Where Walt Lived Before Hollywood

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

George Washington spent many nights in different inns and private homes as a surveyor, then a colonial officer, and, finally, as the first president of the United States.

It was once a cliché for realtors attempting to sell an antiquated dwelling on the eastern seaboard of the United States to proudly proclaim, "George Washington slept here."

That phrase was so well worn that it also became the title of a 1940 stage (and later movie) comedy written by playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart that kidded the concept.

Many of those claims were verified by public records or written family documents like personal correspondence from the time, but just as many were tall tales trying to add a little more prestige to the property.

Over the decades, many places have tried to claim some connection with Walt Disney as well in order to gain some attention.

Displayed in the window of a prominent antiques shop in Asheville, N.C., is an old draftsman's desk with Walt Disney's photo prominently displayed.

The desk is priced at less than $20,000, which the shop considers a bargain because—according to the note attached to the desk—this wooden treasure is actually "Walt Disney's drafting table. Used at the Asheville Citizen-Times while employed there in the 1920s."

Walt never lived in North Carolina and never worked for the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper.

Apparently a local artist who owned the desk, but passed away in 2000, had told a family friend repeatedly that the table belonged to Disney. Why did people believe him?

Well, the legend in Asheville is that, in 1924, Walt found work as a draftsman for Major Thomas A. Cox Jr. in the Jackson Building on Pack Square. Walt was apparently a competent draftsman but "he doodled little mice and other creatures on his work" and so Cox had to fire him.

Sounds pretty impressive, until you actually examine this work supposedly done by Walt (and yes, the register of deeds for Buncombe County actually keeps a list of these alleged maps Walt supposedly worked on), and other than one that has a small set of hands drawn on it pointing to the north-south arrow, there is no indication that an aspiring cartoonist was involved in the creation of this work.

There isn't even a hint of a Disney signature and one of the stories that his friend Ub Iwerks remembered was the young Walt constantly practicing his signature when they worked for the Kansas City Film Ad Company, so that he could sign anything he worked on with a distinctive flourish.

However, citizens of Asheville will sincerely tell visitors that Walt's signature is all over the maps held in the courthouse, and some even claim to have vague memories of making deliveries to the Jackson Building and seeing Walt there in 1924.

"I ran the blueprint machine for Mr. Cox, and Mr. Disney; he would make sketches and I would print them," Red Hoyle, 88, told a local reporter in 1997.

A 1966 article in the Asheville Citizen quotes Cox's wife talking about Disney, but it mentions she "struggled" with her memory and had only a photocopy of the original cartoon Disney supposedly drew for Cox after being fired.

The employment record for the Asheville Citizen-Times does not go back to the 1920s. However, there is plenty of evidence that Walt Disney moved from Kansas City to California in July 1923 and started his animation studio. By 1924, he was already working on three "Alice Comedies" in Hollywood, so he couldn't have been in North Carolina, nor would he have had any reason to be there.

Yet no amount of facts and documentation can dim that legend and the community profile for the city still claims: "Walt Disney worked here briefly as a draftsman for a construction company. He was fired for doodling."

The following is a listing of the verified locations where Walt Disney lived over the years:

Walt's Birthplace: 1249 Tripp Ave. (later renumbered 2156 Tripp Ave.), Chicago, Illinois

In 1889, Elias and Flora Disney, Walt's parents, had moved from Florida where they had married and given birth to their first son, Herbert.

Walt Disney's birthplace is on Tripp Avenue in Chicago. The current owners are planning to restore it to how it was when the family lived there.

They had relocated to Chicago because Elias' younger brother, Robert, had moved there in 1889 and built a hotel in anticipation of the upcoming Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The fair was named the World's Columbian Exposition, to commemorate Christopher Columbus' discovery of America 400 years earlier.

Elias hoped to find work as a carpenter building pavilions, since construction would begin early in 1891. A second Disney son, Raymond, was born on December 30, 1890.

"My dad worked as a carpenter on the World's Fair buildings," remembered Walt in an interview with journalist Pete Martin in June 1956. "He worked as a carpenter for $1 a day. And, out of that, he and my mother saved enough money to go in business. I don't know how he did it. He eventually ended up as a contractor. He'd buy land and mother drew the plans. My dad would build the houses and then sell them."

Elias worked seven days a week for the fair building some of the pavilions on the Midway Plaisance, but was frugal enough to save enough money (and with his brother's real estate connections) to buy a 25-by-125-foot lot at the corner of Tripp Avenue and Palmer Street in northwestern Chicago in October 1891 for $700.

He built a modest, rectangular two-story house on it in 1892 from baseboard to cedar shake roof. It was roughly five miles from downtown Chicago.

It was painted white with blue trim and it was admired for its clean lines, and served as a model for the houses Elias could build for others. The home was just south of downtown and about a mile from Lake Michigan.

In 1909, the address of the house later changed to 2156 North Tripp Ave., when Chicago did an official numbering change on addresses in the city to make them more consistent.

Roy Oliver Disney was born there on June 24, 1893, followed by Walt on December 5, 1901 (in the upper bedroom) and sister Ruth on December 6, 1903.

After his work on the fair was completed, Elias became a contractor building houses, including two on the same block where he lived.

"There was a place called Hermosa or something where my dad built a whole row of houses," Walt said. "He'd buy this land, and build the houses and sell them. He was doing that when I was born."

Elias' wife, Flora, would do the designs and sometimes even go out to the sites and hammer and saw planks with the men.

"There's nothing mysterious about drawing up plans for a house," said Flora in a later interview. "And a woman ought to know more about making it livable."

Elias was deeply religious and when the local Congregational church decided to construct a new building for its members, he stepped in and helped build St. Paul's Congregational Church that was officially dedicated October 1900.

It was located at 2255 North Keeler Ave., about two blocks from the Disney home. Today it is Iglesia Evangelica Bautista Betania (Bethany Evangelical Baptist Church). Flora would play the organ for services and Elias would occasionally take the pulpit to preach.

The church had a new young minister named Walter Parr, whose wife was pregnant at the same time Flora was with Walt. According to Disney legend, Elias and Parr supposedly agreed that if the children born were male, Elias would name his child after Parr and Parr would name his after Elias. That is reportedly the reason why Walt was named Walt.

"[My dad] and the minister were great pals," Walt told Martin. "The minister's name was Walter Parr. The minister had a baby coming and my dad had a baby coming and so they probably, when they were breaking bread somewhere, said 'Well, if you name your son after me, I'll name my son after you'. I'm known as Walter after this minister, Walter Parr. Dad was feeling pretty good so he also gave me the middle name of Elias."

"[The Disney family] moved from the Tripp Avenue house when Walt was still very young," stated Disney historian and author Michael Barrier. "It's not like Walt would have had any formative memories of being there. So people tend to think of Disney as a product of Missouri, where the family eventually moved."

Elias wanted a healthier environment to raise his family, since Chicago was being plagued by violent crime at the time. So he sold the Tripp house for $1,800 to Mr. Walter Chamberlain, and purchased some farmland in Marceline, Missouri (where his brother Robert had earlier purchased some land as an investment).

"A neighboring family just like ours was very close to us," Roy O. Disney told journalist Richard Hubler in a 1967 interview. "We woke up one morning and two of their boys were involved in a car barn robbery. Shot it out with the cops, killed a cop. One of them went to Joliet [Correctional Center] for life.

"We had a nice neighborhood, a lot of good Irish and Poles and Swedes around there, but it was a rough neighborhood, too, in a way."

Throughout the years, many different owners made a number of different changes to the property but it still blended into the surrounding area and its significance to Disney history was largely forgotten.

The owner of the house for more than 25 years was June Saathoff, a retiree on a fixed income who strongly opposed the city's attempt to designate the home a Historic Landmark in 1997 because of the restrictions that would come with it.

Radoje and Barbara Popovic, then bought the house in 2002 for $190,000. In December 2006, the Popovics listed the house on eBay in the hope that someone would pay a premium for its historic value at a beginning bid of $280,000. There were no bidders at that price, so the couple rented out each of the two floors separately.

Dina Benadon and Brent Young, a married couple from Los Angeles who own a new media company called Super 78, which produces animated movies for theme park attractions, bought the property for a mere $173,000 in 2013. Their plan is to restore the house to its original state and perhaps include a small museum that would "authentically recreate the Disney household life experience." The project is called the Walt Disney Birthplace, and will eventually offer tours and stage modest exhibitions.

Exterior restoration, including tearing off aluminum siding, which covered the house for years, has been removed in order to reveal the original wood frame structure. Other work includes the reinstallation of the porch, the picket fence, and the replacement of the house's current windows with painstakingly crafted Victorian re-creations. About 80 percent of the home's exterior has been restored to its original condition.

Disney Family Farm: Walt's Boyhood Home in Marceline, Missouri

The family moved to a 45-acre farm on the outskirts of the city of Marceline. The farm had formerly been known as the Crane Farm. There was a two story white frame house and it had apple orchards. The Taylor family lived on one side of the farm and Doc Sherwood on the other.

The family lived there from April 1906-1911.

Famously, one day while his parents were in town, Walt who was 7 at the time, convinced his 5-year-old sister Ruth to paint with him on the side of the house using sticks and a big barrel of tar. Walt drew a series of houses with smoke curling out the chimneys. Ruth drew two rows of zigzag images.

Once the tar dried, it could not be removed, and remained there the entire time the Disney family lived at the farm. It was on the side of the house that faced the main road.

The red barn made an impression on Walt and he built a replica of it in the backyard of his later Holmby Hill house.

"He spoke with such warmth and joy (about Marceline)," said Walt's older daughter Diane Disney Miller. "It wasn't until I was older that I realized that he had only lived there four years. I really thought he had spent his whole life there in Marceline."

"To tell the truth, more things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since – or are likely to in the future," Walt recalled.

The Kansas City Homes, 2706 E. 31st Street, Kansas City, Missouri

Elias got ill and could no longer maintain the Marceline farm, so he sold it and moved to Kansas City. This was a rented house where the Disney family stayed for a few years from 1911-1914. Then they moved to 3028 Bellefontaine Ave., where they first rented, and then purchased, this two story home that was just around the corner from the other house. The family owned that house from 1914-1921.

Chicago Home, 1523 West Ogden Avenue, Chicago, Illinois

While living in Kansas City, Elias invested heavily (his entire life savings including money from Walt's savings) in the O-Zell Company in Chicago. The O-Zell Company made jelly and was going to launch a juice soft drink that Elias thought was going to rival Coca-Cola. The factory was located in the 1300 block of West 15th Street.

When the company began experiencing difficulties, Elias invested even more money and moved the entire family back to Chicago again so he could take a more active role in the company. In 1917, the Disney family rented a small flat at 1523 Odgen Avenue (now torn down) which was closer to downtown than their old address. It was located in the North Lawndale neighborhood.

"They gave him a job there in charge of all the construction and things," Walt said.

In the summer of 1918, when he was 16, Walt altered his birth date on his passport affidavit so he and his friend Russell Maas could join as volunteers the American Ambulance Corp, which was part of the Red Cross. An influenza epidemic struck Chicago and an ill Walt was delayed in being shipped overseas until after World War I was over.

Walt still spent almost a year in France and then returned to Chicago. After all his experiences overseas, Walt had no desire to return to finish high school, but was eager to get started pursuing his dreams.

His dad offered him a job at the O-Zell jelly factory for $25 a week, but Walt was set on the idea of being a cartoonist and moved to Kansas City, where his older brother Roy was working as a teller for the First National Bank of Kansas City.

Back to the Kansas City Home, 3028 Bellefontaine, Kansas City, Missouri

Walt returned to Kansas City in 1919 and the home that was now being rented by his older brother, Herbert Disney, and his family, as well as Roy Oliver.

There were no available bedrooms, so Walt slept on a couch in the parlor and Roy covered the extra cost for his younger brother.

Walt's best friend was Walt Pfeiffer who lived a few houses down at 3022 Bellefontaine.

Walt's parents (after father Elias lost his investment in O-Zell Company jelly factory) moved back into the Bellefontaine house in 1919 and then sold the house in late 1921, so they could relocate with their young daughter Ruth to Portland, Oregon. Herbert and his family had already moved when Herbert who was working as a mailman was transferred there.

With the loss of the home, Walt took to living in several different cheap boarding houses. Eventually, when his funds ran out, he moved into his Laugh-O-gram Studio office where he would sleep on the floor or in a chair. Ub Iwerks sometimes allowed him to sleep on his couch where he lived when the floor got too hard for Walt.

Walt would shave in the public restroom down the hallway and pay a dime once a week to use the public baths at Union Station where, for that price, he got a small bar of soap and a towel to use.

He left Kansas City in July 1923 for California—and the rest is history.