How Steve McQueen’s boyhood home impacted the future King of Cool

Straddling a beaten-up Triumph motorcycle in a mustard yellow sweater pulled over a red collared shirt, cuffed blue jeans, dirty brogans, and sunglasses, “Cincinnati Kid” Steve McQueen laconically surveys his position as Hollywood’s top box office attraction circa 1965. Image Credit: Pinterest

“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.

Dirt road diary: A retro black and white mailbox view of Thomson Lane from the former Slater, Missouri, residence of Claude Thomson [1873–1957], a successful hog farmer who happened to be the great-uncle and mentor of Steve McQueen. Unfortunately, no photos of Claude have ever been unearthed. Image Credit: Photography by Marshall Terrill

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.

Welcome to the farm: According to biographer Marshall Terrill, “A period photograph of the Thomson homestead on the outskirts of Slater, Missouri. The home was owned by Steve McQueen’s great-uncle Claude Thomson [1873–1957], a prosperous hog farmer. Over time Claude grew to love Steve like a son, filling the role of surrogate father in the absence of the real deal.” Image Credit: The Slater Main Street News Collection / Courtesy of Marshall Terrill / appears in “Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon” [2010]

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.

Steve McQueen did all his dreamin’ there: Closing in at 2,000 residents is the agricultural community of Slater, Missouri, founded in 1878 and best known as the boyhood hometown of the “Papillon” star as well as Chicago Bulls center Joe Kleine. Image Credit: Photography by Marshall Terrill

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.

Way, way back: Biographer Marshall Terrill wrote in 2010, “Main Street in Slater, Missouri, probably in the 1940s. Slater was the boyhood home of Steve McQueen and where the actor spent a majority of his childhood. He left for good at the age of 14 and ran off with a traveling carnival.” Image Credit: The Slater Main Street News Collection / Courtesy of Marshall Terrill / appears in “Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon”
A twenty-tens view of Claude Thomson’s former wooden home in Slater, Missouri. A metal roof and siding were added by current owner Harold Eddy. Steve McQueen’s biographer Marshall Terrill says, “My impression is that this was a pretty substantial house which had a very large fireplace that extended to the first floor and basement. Steve had it good when under the guidance of Uncle Claude. Then his mother Julian would take him away with her and who knows what kind of home he’d go to.” Image Credit: Photography by Marshall Terrill
Steve McQueen’s bedroom window as shot on April 29, 2011. The Slater, Missouri, former residence of affluent hog farmer Claude Thomson [1873–1957] served as the future King of Cool’s refuge through his 14th birthday in 1944 when the rebellious young lad ran off to join a traveling circus and escape his alcoholic mother and abusive stepfather. Image Credit: Photography by Marshall Terrill
A historical sign in front of the Thomson home in Slater, Missouri, reveals, “This house was built in the early 1900’s by Steve McQueen’s Uncle Claude Thomson. Steve lived here on and off from late 1930 to 1944 and made very limited return trips to his uncle’s farm. Steve’s grandparents lived in the house next to the silo just east of the house. Image Credit: Photographed by Marshall Terrill on April 29, 2011
Bricks from Claude Thomson’s fireplace in Slater, Missouri, as captured on February 4, 2009. Image Credit: Photography by Chad Westover / Courtesy of Marshall Terrill / appears in “Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool” [2010]
An original window frame from the Claude Thomson home in Slater, Missouri, as captured on February 4, 2009. Image Credit: Photography by Chad Westover / Courtesy of Marshall Terrill / appears in “Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool” [2010]
What makes you country: Surrounded by innumerable metal and wooden debris, a stark black and white still captures a grain silo which belonged to Steve McQueen’s great-uncle Claude Thomson [1873–1957] in Slater, Missouri. Image Credit: Photography by Marshall Terrill
Orearville School, the small one room schoolhouse where Steve McQueen received a majority of his early education, was converted into Abbott’s Chapel and still sits on Front Street in Slater, Missouri. Image Credit: Photography and Research by Marshall Terrill
A historical sign in front of Orearville School reads, “This building would be the second Orearville School built after a fire destroyed the first school in 1912. This building was used at the original school site until 1952 when the current Orearville School was built. In 1953 the 1912 school building was moved to its present Front Street location here in Slater, Missouri, where it became the Methodist AME Church. Steve McQueen attended school in this building at Orearville from 1936 thru 1944. Image Credit: Photographed by Marshall Terrill on April 29, 2011
A head shot of William Terrence McQueen dated September 20, 1937. McQueen was a 30-year-old Merchant Marine at the time with a seven-year-old son named Steve McQueen, who would ultimately become the King of Cool. Image Credit: U.S. Coast Guard, National Maritime Center / Courtesy of Marshall Terrill / appears in “Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon” [2010]
Here is the 1946 Boys Republic baseball team. In his earliest known photo, a 16-year-old Steve McQueen is seated on the top row, fifth from the right or in the center of the top row. He often credited the reform school for turning his life around and paid frequent visits to youth to encourage them. McQueen also established an annual scholarship in his name and bequeathed $200,000 to them in death. In return the Boys Republic built a recreation center in his honor. Image Credit: The Boys Republic Collection / Courtesy of Marshall Terrill / appears in “Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon” [2010]
Steve McQueen [center] shares a laugh with a pair of Marine buddies named Joe and Don upon his July 1947 platoon graduation at Parris Island, South Carolina. McQueen served a three-year stint and often told reporters he was busted down to private seven times to enhance his rebel status. However, his military file proved he was a competent soldier — McQueen ascended in rank rather quickly despite not serving in the Marines during wartime. Image Credit: Bonham’s Auctioneers / Courtesy of Marshall Terrill / appears in “Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon” [2010]
After completing boot camp, Steve McQueen’s natural aptitude for engines landed him a job as a tank crewman and driver. The King of Cool’s first assignment was to the Second Amphibian Tractor Battalion, Second Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force in Quantico, Virginia. He later transferred to the United States Naval Gun Factory in Washington, D.C., where he served in the 1st Guard Company and received his final assignment as a tanker at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Image Credit: Bonham’s Auctioneers / Courtesy of Marshall Terrill / appears in “Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon” [2010]
Marine Steve McQueen is captured with eyes closed yet again as his arm rests on the shoulders of an unidentified chick at Sam’s Crescent Cafe in Washington, D.C., on New Year’s Eve 1949. McQueen was stationed at the United States Naval Gun Factory serving in the 1st Guard Company. Image Credit: Bonham’s Auctioneers / Courtesy of Marshall Terrill / appears in “Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool” [2010]
Kick the dust up: On the outskirts of Slater, Missouri, is the Steve McQueen Memorial Highway as captured on April 29, 2011. The farming community is best known to classic movie aficionados as the boyhood home of the King of Cool, who was raised there by grandparents Victor and Lillian Crawford and great-uncle Claude Thomson. Image Credit: Photography by Marshall Terrill
Grain silos and a rumbling train are seen in Slater on April 29, 2011. The former Chicago & Alton Railroad, acquired by the Canadian National Railway, ran directly through the heart of the agricultural city in Saline County, Missouri. Image Credit: Photography by Marshall Terrill
The red brick Slater Depot was once part of the thriving Chicago & Alton Railroad before being purchased by the Canadian National Railway. The railroad was the rural Missouri city’s biggest economic engine for decades along with farming. Image Credit: Photographed by Marshall Terrill on April 29, 2011
Vintage store signs abound in the sleepy but friendly town of Slater, Missouri. On top is a Philco refrigerator sign in white and orange block letters, while Kelvinator, a former home appliance manufacturer currently owned by Electrolux, is pictured in eye-catching yellow letters on April 24, 2010. The business was apparently owned by a W.P. Dickson. Image Credit: Photography by Marshall Terrill
Experience Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, real-life friends but often adversaries career-wise, plot how they will rescue party-goers trapped within “The Towering Inferno,” featuring William Holden as the skyscraper’s original designer plus Faye Dunaway and the much-vilified O.J. Simpson. Video Credit: 20th Century Fox

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