2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Walt Disney’s visit to Florissant “blew me away” tour guide recalls

Published: February 9, 2014, 8:00 am, by Bill Vogrin
Toby Wells, 12, posts on a stump after it was dug out and prepared for trucking to Disneyland in July 1956. Wells had given a tour of the Pike Petrified Forest to Walt Disney, who then bought the 34 million-year-old Redwood stump for $1,650. Today it stands in Frontierland. And Wells is a 69-year-old retired rancher. Gazette file photo.

Toby Wells, 12, poses on a stump after it was dug out and prepared for trucking to Disneyland in July 1956. Wells had given a tour of the Pike Petrified Forest to Walt Disney, who then bought the 34 million-year-old Redwood stump for $1,650. Today it stands in Frontierland. And Wells is a 69-year-old retired rancher. Gazette file photo.

Often, the rest of the story is as interesting as the original. That’s the case with my recent column about Walt Disney’s 1956 visit to the Florissant fossil beds and purchase of a 34 million-year-old stump.

After the Jan. 31 column ran, I learned a ton of new information including:

The entrance to the Pike Petrified Forest in a photo circa 1955. Courtesy Michael Ausec.

The entrance to the Pike Petrified Forest in a photo circa 1955. Courtesy Michael Ausec.

• The owner of the Pike Petrified Forest, Jack Baker, carried on a nasty war to attract tourists with the adjacent Colorado Petrified Forest, also a privately owned fossil forest business south of Florissant, which climaxed in a shooting.

• Another war erupted in 1962 when the National Park Service began urging Congress to acquire the beds and designate the property a national monument. At its peak, environmentalists converged on Florissant and prepared to stand in front of bulldozers assembled to break ground on a subdivision planned for the fossil beds.

• Walt Disney’s wife, Lillian, sat in the car and honked impatiently for her husband to leave the Pike Petrified Forest.

You may recall my original column was accompanied by a July 1956 photo of a 12-year-old boy sitting on the stump as it was being dug out for shipment to California.

Today, the area where the stump was dug up is part of the 6,000-acre Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.

The day after the column ran, my phone rang.

Toby Wells in a 2011 courtesy photo.

Toby Wells in a 2011 courtesy photo.

“Hello, Bill,” said the deep, gravelly voice of an older man on the line. “I’m the 12-year-old boy in the photo you ran today. I’m Toby Wells.”

How cool is that?

Today, Wells is a 69-year-old retired rancher and he had a great story to tell me.

Wells grew up on a 1,300-acre ranch that included the eastern edge of the fossil beds, which are located, generally, a couple miles south of Florissant and U.S. Highway 24 in Teller County. And he said it was not uncommon to find fossils of insects, plants and fish in the rock around the area.

“We had some fossil outcroppings on our ranch,” Wells said.

020914 Side Streets 5 For a couple summers, Wells worked as a guide at the 73-acre Pike Forest as a tour guide. On the evening of July 11, 1956, he was getting ready to close up when a fancy car drove up.

“He was a very distinguished man,” Wells recalled. “They were driving a 1955 Chevy, turquoise and white, two tone.

“He said: ‘Can I tour the forest?’ I said: ‘No. It’s getting dark.’ He said: ‘How about a small tour.’ And I said: ‘I’ll still have to charge you 35 cents.’ And he said OK.”

After the tour, the man’s wife became impatient, honking and calling for him to leave.

The man asked Wells about buying “a small specimen.” Wells said he told him there were a lot of souvenirs in the gift shop.

This photo shows the petrified Redwood stump purchased by Walt Disney after a tour of the Pike Petrified Forest near Florissant on July 11, 1956. Disney paid $1,650 for the 34-million-year-old tree stump, which weighed five tons and required several men and a crane to move. It has resided in Frontierland at Disneyland ever since. The Pike Petrified Forest closed in 1961 and eventually was acquired as part of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Photo courtesy Michael Ausec.

This photo shows the petrified Redwood stump purchased by Walt Disney after a tour of the Pike Petrified Forest near Florissant on July 11, 1956. Disney paid $1,650 for the 34-million-year-old tree stump, which weighed five tons and required several men and a crane to move. It has resided in Frontierland at Disneyland ever since. The Pike Petrified Forest closed in 1961 and eventually was acquired as part of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Photo courtesy Michael Ausec.

“He said: ‘No, I want something bigger. Like that stump,’ ” Wells said, referring to a five-ton petrified Redwood stump that stood 7½-feet tall.

Wells said he’d have to talk to the owner, Baker, and he asked the man his name.

“He said ‘Walt Disney’ and I about fell over backwards,” Wells said with a laugh. “It blew me away.”

Disney quickly completed the sale, paying $1,650 for the ancient artifact, and left with Lillian for Colorado Springs.

“I never saw him again,” Wells said.

Almost immediately Baker and a crew dug up the stump, used a crane to hoist it out and then trucked it straight to Disneyland where it remains on display in Frontierland, propped up near the Golden Horseshoe Saloon.

Disney’s visit and purchase became big news and the photo of Wells sitting on the stump first appeared in The Gazette Telegraph, he said. Baker also mentioned Disney in his advertising brochures.

The Disney visit fueled bitterness between Baker and his competition, the much larger Colorado Petrified Forest next door. Wells told me how Baker enraged the competition by building an entrance road and erecting a grand gateway right next to its driveway.

A tourist stands on a platform over a petrified Redwood stump in the Pike Petrified Forest near Florissant, circa 1955. The Pike was a privately owned tourist business that offered tours of the 34-million-year-old trees and sold fossil fish, insects and plants. A rival Colorado Petrified Forest was adjacent to it and the two owners carried on a bitter, even violent, competition for tourists. Photo courtesy Michael Ausec.

A tourist stands on a platform over a petrified Redwood stump in the Pike Petrified Forest near Florissant, circa 1955. The Pike was a privately owned tourist business that offered tours of the 34-million-year-old trees and sold fossil fish, insects and plants. A rival Colorado Petrified Forest was adjacent to it and the two owners carried on a bitter, even violent, competition for tourists. Photo courtesy Michael Ausec.

“Then he put up big, obnoxious signs advertising the ‘best stumps here’ and that kind of thing,” Wells said.

The feud turned violent when Baker was caught spreading nails along the entrance of the Colorado Petrified Forest, Wells said. As he drove away in his Chevy Nomad station wagon, shots were fired, striking Baker.

This story was confirmed by Michael Ausec, an antiques, gem and fossil dealer from Willamette Valley, Oregon, who grew up in Colorado Springs and was a personal friend of Baker. Ausec bought Baker’s estate after he died in 1994 and has spent years selling Florissant fossils online ever since.

“Jack still had the Nomad in his driveway on South Institute,” Ausec said. “It still had bullet holes in it.”

One of the bullets hit Baker in the stomach and could not be removed, causing him chronic problems the remainder of his life, Ausec said.

Wells also had a first-had account of the fight between landowners and the National Park Service after efforts began to create the monument.

His family was forced to sell 73 acres to the park service for inclusion in the monument, including the family home.

Jack Baker, photo courtesy Michael Ausec

Jack Baker, photo courtesy Michael Ausec

“They took everything where we lived,” he said. “Our house and everything. It was upsetting that all of a sudden you had to leave and move out of your home.”

In fact, developers from Colorado Springs were offering a lot of money to ranchers in Florissant for their fossil bed property. One group paid $450,000 for 1,300 acres in 1969 as a bill was moving through Congress to create the monument.

That purchase led to a dramatic series of moves including court injunctions and trials and a near confrontation between environmentalists and bulldozers that was averted at the last minute.

“Saved in Time - The Fight to Establish Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado” is a book by Estella Leopoldcq and Herbert Meyer. It details the history of the fossil beds and the landmark legal battle by environmentalists to preserve it.

“Saved in Time – The Fight to Establish Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado” is a book by Estella Leopoldcq and Herbert Meyer. It details the history of the fossil beds and the landmark legal battle by environmentalists to preserve it.

The whole saga is included in a fascinating book, “Saved in Time – The Fight to Establish Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado” by Estella Leopold and Herbert Meyer.

It’s available online and gives amazing details about the hundreds of new insect species discovered entombed in the rock by scientists who explored the area as early as 1873. It also describes efforts to preserve the fossil beds, dating to 1891.

And it gives a blow-by-blow of the landmark legal battle which resulted in creation of the monument.

I was intrigued by the complaints of scientists as early as the 1890s about the “disappearing forest” and the amount of petrified wood and fossils being carted away.

There’s interesting detail about failed efforts to saw petrified stumps into pieces so trains could haul them off. And how the Colorado Midland Railroad advertised special trains for tourists who wanted to collect fossils.

The thought of all the history contained in those souvenirs that was sold for pennies makes me shake my head. And it’s why I’m glad the area is now protected.

This fossil of Palaeovespa florissantia, a paper wasp, reveals a species that lived 34 million years ago. Its’ imprint is delicately preserved in paper-thin lake shale. This particular specimen serves as the logo for Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Courtesy National Park Service photo.

This fossil of Palaeovespa florissantia, a paper wasp, reveals a species that lived 34 million years ago. Its’ imprint is delicately preserved in paper-thin lake shale. This particular specimen serves as the logo for Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Courtesy National Park Service photo.

And it’s why I’d like to see some of the best fossils returned for display.

Ausec, who bought Baker’s estate, recently sold the paperwork associated with the Disney purchase, making it unlikely it will ever be available at the monument’s beautiful new visitors center.

But he still has a few rare specimens, he said. And he’s even willing to consider returning them.

“I have a fish fossil that is excruciatingly rare,” Ausec said. “And I still have three pieces of that original tree stump that’s at Disneyland. The fish is special. It’s about 18-inches long. I’ve probably made enough money off the fossils. It seems like it would be better off going back to Colorado than me selling it on eBay.”

That was good news to Michelle Wheatley, superintendent of the monument.

She said the monument would welcome Ausec’s contribution. He promised to meet with her in June when he comes back to visit his summer home in Victor.

It’s also good news to Wells, who has donated many items to the monument’s archives and been a “good friend” to the fossil beds, Wheatley said.

Even after losing his family home?

“I’ve always tried to help any way I can,” Wells said. “People from all over the world have hauled off fossils. We had to preserve it or it would have all been gone. We all had to adjust. It’s part of my history.”