How Steve McQueen’s boyhood home impacted the future King of Cool
“I hated farm life and didn’t get along with small-town people. I guess they were just as glad to see me go as I was to get out of there.” In spite of burning bridges when reminiscing about his Great Depression-era childhood in Slater, Missouri, on the set of the 30-minute CBS television western Wanted: Dead or Alive, as he matured Steve McQueen appreciated the hard work ethic and morality instilled in him by great-uncle Claude Thomson, an affluent hog farmer in the Midwestern community of 3,000 residents invested in agriculture and the railroad. Feeling nostalgic in the final year of his life, the King of Cool intended to take a road trip to Slater with third wife Barbara Minty but was thwarted by the mesothelioma that ultimately defeated him. Seven-time McQueen chronicler Marshall Terrill, whose latest tome is Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon, explores the racing enthusiast’s Midwestern upbringing in an exclusive conversation embarking now.
The Marshall Terrill Interview
What was Slater like in the 1930s and early ’40s when the Bullitt action star was coming of age?
It was a thriving little city known as a “rough railroad town” throughout the state. It had a Main Street with about fifty merchants, a pool hall, a movie theater and about four pharmacies. Of course, when the Great Depression hit, the town was thrown into great financial despair.
At first, Steve lived in a 10x20 railroad ‘cook shack’ with his grandparents, Lillian and Victor Crawford. It had no running water, electricity, or toilet facilities.
The Sand Pebbles hero later moved in with great uncle Claude Thomson.
Claude was a prosperous hog farmer and owned about 320 acres of land. Steve, like all other kids at that time, worked the farm and learned his values and principles from Uncle Claude, who was Steve’s first father figure.
Because Steve’s early life was so hectic, there was no real stability. Both of his parents were alcoholics, he was passed around to relatives, and Uncle Claude was the first one to give him a stable home life.
Steve remembered, “He was a very good man. Very strong. Very fair. I learned a lot from him.” One of the principles he learned from Claude was a strong work ethic. “When I’d get lazy and duck my chores, Claude would warm my backside with a hickory switch. I learned a simple fact — you work for what you get,” said Steve.
What was the most important lesson Steve retained from his Slater experiences?
Perhaps his sense of right and wrong. McQueen once said, “I’m out of the Midwest. It was a good place to come from. It gives you a sense of right or wrong and fairness, which is lacking in our society.”
How much has Slater evolved over the past 75 years?
It’s changed a lot, but the people have not. They’re the best, and they’re like family to me. If you follow America’s economic journey, the places that were prosperous in the 19th and early 20th Centuries were agricultural and textile communities.
Slater fell into the former as the area’s fertile soil made it some of the finest farmland in the country. When the Chicago and Alton Railroad pulled out of Slater sometime in the 1940s, the town was greatly affected, and it has had to change and transition with the times.
Many of the buildings on Main Street from when the time Steve was there are still standing, so it’s easy to envision what life was like then.
Claude Thomson’s home is also still there, and I make it a point to visit the owner every time I come to Slater. His name is Harold Eddy, and he grew up on the farm next to Steve.
About a week before the festival I call him and say, “Mr. Eddy, I’m coming to town, and I’d like to see the house.” He and his wife are so gracious that they never say no, but I never come empty handed, either. I always have a signed book for them.
During Steve’s lifetime, did the city acknowledge him?
Steve told a reporter in the late 1950s, “I hated farm life and didn’t get along with small-town people. I guess they were just as glad to see me go as I was to get out of there.”
Those words stuck with the town for many decades, and they have the attitude of, “Well, if you don’t like me, then screw you. I don’t like you either.” In 1978 the town celebrated its centennial and extended an olive branch to McQueen, who never bothered to reply.
But in the last year of his life, he was feeling sentimental, and his wife Barbara told me he wanted to take a road trip to Slater. Soon thereafter, he wasn’t feeling well — he had been diagnosed with cancer — and canceled the trip.
In March 2007, it all changed. Me, Barbara, Pat Johnson and the late Loren Janes reached out to Slater Main Street News editor Jean Black, who helped organize the first annual Steve McQueen Days Festival.
She said no one from Slater thought we were going to attend, and when it was confirmed we were coming, 2,000 people showed up. It was amazing.
Someone in the audience asked Barbara if it was true that Steve hated Slater, and she said, “Steve never hated anything. The only thing he ever hated was when he ran out of beer.” The crowd ate up her down-home humor, especially when a farmer asked Barbara if it was coincidental that he married all brunettes.
Barbara answered, “Sure, Steve married all brunettes; but don’t forget, there were a lot of blondes in between.” The place went nuts, and everybody fell to the floor with laughter. Right then and there is when everything changed.
They all fell in love with Barbara in that very instant, and in turn, fell in love with Steve. I credit Barbara McQueen for turning those ill feelings around. Slater is deservedly becoming well known again.
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