Walt Disney’s Hometown—Where the Magic Began—Part 1

As I write this (May 31, 2019), Galaxy’s Edge is opening in Disneyland—fourteen acres devoted to creating a Star Wars experience. Another one will open at Disney World on August 29. 

These Disney parks constantly change and expand, depending on new Disney studio movie releases, or, in this case, purchasing other movies. People come in droves to live out their fantasies as princesses, swashbuckling heroes, or pirates. And now, as Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo, or Princess Leia. 

Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development is responsible for all this world-building. They design and construct such attractions across the globe. 

Walt Disney founded this company of Imagineers—a combination of Imagination and Engineering—comprised of architects, illustrators, writers, designers, and engineers, all for the creation of Disneyland. 

Yet, as Walt said . . . 

“I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing —
that it was all started by a mouse.”
–Walt Disney

But it goes further back than Mickey. It started under his Dreaming Tree as a kid in Marceline, Missouri.

I’ve always been a Disney fan, and not just because I loved the movies. I was fascinated by the animation process. How did the movement happen? I drew fairy tale figures from Disney books, and sketched my own simple figures in fat little blank drawing pads (about 3” x 4” wide and 1/2 inch deep) that became flip books, showing a rabbit hopping into a hole and other feats.

As a kid, I had Disney coloring books, puzzles, and records. Till age ten, my dream was to grow up and be Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty at Disneyland. Thankfully, that dream vanished in middle school, shortly before our first park visit. My parents took our family to Disney World in 1973 (it opened Oct. 1971) and to Disneyland in July, 1976.

In 1978, I visited California Institute of the Arts, also known as CalArts, a school formed by Walt and his brother Roy as a “multidisciplinary community of the arts.” I wandered through and watched student artists at work, including dancers, actors, and animators. I wondered if I’d someday see the names of those student animators in the credits of future animated films.

“CalArts is the principal thing I hope to leave
when I move on to greener pastures.
If I can help provide a place to develop the talent of the future,
I think I will have accomplished something.”
—Walt Disney

I pored over books on Disney animation, published in 1975, 1984, and 1987. I still have these books. The first two were updated in 1988 (Christopher Finch) and 1995 (Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston). 

When I taught high school art in the 1980s, I taught an animation unit using the old school stop-gap techniques–long before computers and computer generated images.

A bit of serendipity occurred in 2010 during Milwaukee’s Parade of Homes. Meandering from room to room in a Miracle Homes model, I met former Disney animator Philo Barnhart drawing pictures for the guests. 

Philo Barnhart told me that he’d worked on animating characters in The Little Mermaid (1989) and Winnie-the-Pooh and a Day for Eeyore (1983), among others. His parents, too, had been animators at Disney studios. When Philo was a child, he and his dad were in the kite-flying scene of Mary Poppins, as part of the crowd. He’d met Julie Andrews. 

I requested a drawing from The Little Mermaid . . . 

Sebastian from The Little Mermaid.
Former Disney animator Philo Barnhart drew this for me.

He also drew me a picture of Tigger . . . which one of my kids must have nabbed because I can’t find it!

Additionally, he was involved with the animation for The Rescuers Down Under (character key, 1990) and Beauty and the Beast (key assistant animator: Gaston, 1991).

Philo Barnhart is one of hundreds of Disney animators over the years—one of many contributors to characters and stories that feed our imaginations and fantasies.

But back to that little boy under the Dreaming Tree.

In May (2019), I visited Walt Disney’s Hometown Museum in Marceline, Missouri.  Walt’s sister Ruth had her 3000+ artifacts donated after her death in 1995, at age 92. This two-story 10,000 square feet area highlights Walt’s roots in this town, his family, and his Marceline connections until his death in 1966.

Considering Walt’s love for trains, it’s only fitting that the museum is housed in the former Santa Fe Railroad station.

The earlier train depot stood there since 1888. The original structure moved a block west when this spot was picked by the Sante Fe railroad in 1913. It was a layover point between LA and Chicago.

Elias and Flora Disney and their five children moved from Chicago to Marceline in 1906 when Walt was four. He turned five on Dec. 5th that year. They stayed until 1910. Elias bought 45 acres from his brother Robert and, without experience, tried his luck at farming. That lasted till 1909. Bad luck on the farm precipitated selling the land and moving into town.

Originally from Canada, Elias married Flora in 1888 in Florida. She was a school teacher, had a good sense of humor, and was well liked. In Chicago, he worked on buildings as a carpenter for the 1893 Columbia expo.

Walt’s parents, Elias & Flora Disney

They had five children:

  • Herbert Arthur (1888 – 1961–age 73). He moved to LA in 1930. He married Louise and had one daughter–Dorothy. Though Roy and Walt asked him to work for them, he refused to work at Disney. Herbert wanted to deliver mail. 
  • Raymond Arnold (1890 – 1989–age 99). He never married. He’d walk through Disney studios trying to sell insurance to the employees until Walt and Roy had to banish him.
  • Roy Oliver (1893 – 1971–age 78). Though eight years older, Roy and Walt were close friends and business partners their whole lives. When Walt died in 1966, he saw to it that Walt’s dream of Disney World in Orlando came to fruition.
  • Walter Elias (1901 – 1966–age 65). He married Lilly. They had two daughters, Diane and Sharon.
  • Ruth Flora–1903 – 1995–age 92). She married Ted Beecher and had a son Teddy. She’s the only sibling who didn’t settle in LA. She went to Portland, Oregon instead.

WALT’S CHILDHOOD YEARS

Walt had fond memories of the farming community where everyone helped each other. He loved the farm and had his own duties, including herding the milking stock to the pond daily for watering. He’d play with pigs and chickens after chores and play with his little sister Ruth, two years younger. They’d steal away to the Dreaming Tree.

On the farm, his mother Flora churned butter, acquiring quite a reputation for its sweet creaminess. She traded it for food. The grocer kept her butter at a special place in the store. It became such a successful commodity in Marceline that Elias refused to let the kids eat it at home. Why eat it when you can sell it to make money?

Despite the butter ban, Flora often treated the kids to buttered bread. Surreptitiously, she’d hand them bread slices, butter side down, so their father wouldn’t see. The phrase “butter side down” became a Disney kid joke.

It’s no wonder Walt loved trains. His uncle Mike Martin was a train engineer. When Walt heard his unique train whistle–just for him–he’d run to the train where Uncle Mike stopped to pick him up on the way to the depot.

Walt didn’t start Park Elementary School till age seven because he had to wait for Ruth to be old enough. He was mortified to be stuck in the same class with his five-year-old sister. His very strict teacher described him as “terribly ornery.”

No doubt he was a kid who needed action and movement. No desk-sitting for him. He carved WD on his desk–twice.

Walt carved his intiials on his desk.

Walt’s father Elias never encouraged his drawing. Art surely wasn’t a viable future career. Instead, Walt’s Aunt Margaret bought him his first sketch pads and pencils.

But Walt didn’t limit his drawings to paper. One day with his parents gone, he got the notion to draw on the side of the house–with tar so that it could be easily wiped off later that day before his parents returned. Ruth was in on it. Walt drew a house with a smoking chimney, and a bird in a nest. 

Unfortunately, the tar solidified. Nothing took it off. The drawing remained on the house the entire time the Disneys lived in Marceline.

The oldest boys, Herbert and Raymond, worked the farm along with Elias. When the boys wanted to spend hard-earned money on a watch and other things, Elias insisted they help him pay off farm debts instead. That day, the boys withdrew money from the bank and headed back to Chicago to strike out on their own. 

That left Roy, Walt, and Ruth at home. With many more adventures to come.

Join me next time for more about Walt, his early career, and his contributions to Marceline.

Interested in a Disney trip?

Ron’s just mad about Disney travel! Travel specialist Ron Baxley, Jr. with Mad Hatter Adventures Travel Company sells and does planning for more than just Walt Disney World packages. He sells Disney vacation packages of all types. -Free Disney gift cards or other incentives with each booked, fully-paid-for vacation. -Payment plans for Walt Disney World packages. For more information, see his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/RonMadHatterAdventuresCompany/ or emailron@madhatteradv.com

What favorite childhood memories do you have that are associated with a particular place?

I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,

Laura

4 thoughts on “Walt Disney’s Hometown—Where the Magic Began—Part 1

  1. Very neat stuff here! What a fascinating start for this man.
    And so interesting, that his father didn’t encourage his dreams, but an aunt did 😉

    That drawing from Philo Barnhart is a treasure! I have too many good memories associated with too many places to pick a favorite. One Christmas night at my grandpa’s, a dozen of us cousins went Christmas caroling. I think it was a last-minute decision. First we watched the snow in the streetlight by his house and then went through a neighborhood singing. Never again has Christmas caroling been so sweet!

    1. I guess that shows that aunts have important roles in kids’ lives, too!

      What a sweet Christmas caroling memory!

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