Walt Disney's Canadian Roots: The Disney Family Tree in Canada

April 22, 2017

Walt Disney's Canadian Roots in Bluevale, Ontario

Many Canadians don’t realize that Walt Disney has roots firmly planted in Canadian soil

Walt Disney’s father, Elias Disney, was born and raised in Ontario

Elias Disney was born on February 6, 1859 in the small Hamlet of Bluevale, Ontario, which is not far from Goderich on the shores of Lake Huron.

And that is how the story of Walt Disney's roots in Canada begins.

Elias’ father (and Walt's Grandfather) Kepple Disney married another immigrant of Irish descent (Mary Richardson) and they lived in Ontario until Elias Disney was 18 years of age (in 1877). It certainly wasn't easy to get ahead in the new world and the family had a tough time trying to make ends meet in what was then a very harsh wilderness. Always in search of something more, Kepple Disney tried many ways to find success. With no great prospects on the horizon, Kepple ultimately decided to leave Canada in 1877 and he set out with intentions of heading to California for the great gold rush.

Things didn't turned out quite the way he planned, however, and the family got as far as Kansas before Elias' father purchased land and they settled there for a short period of time. Walter Elias Disney was ultimately born on December 5, 1901 in Hermosa, Illinois after the family had moved again, this time to the Chicago area.

Walt Disney with Mickey in 1928

If you visit Bluevale and Goderich, Ontario today, you will get a sense of the area where Elias grew up and went to school. It has changed much since then and there are no monuments to the Disney family in this small and quiet community; however, if you visit the Huron County Museum in Goderich you can find the schoolhouse attended by the young Elias Disney (a little bit of a mecca for tried and true Canadian Disney fans).

Even today, the land around Bluevale is as country as it gets. Beautiful landscapes with rolling hills and blue skies (as you can see in the photos) but harsh and cold during the winter months. You can imagine how challenging it would have been to spend winters in this tough environment in the 1800s. And for the entrepreneurial Kepple Disney and his family (including Walt's father) the dreams of a better life ultimately led to their departure from the area to head for points south.

Bluevale, Ontario sign

In a 1963 interview with Fletcher Markle on the CBC Television program Telescope (see photo below), Walt recounted a return visit to his father’s hometown that he took with his wife, Lillian, after his father passed away. 

In Walt Disney's words:

“We got up there and she [Lillian Disney] really fell in love with the Town of Goderich. It was a beautiful town and she was quite happy about it. But I wanted to find my homestead where my grandfather went out and cut the trees down and pulled the rocks apart... where my father was born. So they gave me directions and everybody was trying to be helpful and everything and Mrs. Disney reluctantly went along and I found this old place and I said, "This is it -- there." It was really deserted. There were cows running through the house and chickens all around and I had my camera and I got out and photographed that thing from every angle.

When I got home I found out I had photographed the wrong homestead. Ever since, Mrs. Disney has never forgot. She tells that story to everybody -- about when Walt went up to Canada and he photographed the wrong homestead!”

Walt Disney with Fletcher Markle on CBC Telescope

The two-storey brick school building (pictured below) that is now part of the Huron County Museum was constructed in 1856 -- three years before the birth of Elias Disney. The school was known as the Goderich Central School and this is where young Elias went to school.

Today this remains an absolutely beautiful part of Ontario and the schoolhouse itself is located very close to the water and would have been a great place for learning (although it is a 45-minute trek from Bluevale and likely would have taken even longer in the mid-1800s).

Huron County Schoolhouse, Goderich, Ontario

Pictured below and located next to the schoolhouse in Goderich, Ontario is a relocated log cabin -- originally built in 1875. This is indicative of housing in the area when Elias Disney was 16 years of age. This house was built in Turnburry Township, which is just minutes from where Elias Disney was born and grew up in Bluevale. The cabin was constructed from local native woods of Huron County (hemlock, pine, cedar and basswood).

Log cabin in Goderich, Ontario

Both Bluevale and Goderich are warm, friendly and welcoming communities. Bluevale remains a very small and private Hamlet, but it still reflects the old world charm and friendly residents that probably attracted the Disney family to the area back in the 1800s.

Elias & Co., Disney California Adventure, Disneyland Resort

Elias Disney's memory lives on today at Disney California Adventure Park at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, where an upscale boutique "Elias & Co." bears his name in a fitting manner.

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