it’s just something that should be seen with your actual eyes.
After we visited the home, we went back to the gift shop where we got more stuff- (seriously it’s as if I saw something new to get every time we walked in; I think we went back 5-6 more times and every time got stuff- hahaha!)
My mom and I just spent the rest of the day walking around the little town of the Winterset area- it’s so cute and quaint. Everything was in walking distance of each other and in every shop people were friendly and polite. We ate at Montross Pharmacy & Drug store where we sat at the counter (my request!) and had ice cream floats. It was something I don’t have the opportunity to do at home, so I loved it! I felt like I was back in time doing something people of my grandparents’ generation would do- it was the most awesome memory!
In the late afternoon we just went back to the B&B- and we watched The Quiet Man– what else!
The next morning it was time to leave, and both my Mom and I were so, so sad to leave the B&B! We truly want to go back and are considering making Winterset a yearly Mother-Daughter trip for us. I left this message in the guest journal for Steve and Nancy and wanted to share it with you all here:
Overall, I feel extremely lucky to have been able to make it to John Wayne’s hometown and see his birthplace/childhood home and museum; I want to thank my Mom for taking me there, wanting to do a special trip with me- It means a lot and I know your father is looking down at us so happy we made it there; I know he was alongside us the whole time!!!
And again I thank Steve and Nancy for being wonderful people and running the most perfect Bed and Breakfast- it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when I will come back!! Steve, I truly do believe you when you say the spirit of Maureen O’Hara looks after the B&B and I say, “Yes”, I truly felt her spirit within its walls.
And lastly to Mr. John Wayne himself, all I can say is your little hometown is so proud of you, and your legacy continues to be felt there to this day. I felt completely honored and humbled to tour your hometown and I will be back again.
All pictures taken by Sandra and Emily Graziano