Walt Disney: The Humble Beginnings of the Man Who Started It All

by on December 5, 2014 1 Comment

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So many ideas, memories, and feelings come to mind when you think about Disney. But before Disney was synonymous with fun and laughter, princesses and pirates, movies or even a mouse, Disney was just a man. Walter Elias Disney, the man who started it all. And to celebrate what would have been the 113th birthday of the Disney empire’s founder, we are taking a look back at the humble beginnings.

Chicago

Walt's parents:  Elias & Flora.  Courtesy of Yesterland

Walt’s parents: Elias & Flora. Courtesy of Yesterland

Walt’s father, Elias (1859-1941), was a Canadian born son of Irish immigrants. He married Flora Call (1868-1938) January 1, 1888 and they soon after moved to Chicago, IL. Elias, a carpenter among other professions, built the family home on a 25’ x 125’ lot at 1249 Tripp Avenue in Chicago. Here their family grew to include sons Herbert, Raymond, and Roy.

The church tied to Walt's name.  Courtesy of Yesterland

The church tied to Walt’s name. Courtesy of Yesterland

In 1900, Elias built another structure one block East and one block North of the family home at 2255 N. Keeler Avenue. This was the home of St. Paul’s Congregational Church (now Iglesia Evangelica Bautistat Betania). Elias’s close friend, Walter Parr was pastor. When Parr was away, Elias would lead the church services, and Flora worked at St. Paul’s as the treasurer.

A year later, on December 5th, 1901 Flora gave birth to their fourth son, Walter Elias, in a second story bedroom of their family home. The famous Disney was named for Elias’s close friend Pastor Walter Parr and himself. Elias and Flora would have one more child, a daughter Ruth, in the Chicago house.

The family moved from this house when Walt was just four. Sometime after the family left, the city of Chicago developed a more structured street numbering system and the family home, although it did not move, came to have the address of 2156 Tripp Avenue. Currently there are fundraising efforts to restore the home where Walt was born to be historically accurate for the time period of Walt’s birth. The Walt Disney Birthplace envisions “The home will be “A Living Source of Joy and Inspiration” and will promote the importance of family to nurture creativity, collaboration and innovation in children.”

Marceline

It is speculated that Elias began to become worried about the rising crime in his neighborhood, so he decided to relocate to a more rural setting. In April of 1906 he moved his family to a 45 acre farm in Marceline, MO. The farm had orchards of apples, peaches, and plums, fields of grain, and farm animals including pigs, chickens, horses, and cows. It was quite a difference from life in Chicago, and Walt loved it.

marceline_ruthandwalt courtesy of Clem Flickinger

It is here in Marceline that Walt sold his first artwork (to a neighbor), acted in plays, saw his first motion picture, spent a lot of time around the railroad with his uncle, Mike Martin, who was an engineer for the Santa Fe, and first received formal schooling.  In fact the tagline of the Walt Disney Hometown Museum in the city of Marceline is, “Where Walt Found the Magic”.  Perhpas no one can better sum up these early experiences better than Walt himself.

 

THE MARCELINE I KNEW

by Walt Disney

I was extremely glad to receive your letter asking me to write some impressions of Marceline as I remember it from my childhood days.

To tell the truth more things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since—or are likely to in the future. Things I mean, like seeing my first circus parade, attending my first school, seeing my first motion picture. I know you’ll agree with me that such childhood “first” as those are of utmost importance in any human being’s life.

I went with my family to live in Marceline when I was five years old and I stayed there until I was nine. I clearly remember the day we arrived there on the train. A Mr. Coffman met us in his wagon and we rode out to our house in the country just outside the city limits. I believe it was called the Crane Farm. My first impression of it was that it had a beautiful front yard with lots of weeping willow trees.

The Taylors lived on one side of us and Doc Sherwood on the other. One of my fondest childhood memories is of Doc Sherwood. He used to encourage me in my drawing and gave me little presents for my efforts.

One time I think he must have held a horse of his nearly all day so that I could draw it. Needless to say, the drawing wasn’t so hot, but Doc made me think it was tops.

My brother Roy reminds me of another flyer I took in the line of art at that time. I painted one side of our house with pitch. The outcome must have been slightly frightening to say the least and I wasn’t thanked for my efforts by the family.

I can remember the big red brick school house as if it were yesterday. Maybe if I saw it today it wouldn’t look so immense but it did to my young eyes. My first teacher’s name was Miss Brown.

And what fun used to have on winter days going down the hillsides lickety-split on a sled.

Everything connected with Marceline was a thrill to us, coming as we did from Chicago. The cows, pigs, chickens gave me a big thrill, and perhaps that’s the reason we use so many barnyard animals in the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony pictures today — who knows. You know what the psychologists say about the importance of childhood impressions.

An especial event in connection with my life in Marceline was the day I got to go down in the old No. 1 coal mine which was just a short distance from our place.

Before we left Marceline, we moved from the farm into town for awhile where we lived between the Wheelers and the Moormans. Mr. Moorman was the high school principal and Mrs. Moorman, I must confess, was my first “dream girl”. Of course, I was all of eight or nine at the time, but I can remember what pretty red hair she had.

Other random remembrances include the fact that one of the prides of my life was my uncle Mike Martin, who was an engineer on a train running from Marceline to Ft. Madison, Iowa. After all if you can’t be an engineer yourself, the next best thing is to have a relative who is one.

I’m glad I’m a small town boy and I’m glad Marceline was my town. Thanks a lot for letting me write my impressions, and say hello to all the folks. In addition, here is wishing you all congratulations and success in connection with your Golden Jubilee.

Best regards,

/s/ Walt Disney

Reprinted from the Marceline News September 2, 1938

Kansas City

The original Newsie.  Courtesy of Wikipedia

The original Newsie. Courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1911, Elias picked up the family again (minus Herbert and Ray who ran away back to Chicago) and moved them to Kansas City. Walt entered the second grade and soon became friends with Walter Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer and his family were utter theater buffs and Walt spent any free time he had enjoying their company. Unfortunately though, during the next six years Walt would not have much free time. He attended the Kansas City Art Institute on Saturdays for classes in drawing. Every other day, Walt was kept busy as a delivery boy for his father’s Kansas City Star delivery route. The route was large and had two daily editions plus a Sunday paper. Walt’s normal routine was to wake about 4:30am, deliver papers until school started, and then resume immediately after school let out for the day and continued until supper time. Walt kept up the routine for six years. He was often exhausted and received poor grades in school.

Chicago and beyond

Walt and his ambulance after WWI.  Courtesy of Wikipedia

Walt and his ambulance after WWI. Courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1917 Elias, Flora, Walt & Ruth returned to Chicago and resided at 1523 W. Ogden Avenue after Elias invested in the O-Zell Company, which produced jelly and juice. Walt, age 15, worked that summer on the railroad selling candy. He entered McKinley High School that fall for what would be his final year of formal education. He also took evening cartooning classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts that year. In the fall of 1918, when Walt was just 16 years old, he tried to join his brother Roy in the Army, fighting in WWI. He was denied entry because of his age, but this did not dishearten him. He instead joined the Red Cross after he convinced his mother to change the birth date on his Christening certificate. He was an ambulance driver in France for the next year.

Adulthood

What follows next in the story of Walt are many of his achievements and even some failures over the years.  The Laugh-O-Grams Co., his marriage to Lillian, the creation of Mickey Mouse, the many shining achievements in film and television, and the creation of Disneyland.  If it was not for these humble beginnings would Walt have been such a success?  Would there have been a Mickey or Disneyland?  Would we all be able to conjur up memories of family vacations, favorite princesses, or a beloved childhood movie just by hearing the word Disney?  I venture not.  And so, Happy Birthday Walt.  Thank you for your childhood that made you the man we all grew to love in ours and beyond into adulthood.

 

To read more about Marceline and a guest TouringPlans blogger’s experience visiting there, read Marceline:  Where Walt’s Memories Were Made.

Posted on December 5, 2014

One Response to “Walt Disney: The Humble Beginnings of the Man Who Started It All”

  • Thank you Amy for a very interesting article! It immediately reminded me of the excellent special exhibit I saw recently at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I think it’s sponsored by D23 and there’s quite a bit of history from the archives of Walt and his early influences (as well as costumes, props, and tidbits thru recent times). It runs in Chicago into January, though I’m not sure where it will be shown afterward. I’d recommend for any Disney enthusiast.