Thanks to a famous speech he gave there, Sir Winston Churchill, the British prime minister who inspired the free world during and after World War II, is forever remembered in the heartland of America.
By Pamela Selbert
Fulton, Missouri, a town of about 12,000 in the heart of rural America, is an unlikely spot for a former British prime minister to visit. But what makes it even more unusual is that the statesman, called “the greatest Englishman of his time,” gave a speech there in 1946 that resonated throughout the world for years to come.
Sir Winston Churchill had led his country through World War II, yet he chose Fulton’s Westminster College, a small liberal arts men’s school (now co-ed) as the site for the speech. He had titled it “Sinews of Peace,” but forever afterward it would be known as the “Iron Curtain” speech. It included the line: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent . . .”
Westminster College is now home to the Winston Churchill Memorial and Library, which invites 21st-century visitors to experience a first-rate tribute to the life of Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, beginning with his birth at Blenheim Palace in 1874 and ending well beyond his passing, with the legacy of freedom he left behind.
You enter the museum through the undercroft of a reconstructed church. Soon you’re immersed in the story of a very uncommon man. Despite his aristocratic background “” born to American heiress Jennie Jerome and Lord Randolph Churchill, the 7th Duke of Marlborough “” Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill lived life determined to be a “commoner, linked to the common man.” And though he refused Queen Elizabeth’s offer of a dukedom, he did accept the invitation to the Order of the Garter, the world’s oldest order of chivalry; ever after, he was titled “Sir.”
The 10,000-square-foot museum immerses visitors in Churchill’s life and times. Displays chronicle his education (when he was 7 years old he was sent off to boarding school, customary for the son of an aristocrat); military career; political life; family life; lifestyle; and more, with photos, letters, texts, historic videos, and audios. One can spend hours and hours at the museum and not be done learning.
The connection Churchill had with Westminster College can be owed to timing and to chance. His visit occurred less than a year after World War II had ended, and just months after the British people had voted their stalwart leader out of office. Surely the former prime minister still had something to say. Franc McClure, college president, did what he could to further the odds of successfully getting the world figure to speak at the little school by enlisting the help of Major General Harry Vaughan, a Westminster graduate, who also was President Harry Truman’s military aide. Vaughan persuaded Truman to invite Churchill to speak in his home state, which was sent as a postscript to a letter that Truman wrote: “Hope you can do it. I will introduce you.”
Churchill’s famous speech initially had its critics. Detractors suggested it was “just Churchill rattling his saber, unnecessarily provoking the Soviet Union,” said Rob Havers, the facility’s executive director. But in fact, what Churchill had called an “imaginative concept” was prophetic, and made the worldwide impact he had hoped for. Also, as Truman told the college president, the speech “put Fulton on the map from Missouri around the world.”
In the early 1960s, Westminster College president Robert Davidson decided it was time to commemorate the leader and his famous visit. Seeking ideas for a memorial, Davidson remembered a LIFE magazine feature showing photos of war-torn London and damaged churches, and suggested importing a church to the campus. St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, built in 1677 on the site of a much earlier church (where poet John Milton is said to have been married), had been fire-bombed during the Blitz and never restored. A map at the museum shows its London location. It was available and seemed the perfect size for the campus. But was a church a proper memorial? Some at the time questioned the logic of “spending $2 million to move a pile of rubble to America,” Havers said.
Nonetheless, in 1965 the church was dismantled, and its 7,000 stones were numbered and shipped to Fulton. Somehow the stones became a bit scrambled, and the rebuild was called “the biggest jigsaw puzzle in the history of architecture,” by the London Times. Photos at the museum show the work in progress.
The same quarry that had provided Portland limestone for the original church, designed by famed London architect Christopher Wren (architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral), supplied more to complete the task. St. Mary the Virgin church was returned to its 17th-century glory. Details include barrel vaults and white walls; elaborate chandeliers that are replicas of Wren’s; arched windows with hand-blown leaded glass; and an elegant carved pulpit from All Hallows, another Wren-designed church in London. Originally installed in 1683, the pulpit was sent to Fulton “in memory of those who lost their lives in Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.”
A stone staircase winds down to the museum and library under the church; in the building’s original location, these steps had led to crypts.
The museum opened in 1966, the year after the church was complete. But since that time, society and technology have changed. In 2005 the whole museum received a major makeover, costing $4 million. It was reopened on March 5, 2006, on the 60th anniversary of the “Iron Curtain” speech.
One of the exhibits is titled “Early Military Years.” After doing poorly at St. George’s and Harrow, Churchill entered Sandhurst Royal Military College and earned enough points to be admitted to the cavalry, though not the more highly esteemed infantry. He requested posting to any battlefront.
A clever 8-foot-diameter revolving wheel with cutouts shows Churchill’s locations and dates of military service, and a plaque notes that he traveled to more locations and saw more combat action than any other junior officer in the British Army.
Churchill’s life continues to unfold in exhibits entitled “Early Political Life,” “Family Tree,” “Man of Destiny,” and “World War I.” During the latter, Churchill had asked for a posting to France, and there, as a lieutenant colonel, he commanded a battalion of 6th Royal Scot Fusiliers, leading by example. At the museum you follow him into the trenches “” realistic replicas topped with sandbags and scattered with spent shell casings, where the only safe way to view no-man’s land (the ground between battle lines) was through periscopes. A video plays in one of them, showing 90-year-old footage of soldiers running across the deadly zone.
In the “Gathering Storm (1929-39)” exhibit, leading up to World War II, Churchill predicted, “Germany is arming “” she is rapidly arming “” and no one will stop her.” In May 1940 he was elected prime minister.
Most dramatic of the exhibits is “Destruction,” where you sit surrounded by near life-size images of war-torn London, while bombs scream to their targets and explosions flare in the sky.
Elsewhere you can relax in a mock pub and listen to a couple of gentlemen reminiscing about the quotable Churchill, or you can read dozens of his sage, clever, and sometimes caustic comments on numerous subjects on one of four computer screens. Quotes include: “When I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject.” That’s because, in addition to his many other achievements, Churchill was an accomplished artist. His lovely “Boats in Cannes Harbour” is on display along with other pieces.
Outside the memorial is a bronze statue of the prime minister in a characteristic pose, cane in one hand, bowler hat in the other. And nearby is “Breakthrough,” containing eight panels from the original Berlin Wall that were presented to the museum by the German government and sculpted by Edwina Sandys, Churchill’s granddaughter. Graffiti from the days before the wall fell decorate the west side of the panels, and the “breakthrough to freedom” is symbolized by shapes cut through to resemble a man and a woman.
Winston Churchill died on January 24, 1965. An exhibit notes his last recorded words: “It has been a grand journey “” well worth making once.” As his body lay in state in Westminster Hall, more than 300,000 mourners filed past. Clement Atlee, who had followed Churchill as prime minister (Churchill had once remarked that Atlee “was a humble man with much to be humble about”), expressed the sentiments of many: “We have lost the greatest Englishman of our time . . . I think the greatest citizen of the world of our time.”
Winston Churchill Memorial and Library
501 Westminster Ave.
Fulton, MO 65251-1299
The museum and grounds are open year-round, 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $4 for ages 12 to 18, $3 for ages 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and under.
What Churchill Didn’t Say …
Sometimes famous people are attributed to having said things they never uttered. Such is true with Sir Winston Churchill.
“You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.” “” A search of more than 2.5 million words by and about Churchill in The Churchill Centre’s research database fails to show that Churchill ever spoke or wrote those words.
“If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.” “” There is no record of anyone hearing Churchill say this. Paul Addison of Edinburgh University noted: “Surely Churchill can’t have used the words attributed to him. He’d been a Conservative at 15 and a Liberal at 35!” “” Information from the Churchill Centre, Washington, D.C.; www.winstonchurchill.org