Folks who write or talk about Central Florida's past have often quipped that our area has a fascinating history "B.D."—Before Disney.
Now, that joke has a new wrinkle: Walt Disney World celebrates its 40th birthday this month, and it's been a part of Central Florida long enough to be historic itself.
And Walt Disney's family ties to the area go back much further—his parents, Flora Call and Elias Disney, were married here, in Lake County.
Officially designated a county on May 27, 1887, Lake issued its first marriage license exactly seven months later, in December, for the Disney-Call union. The wedding took place Jan. 1, 1888, in the tiny Kismet church in the Paisley area of the county.
The couple's famous son missed being a native Floridian by just a few years. The late Orlando Sentinel journalist Ormund Powers sketched out the story in a 1998 column, quoting from a history of the Paisley area.
Fleeing the Kansas winters
Walt Disney's maternal grandparents, Charles and Henrietta Call, lived in Huron County, Ohio, in the 1860s, and moved to Ellis, Kan., in 1879, but after several harsh winters, they moved about 1884 to what's now Lake County and became Florida pioneers.
The Calls' Kansas neighbors, Kepple Disney and his son Elias, also made the journey south and settled in the Paisley area. The Calls acquired 80 acres about a mile north of the Paisley settlement (then in Orange County).
The Call children included a son, Charles Jr., and four daughters: Flora (Walt Disney's mother), Jessie, Grace Lila, and Julia.
Kepple Disney returned to Kansas in 1887, but Elias stayed behind to wed Flora in that January 1888 ceremony in the little Kismet church. She was almost 20; Elias was almost 29.
The couple soon moved to Daytona Beach, and their oldest son, Herbert, was born in Florida in December 1888. Later they moved to Chicago, where Elias worked as a carpenter. A second son, Raymond, was born there in 1890, followed by Roy in 1893 and Walter Elias Disney in 1901. The boys' lone sister, Ruth, joined them in 1902.
In 1906, the family moved to a 48-acre farm near Marceline, Mo., on the mainline of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, about 100 miles northeast of Kansas City. (Marceline is said to be the inspiration for the Main Street areas at the Disney parks.) In a few years, the family moved into Kansas City.
Aunt Jessie and Uncle Albert in Florida
Back in Florida, Walt Disney's uncle Albert Perkins became the postmaster of Paisley in 1902 and served until 1935. (Perkins had married Aunt Jessie Call in 1887.)
Jessie Call Perkins taught in several Lake County schools and eventually served as principal of Eustis High School. When her husband died, she succeeded him as postmaster and served until 1946.
The story goes that the young Walt and Roy Disney visited Jessie and Albert in Florida during their summer vacations from school. If that's true, it must have been one of the bright lights for Walt in a boyhood shaped by hard work and harsh discipline.
When Walt was 9, he got out of bed each day at 3:30 a.m. to help his father deliver newspapers in Kansas City, whatever the weather.
It's likely the boy did find enjoyment in drawing, even at an early age. One story has it that his first brushwork used tar, which was used on the family farm for patching roofs and fixing drains.
The boy kept on drawing, encouraged by a gift of paper and pencils from an aunt and by a local doctor's kindness. Eventually, he enrolled in one of those correspondence-school cartooning courses—the kind you used to see advertised on matchbook covers—and when he was 14, he joined a Saturday morning class at the Kansas City Art Institute.
That was 1915, and he was still just a boy. But perhaps in his drawing, Walt Disney had found a niche to lodge his dreams.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun