Disneyland is a goofy place for a petrified tree from Pikes Peak region

Published: January 31, 2014, 8:00 am, by Bill Vogrin
Disneyland petrified tree

This petrified redwood tree stump is an estimated 35 million years old and is on display in Disneyland in California. It was purchased by Walt Disney in July 1956 from what is now the Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument in Teller County. Disney bought the petrified tree stump from Colorado Springs resident Jack Baker, who owned the Pike Petrified Forest Fossil business. The stump was shipped to Disneyland in California where it has been on display ever since. Photo is  courtesy of the Disney Parks Blog.

If you’ve ever visited Disneyland in California, chances are you walked right by the little slice of the Pikes Peak region that stands as the oldest and most authentic attraction in a place devoted to all things make-believe and figments of wild imaginations.

Several times over the years I’ve walked right past it, oblivious to this souvenir of an ancient Colorado forest of giant redwood trees that grew upwards of 35 million years ago in an area we now know as Florissant.

Florissant Fossil BedsBut it’s there . . . a 7½-foot-tall, five-ton petrified tree stump taken from what is now the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument west of Divide.

The stump sits in Frontierland near the banks of the Rivers of America across from the Golden Horseshoe Saloon. (I’m being admonished to avoid saying things like: What a goofy place for a petrified tree.)

The stump is all that remains of a tree scientists say stood 200 feet tall amid a sub-tropical forest of giant redwoods obliterated in a cataclysmic volcanic eruption that buried the trees in ash. The region flooded, experienced an algae bloom that created perfect conditions for preserving the trees, as well as insects and plants, scientists say.

(It’s shocking to think fossils were ever private property for sale on the roadside. But remember that even the Garden of the Gods was private property for years and Balanced Rock fenced from view to protect the tourist/photography business of the owner.)

Anyway, I wasn’t aware of it until my daughter, Anna, an employee of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., saw an item about this rare geologic artifact on a Disney Parks Blog and mentioned it to me.

Santa's WorkshopI knew Walt Disney and his wife, Lillian, had stayed at The Broadmoor hotel and that a former Hollywood artist and Disney Studios animator, Arto Monaco, had designed the Santa’s Workshop/North Pole theme park that opened in June 1956 in Cascade.

But this was a whole new Disney connection for me to explore.

And the recent movie “Saving Mr. Banks” about Disney’s struggle to make the movie “Mary Poppins” got me interested to dig deeper.

Lillian and Walt Disney pose in front of a petrified redwood tree stump in Disneyland in California, in September 1957. Photo courtesy Disney Parks Blog.

Lillian and Walt Disney pose in front of a petrified redwood tree stump in Disneyland in California, in September 1957. Photo courtesy Disney Parks Blog.

The Oct. 22, 2009, “Did You Miss It?” Disney blog item provided photos of the petrified stump and a brief history of how it ended up in Disneyland: Disney bought it on July 11, 1956, as a gift for Lillian on their wedding anniversary. She donated it to Disneyland for display.

Following Internet leads, I learned much more. I found Michael Ausec in the Willamette Valley of Oregon from his idareds.com website where he sells fossils from the Florissant site. Ausec also had historic photos. So I gave him a call.

Jack Baker, photo courtesy Michael Ausec

Jack Baker, photo courtesy Michael Ausec

Turns out Ausec, 56, is a native of Colorado Springs whose family had a close friend, Jack Baker, who owned a tourism business in Teller County selling fossils from the Florissant beds.

013114 Side Streets 7

Jack Baker’s Pike Petrified Forest Fossil business in Florissant. Photo courtesy Michael Ausec

Baker bought the Pike Petrified Forest Fossil business in the 1950s, Ausec said, and continued doing what folks had done for decades: harvesting and selling amazing fossils.

Over the decades, tons of petrified trees and smaller rocks rich in fossilized insects and plants were hauled away. Some by the trainload.

A man and a dog stand amid three petrified redwood stumps in what is now the Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument in Teller County. The photo is from the estate of former Colorado Springs resident Jack Baker, who owned the Pike Petrified Forest Fossil business until 1968. The man in the photo purportedly is Walt Disney during a July 1956 visit to Florissant when he purchased a petrified tree stump from Baker. The stump was shipped to Disneyland in California where it has been on display ever since. Photo courtesy Michael Ausec.

A man and a dog stand amid three petrified redwood stumps in what is now the Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument in Teller County. The photo is from the estate of former Colorado Springs resident Jack Baker, who owned the Pike Petrified Forest Fossil business until 1968. Walt Disney visited in July 1956 and bought a petrified stump and had it shipped to Disneyland in California where it has been on display since. Photo courtesy Michael Ausec.

Ausec shared amazing photos of 1950s trucks and cranes used to remove the tree stump Disney bought for $1,650. He even has a photo that Baker said was Disney, in a large hat, with a dog amid the massive stumps.

“Jack was a charter member of the Colorado Springs Mineralogical Society and my dad and brother were uranium prospectors,” Ausec said, explaining the family connection. “He had an amazing collection of fossils.”

This photo from the estate of former Colorado Springs resident Jack Baker shows men loading a petrified redwood tree stump into a truck for shipment to DIsneyland in July 1956. Baker owned the Pike Petrified Forest Fossil business. Photo courtesy Michael Ausec.

This photo from the estate of former Colorado Springs resident Jack Baker shows men loading a petrified redwood tree stump into a truck for shipment to DIsneyland in July 1956. Baker owned the Pike Petrified Forest Fossil business. Photo courtesy Michael Ausec.

Baker, who lived on South Institute Street near his old family dairy business southeast of downtown Colorado Springs, operated the fossil business until 1968, when the federal government took ownership to protect the fossil beds and created the monument, which opened the next year.

Ausec said Baker had amassed a huge inventory of fossils before the government takeover.

Here’s how Ausec described it on his website:

“Before the U.S. Park Service took over, he spirited away his fossil bed collection and stored it at his home on South Institute in Colorado Springs. It remained there, untouched, until his death in 1994.”

Walt Disney spelled out terms of his purchase of a 35 million year old petrified redwood in this 1956 letter to Colorado Springs resident Jack Baker, who owned the Pike Petrified Forest Fossil business in what is now the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. The purchase price was obscured by the owner. Photo was part of the Baker estate and is courtesy Michael Ausec.

Walt Disney spelled out terms of his purchase of a petrified redwood in this 1956 letter to Colorado Springs resident Jack Baker. Photo was part of the Baker estate and is courtesy Michael Ausec.

That’s when Ausec acquired it. And he described it as an amazing collection surpassing the best fossils on display at the national monument visitors center.

“After he died, I bought his entire estate,” Ausec said, noting that he sold Florissant fossils for years on his own website, along with antiques and precious stones.

It’s shocking, and abhorrent, to think we used to routinely buy and sell our prehistoric treasures.

At least Disney put his petrified tree stump on display for millions of folks to enjoy.

Or, as in my case, walk past in oblivion on my way to the next roller coaster.