110 years ago today: Where the Disney story began

December 5, 2011

The house at 2156 N. Tripp Avenue looks unremarkable, yet it is part of history. Walt Disney was born here on December 5, 1901--110 years ago today.

Elias and Flora Disney, Walt's parents, arrived in Chicago from Florida in 1890. The World's Fair was coming, and Elias hoped to find work as a carpenter. The family first lived near the fair site on the South Side.

In 1893 the Disneys purchased a plot of land in the Hermosa district on the city's Northwest Side. The area was sparsely settled, with dirt streets and few houses. Elias built a two-story frame cottage with his own hands on the southwest corner of Tripp and Palmer. The original address number was 1249 Tripp.

Elias did well in Hermosa. He got other carpentry jobs, then used his earnings to buy two more lots, build two more cottages, and sell them. He also became a trustee in the local Congregational church.

Walter Elias Disney was the family's fourth son. The story that he was named after the church pastor is probably not true. The story that he was adopted, and actually born in Spain, is definitely not true. Like many people born in 1901, Walt Disney didn't have an official birth certificate, and that led to the later confusion.

The Disneys stayed on Tripp Avenue until 1906. That winter two boys from church families tried to pull off a robbery and wound up killing a policeman. Elias decided he didn't want to raise his sons in the city. He sold his house and bought a farm in Missouri.

Walt had just turned four. He'd later have no memories of the Tripp Avenue house. But in 1917, after living in various places and trying different occupations, Elias Disney moved the family back to Chicago. He'd invested in a jelly-making factory.

The new Disney home was on the Near West Side, at 1523 W. Ogden Avenue. Walt enrolled as a freshman at McKinley High School. He drew cartoons for the school paper and took art classes at night, but left after one year to become an ambulance driver in World War I. He never again lived in Chicago.

Both Elias and Flora Disney lived long enough to see their youngest son become a Hollywood studio magnate. Walt Disney himself died in 1966. And no--his body is not frozen in some cryogenic warehouse.

The Walt Disney birthplace has been expanded and renovated over the years. Because of the restrictions involved, the owner has opposed landmark status.