Dispute over name sank deal between May Museum, Disney

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 stump was shipped to Disneyland in California where it has been on display ever since. Photo courtesy Michael Ausec.

Turns out Walt Disney kept pretty busy during his July 1956 visit to Colorado Springs.

Side Streets readers may recall my January column about Walt and his wife, Lillian, and their visit to the region a month after the opening in Cascade of Santa's Workshop/North Pole theme park, which had been designed by Hollywood artist and ex-Disney Studios animator Arto Monaco.

The Disneys were staying at The Broadmoor resort and one evening as they drove through Teller County they stopped in Florissant at the Pike Petrified Forest, where Springs resident Jack Baker sold tours of the ancient fossil beds and souvenir fossils.

Before leaving, Disney agreed to pay $1,650 for a 34 million-year-old, 5-ton redwood stump that stood 7? feet tall.

The purchase made headlines in The Gazette Telegraph, which photographed crews digging up the stump and using a crane to hoist it out so it could be trucked to Disneyland, where it remains on display in Frontierland.

Those headlines attracted entrepreneur John May, who had built, with his father, James May, the May Museum of Natural History on land about 8 miles south of Colorado Springs in Rock Creek Canyon.

The museum opened in 1951 and displayed about 7,000 exotic tropical insects, spiders, scorpions and beetles that James May had collected around the world, beginning in 1903. The museum only had room for a fraction of the estimated 100,000 specimens in the May collection.

John May's daughters, Louise Steer, 77, and Carla Harris, 71, told me the rest of the story last week.

John May went to The Broadmoor to meet Disney and invite him to see the museum.

"My dad was always looking for an opportunity to advertise the museum," Louise said, explaining how John approached Disney, told him about the museum and invited him to visit.

When Disney accepted, the Mays got busy.

"I spent a couple days really cleaning the grounds before he came," said Carla, who was 13 at the time. "I managed to get a bad case of poison ivy, and I wasn't able to shake his hand. Not to be able to shake his hand really miffed me."

Disney and his wife arrived and toured the museum.

"He looked it over and thought it would be really good thing to have at Disneyland," Carla said.

But there was a problem. Disney wanted to buy the May collection, and he wasn't interested in attaching the May name to it.

"He was very impressed with the collection and he wanted to take it to Disneyland," Carla said. "My dad preferred to lease it, but he was willing to sell part of it. And he wanted the May name attached to it.

"But Disney did not put anyone else's name in Disneyland. And Disney said everything there was proprietary. And he wouldn't lease. He had to own it."

In the end, May stood his ground and Disney walked away.

"They were very intense negotiations and the deal fell through," Carla said. "I remember my grandmother was very upset he didn't sell it. She saw the dollar signs."

But Louise said it was all for the best.

I am glad the Mays didn't sell everything to Disney.

But I can't help thinking about the 90,000 or so specimens still locked up in storage. It would be nice for much more of the family's collection to find a home where it could be displayed so others could enjoy the great work done by James and John May collecting and preserving the exotic insects of the world.

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