Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Side Streets: Florissant fossil found a home at theme park

By Bill Vogrin Updated: January 31, 2014 at 11:00 am

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.

But it's there: a 7 1/2-foot-tall, 5-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 scientist say stood 200 feet tall amid a subtropical 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, even 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.

I 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.

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 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 beds. Ausec also had historic photos. So I gave him a call.

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.

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.

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 shows 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."

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."

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.

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Read my blog updates at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets.

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