Hundreds of cherry blossom trees — in three varieties — can be found within Marshfield’s city limits. The trees complement the town’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which is held each April.
MARSHFIELD – It sounds like the beginning of a bizarre joke: Thelma Lou from “The Andy Griffith Show,” a handful of U.S. Presidential descendants, and a “Wizard of Oz” munchkin walk into a church together. But the Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival, an annual gathering of presidential relatives, classic TV stars and other noteworthy names, is no joke.
It is, however, bizarre.
“You try and explain (the festival) and it’s very hard,” says George Cleveland, grandson of U.S. President Grover Cleveland, who has attended the festival nearly every year since its inception. “It’s an eclectic piece of Americana.”
While they’re in town, festival guests give free lectures about their presidential relatives or careers, meet and discuss history with other guests, and talk to students — and have so much fun that many come back time and again.
“A lot of them say that to me, ‘I feel like Marshfield’s my home away from home,’” says festival organizer Nicholas Inman.
Twenty-three presidential families were represented at the first festival in 2006. A ceremony during that festival announced plans for Marshfield’s National First Family Library & Museum. The museum has yet to come to fruition, but the annual reunion continues. (Photo courtesy of The Marshfield Mail)
A history enthusiast, Inman didn’t start out to launch a festival: Instead, his goal was to begin a museum where researchers could learn about all U.S. Presidents in one place. He figured that he could use his collection of presidential memorabilia to get things going, and that Marshfield, where he lived, could provide a central location to set up shop.
But he did decide to gather presidential descendants for a ceremony to kick off the project. To find these people, Inman started reaching out to presidential libraries: He hoped those institutions would connect him with people willing to come to town for the first Cherry Blossom Festival in 2006.
The approach was somewhat ironic.
“I’ve thought many times that if I had been a presidential descendant, and some stranger asked me to come to a town I’d never heard of in the middle of the country, I wouldn’t have gone,” says Inman.
Thankfully, not everyone thinks like Inman: That year, 23 presidential families were represented, the largest gathering of such individuals in the history of the country.
One of those people was Chris Truscott, a descendent of Thomas Jefferson, who at the time lived in Minnesota.
“My first thought was ‘Where the hell is Marshfield, Missouri?’” recalls Truscott.
That, however, didn’t keep Truscott away — or Cleveland, who also agreed to come that first year. Truscott remembers not really having any expectations before his arrival.
“It was hard to envision what exactly it could be like,” says Truscott. “(I had) no basis for judgement.”
Cleveland, however, thought the weekend would be fun, especially considering all of the history involved.
“But then you kind of start throwing in munchkins … and you know, it sort of then crossed the line into the Ozarks’ version of ‘The Twilight Zone,’ says Cleveland.
Ah, yes. The Munchkin.
Mickey Carroll, a lead munchkin on “The Wizard of Oz,” was awarded a star on the Missouri Walk of Fame in 2006. Behind him is Betty Lynn, better known as Thelma Lou from “The Andy Griffith Show,” who was also given a star that year.
Mickey Carroll, one of the last surviving munchkins from “The Wizard of Oz,” was a visitor at the festival in its early years. His presence signifies another aspect of the event: The Missouri Walk of Fame, which honors Missourians for their lifetime achievements with engraved tablets embedded in Marshfield’s sidewalk.
Besides Carroll, a few of the honorees include Dawn Wells (Mary Ann from “Gilligan’s Island”), Betty Lynn (Thelma Lou from “The Andy Griffith Show”), Donna Douglas (Elly May Clampett from “The Beverly Hillbillies”), as well as Branson’s Presley family, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Si Siman of local music fame.
As a general rule, people honored on the walk of fame have some tie to Missouri, says Inman. “Like this year, Lulu Roman is receiving a star because she lived in Branson for many years,” he says.
All of the living aforementioned individuals traveled to Marshfield to accept their stars — and after they’ve been to town, many of them also want to come back.
“I call them all the Cherry Festers,” says Inman. “I say ‘It’s time for the Cherry Festers (to) come home.’”
A few of the individuals pictured include Dawn Wells, Mo Rocca, Curtis Roosevelt, Ken Hechler, George McGovern, Paul Burrell, Laura Bush, Lulu Roman, Jonathan Sandys, Donna Douglas, Maggie Peterson Mancuso and James Humes.
A few individuals who have made appearances at the festival include:
- Laura Bush (wife of George W. Bush)
- Devon Nixon (great-grandson of Richard Nixon)
- Judy Lewis (daughter of Clark Gable and Loretta Young)
- John Truman (nephew of Harry S Truman)
- Laurie Firestone (former White House social secretary)
- Ken Hechler (advisor to Harry S Truman and former congressman)
- Ed Nixon (Richard Nixon’s brother)
- Jonathan Sandys (great-grandson of Winston Churchill)
- Kami Cotler (Elizabeth on “The Waltons”)
- Dr. Alveda C. King (niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)
- Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth in “Dallas”)
- Jon Provost (the original Timmy from “Lassie”)
- James C. Humes (U.S. presidential speechwriter and co-author of the Apollo 11 lunar plaque’s text)
- James Auchincloss (half brother to Jackie Kennedy Onassis)
- Chef Roland Mesnier (former White House chef)
- Gigi Graham (Billy Graham’s daughter)
Marshfield is a “close-based, family community,” says Inman, “and we always try to invite people who embrace that kind of sentiment from the television show that they were on.” In 2015, some of those people included Kami Cotler (Elizabeth, “The Waltons”), Mary McDonough (Erin, “The Waltons”), Dawn Wells (Mary Ann, “Gilligan’s Island”), Lulu Roman (“Hee Haw”) and Maggie Peterson Mancuso (Charlene Darling, “The Andy Griffith Show”). (Photo courtesy of The Marshfield Mail)
For many of the attendees, that decision to come back is based on the people.
“Everybody is so nice and so welcoming in a genuine and sincere way,” says Cleveland. “I’ve got lots of friends in Marshfield. That are like real friends and we communicate all year. Why wouldn’t you want to come back?”
But those people connected in more than just conversation: Many of the festival guests are housed with local residents, and continue to stay with the same families year after year. Beginning that practice early in the festival was a key to its success, says Inman.
“Because in opening in their homes, (guests) had their own personal tour guide of Marshfield,” he says. “Somebody who could really tell them what Marshfield was like, that they bonded with (and) that forced person who was keeping them to brush up on the life of whatever president of the person they were keeping.”
Truscott agrees that the people made a difference for him.
“You just can’t help but enjoy it,” he says of the festival. “Whether you’re positive, negative or neutral on any specific individual part of the weekend, the people make it super enjoyable.”
And in Truscott’s case, one of those people has ultimately played a huge role in his life. While attending the festival in 2011, he met Emily Griffeth, then-editor of The Marshfield Mail, who was moderating a panel discussion.
The two are now married — and Inman, a minister, officiated the ceremony.
The word gets out
A few presidential relatives posed for a photo in 2009. On the back row is Chris Truscott (Thomas Jefferson), John Truman (Harry S Truman), Bertram Hayes-Davis (Jefferson Davis and Rutherford B. Hayes), George Cleveland (Grover Cleveland), Richard Gatchell (James Monroe), Shannon Lanier (Thomas Jefferson), Jill Campbell (James K. Polk), Neita Campbell (James K. Polk). The front row includes Susan Tyler (John Tyler), Lyon Tyler (John Tyler) and Emory Gatchell (James Monroe).
Despite its guest list, attendance was sparse at many of the events during the festival’s early years.
“As an organizer, it was very frustrating to me that you would pour everything you had into planning it and then you couldn’t convince people to come,” recalls Inman.
However, the tide began to turn after Jenna Bush’s first appearance at the festival several years ago.
“I call that the lightbulb year,” says Inman. “After Jenna came, especially more local people began to think, ‘Well, this is something serious that somebody that we watch on national television stations would be visiting Marshfield.’ We had bigger crowds that year than we’d ever seen at anything.”
Numbers have continued to grow, as has awareness: CBS Sunday Morning’s Mo Rocca did a story about the festival in February 2016, lending a national voice to the cause.
“Since the CBS piece aired, we’ve had calls from all over the country,” says Inman. “All over the world.
“We’ve reached the point now where we don’t know most of the people making reservations,” he says. “People from one coast to the next that are excited to come to Marshfield! It’s exciting that these strangers are coming to Mayberry.”
And like Mayberry, the close-knit, fictional town featured in “The Andy Griffith Show,” Inman hopes that the town’s “wholesome, family values” are obvious to those attending the festival. “(That’s) something we want all of our visitors to go back to their part of the world with and realize they’ve experienced in Marshfield,” he says.
Awareness and inclusivity
The festival, however, hasn’t been without a bit of controversy. Several years after it began, Inman elected to invite Bertram Hayes-Davis, the great-great-grandson of Confederacy president Jefferson Davis.
“If you think about American history, whether agree with it or not, Jefferson Davis was president of half of our country for several years,” says Inman. “And that’s just factual. And whether we embrace his ideology or not, it is true.”
Despite that fact, several of the descendants were skeptical about Hayes-Davis’ presence and commented to Inman about it. Eventually, however, those sentiments began to change.
“Finally, one of those descendants who had been pretty vocal about it to me said… ‘I appreciate now that you’ve included him because I have learned a lot about Davis that I didn’t know or understand,’” says Inman. “If nothing else, at least it changed one person’s opinion.”
Hayes-Davis’ presence has also resulted in some unexpected connections. Inman recalls a photo from the festival of Hayes-Davis with Lynne Jackson, a descendant of slave Dred Scott and founder of The Dred Scott Heritage Foundation.
“That’s really a healing picture of American history,” says Inman. “And that it would happen in Marshfield. I think that’s awesome.”
Memories, as well as historic moments, abound at the festival.
“There’s a lot of little vignettes that I sort of see in my brain,” says Cleveland. “You know, watching the White House chef catch rolls at Lambert’s. Driving Princess Diana’s butler into town, and we come around a curve, and there’s like a dead armadillo in the road with a bunch of vultures on it, and he immediately goes, ‘Oh my god, it’s flying monkeys!’ I mean, we almost lost him and his friend because I almost hit a tree laughing so hard.”
But those moments and connections go far beyond the festival weekend. Descendants keep in touch throughout the year in a dedicated Facebook group, and others have even visited and vacationed with one another.
Locals, too, recall the festival at other times: Students who had speakers come to their classes, employees who had famous faces pop into their businesses, or those who have attended events and look forward to seeing those “Cherry Festers” come home each April.
“Everybody has their own festival story now,” says Inman. “That just excites me. It makes me realize it’s been far bigger than a person could’ve ever imagined.”
Want to go?
The Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival is scheduled for April 27-29. For a complete list of events, many of which are free, visit the festival’s website.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos came from the Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival’s website and are used with permission of Nicholas Inman.