The Golden Oak Ranch

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

When the Golden Oak Outpost recently opened in Frontierland at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, I was surprised at how many people were trying to convince me that the use of the word “golden” was a subtle reference to the former McDonald’s fry cart and the famous “Golden Arches.”

I am not going to deny that it may be part of the reason for the selection of the name, but I was shocked how many Disney fans, including cast members, had no clue that there was a real Golden Oak Ranch where many Westerns, both Disney and non-Disney, were filmed for more than half a century.

Growing up in Southern California, I remember as an elementary school student that one of the things required of us was that we knew California history. Of course, one of the key events in California history was the big Gold Rush that started in 1849 where thousands of “49ers” flooded into the Sacramento Valley area to seek their fortunes.

I don’t seem to remember my teachers mentioning the story of rancher Francisco Lopez who, in 1842, first discovered gold in Southern California. The legend goes that Lopez fell asleep under an oak tree and dreamed of finding gold. When he awoke, he was so hungry that he pulled a nearby wild onion up to eat. Surprisingly, Lopez found gold flakes (or small nuggets depending upon who is telling the story) in the roots of the onion and that discovery sparked a modest gold rush nearly seven years before Sutter’s discovery at that Sacramento sawmill.

A plaque at the Golden Oak Ranch says the oak next to the church building is that famous "Golden Oak," and that "Under this tree, gold was first discovered in California by Don Francisco Lopez, March 9, 1842."

However, the Golden Oak Ranch in Newhall, California, wasn’t always called the Golden Oak Ranch. Originally it was called the San Francisquito Rancho, and was part of Mission San Fernando.

When pioneer filmmaker Trem Carr owned the property, he called it the Placeritos Ranch as early as 1915. His set designer, Ernie Hickson, created a Western movie town location using buildings he imported from Nevada for Carr’s productions.

Carr sold the ranch around 1930 and Hickson moved the sets westward in Placerita Canyon, creating what would become the Monogram Ranch for filming B-movies featuring upcoming stars like John Wayne. It was later called the Melody Ranch Movie Studio, the home of singing cowboy Gene Autry, a long time friend of Walt Disney. At one time, there were 15 active movie ranches in the Southern California area.

Meanwhile, Carr's one-time movie property reverted to a working horse and cattle ranch that was occasionally used by filmmakers.

More than a hundred years after gold was first discovered on the ranch, Walt Disney Productions found a different kind of gold there when they needed a place to film the Triple R Ranch scenes for the Mickey Mouse Club's "Spin and Marty" serials for three years in the mid-1950s.

Annette Funicello’s mother, Virginia, recalled that filming the “Spin and Marty” serials at the location was enjoyed by all the young performers. “They loved it. They wore cowboy outfits. They rode horses. They swam. They didn’t want to go home at night. It was wonderful!”

Prior to that time, the Disney Studio had been traveling long distances to do location shooting for live-action films including Arizona for “Song of the South” and Tennessee for “Davy Crockett”.

When Disney began doing television shows as well as more live action flims, it became necessary to find a more economical location site close to the Studio. The Golden Oak Ranch located on Placerita Canyon Road in Newhall, California, roughly 25 miles north from the Disney Studios in Burbank, seemed a perfect choice.

The Disney Studio made arrangements to use the Golden Oak Ranch, now named for the gold that Francisco Lopez discovered at the base of the oak tree. About that same time, many of the ranches that other movie studios had been using to film their exterior scenes were gradually being sub-divided, and Walt Disney feared that the motion picture ranches might cease to exist.

Disney liked the varied topography of the area. So, on March 11, 1959, he purchased the 315-acre Golden Oak Ranch for $300,000. It was joked that this was more than three times the amount of gold that was found on the property that amounted to close to $80,000.

The first movie that was filmed on the ranch after Disney purchased it was "Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks With A Circus" in 1959.

Walt assigned his art directors William Tuntke and Marvin Aubrey Davis (who was a master planner for both Disneyland and Magic Kingdom) the job of converting the area for filming. Davis installed an irrigation system to keep the area green year-round (on some days almost 1 million gallons of water can be used) and created two lakes and a waterfall to be used for filming. The waterfall is designed so it can be turned on and off.

Davis designed one lake to look like a river from certain angles so it could be used for river crossings where it is approximately two feet deep in some areas and other areas where it is five feet deep. The artificial current was created by using water pumps. The lake can be drained in approximately eight hours and refilled completely in roughly 48 hours.

Davis also developed portions of the landscape, planting 30-foot pine trees brought in from Lake Arrowhead.

Over the years—thanks to additional purchases of adjacent land needed to prevent the sights and sounds of modern life like television antennas, cars, condominiums or other items from intruding upon the movies shot at filming locations on the ranch—the area of the ranch increased to approximately 800 acres. The added acreage was necessary to insure unhindered vistas in all directions, especially for projects set in the Old West.

The prediction Walt Disney made in 1959 came true in just over two decades. The large Fox and Paramount ranches near Malibu were sold, and the once-popular Albertson Ranch is now covered with houses.

The Golden Oak Ranch has become practically the only surviving movie ranch, and other Hollywood production companies have made use of the ranch for productions ranging from Bonanza to Roots to Lassie to Back to the Future and countless others.

Even while Disney was using it for filming, the Golden Oak Ranch doubled briefly as a working cattle ranch for a time. Three real cowboys ran herd on about 50 head and took them to market each winter to be sold for beef.

In 1960, Disney purchased a small herd of eight American buffalo and used them in several productions. Within two years the animals proved not to be worth the trouble since they wandered into shots, broke fences, and were more than a little ornery. Walt, rather than sell them for slaughter, was convinced to donate them to the County of Los Angeles which put them to pasture down the road at William S. Hart Park in Newhall.

The company worked closely with the State of California when a portion of the western border of the ranch was purchased for the Antelope Valley Freeway.

Working closely with the state highway planners, Disney was able to work out an alternate route that lies just over a mountain ridge from the property, out of sight and earshot. Except for occasional planes that fly overhead, the property is perfect for filming without any visual intrusions.

At one point, Walt wanted to build a residential community at the ranch, an 18-hole golf course and a shopping village and they were all to be connected by a train.

“He [Walt] was very fond of the ranch. He liked it so much that Walt seriously considered building a house and living there,” remembered Bob Gibeaut who was vice president of Studios Operations.

Walt had Marvin Davis design a home for himself and his wife and another for his brother Roy and his family and yet another for his daughter Diane. However, that plan was halted when Walt’s wife decided she didn’t want to live that far from Los Angeles.

In 1965, 38 acres were set aside by Walt Disney for construction of the California Institute of the Arts campus, but eventually the school was built in Valencia instead.

The ranch is also used as an executive retreat. There's a comfortable house and pool for visitors. In fact, there were two pools, but the old one was damaged in the 1971 earthquake and filled in.

Within the ranch’s boundaries, there are permanent rural town sets, ''Roots Street" an Old West street which was built for Roots II, several houses and barns, a lake with a covered bridge, sprawling meadows, majestic oak trees, creeks, and water falls.

The ranch even has its own wildlife including beautiful peacocks (purchased by Walt) that run wild, ducks swimming in the lake, a few horses who live in the stables and natural wildlife like rattlesnakes, bobcats, mountain lions and some rabbits that supposedly have survived from Old Yeller.

Diamond Decorator, who played Tornado, Zorro's black horse in the popular television series, was the only horse in the series that was personally owned by Walt. After the series, Diamond Decorator lived at the ranch until his death around 1987.

The ranch manager is Steve Sligh. The day-to-day caring of the ranch is by Pat Patterson, the 20-plus year ranch foreman, and his assistant, Jesus "Garcia" Guerrero, who has been living at the ranch since 1963. They are responsible for keeping the ranch in working order, mowing its meadows, pruning the trees and bushes, caring for livestock, and keeping those who utilize the site in proper bounds.

The property continually changes like the addition of Pine Lake, a 12-foot-deep, man-made lake that was added to the property three years ago. The lake took a crew two months to make and 48 hours to fill. Today, it is home to freshwater fish and it is a popular spot to film.

Thanks to Walt’s vision, the Disney Company and other movie studios still have a beautiful diverse wilderness area for their exterior filming needs. However, the ranch is private property so don’t plan a visit without an invitation.