May 23, 2012: Set for "The Country Bears," the 2002 flim based on the Country Bear Jamboree
ride at Disneyland. Tellingly, Christopher Walken won a Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actor.
The Walt Disney Co.'s Golden Oak Ranch is a private, working movie ranch (not open for tours), located just east of State Route 14 off of Placerita Canyon Road. Disney purchased the ranch in 1959, but the area's history as a filming backdrop actually begins much earlier.
Pioneer filmmaker Trem Carr owned what he called the Placeritos Ranch at the same site as early as 1922. His set designer, Ernest R. "Ernie" Hickson, collected old Western buildings that he imported from Nevada (some say he acquired special lumber in Nevada and assembled the buildings on site), and used them to create a Western movie town for Carr's productions. But Carr soon ran out of money and had to sell the ranch; Hickson picked up his sticks around 1930 and moved them westerly in Placerita Canyon, erecting what would become the Monogram and later Melody Ranch.
Meanwhile, Carr's one-time movie property reverted to a working horse and cattle ranch that was occasionally used by filmmakers — including Walt Disney, who leased the property for portions of three years in the mid-1950s for the "Spin and Marty" segments of "The Mickey Mouse Club" television show. Disney liked the varied topography so much that he purchased 315 acres for $300,000 in 1959, increasing his holdings to more than 700 acres in the next few years.
Even while Disney was using it for filming, the Golden Oak doubled as a working cattle ranch for a time. Three real cowboys ran herd on about 50 head and took them to market each winter to be sold for beef. In 1960, Disney purchased a small herd of American bison and used them in his two-part television show, "Sancho the Homesick Steer," and other productions. Within two years the ornery critters proved not to be worth the trouble, and Disney, rather than sell them for slaughter, was convinced to donate them to the County of Los Angeles which put them to pasture down the road at William S. Hart Park in Newhall.
Disney's first feature film at the ranch, "Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus," was followed by numerous family films made both by The Walt Disney Co. and by other production companies.
In the early 1970s the new Antelope Valley Freeway (SR 14) threatened to run right through the property but Disney had a bit of pull with state officials, convincing them to wrap the freeway behind a nearby mountain, shielding the ranch from the noise and visibility.
In the late 1970s, after an absence of four decades, a Western town was reborn at the ranch for "Roots II," and it remained a prominent feature along with a covered bridge over a man-made lake often seen in "Little House on the Prairie"; a colonial set used in "North and South"; farm houses, barns, fields, country roads, tree groves and a running waterfall.
The temporary Western street was removed in 2008 to make way for an urban business district set.
In the 1990s, Chevron USA sold a neighboring parcel — the onetime Jones Ranch, which became the Andy Jauregui Ranch — to Disney, which used it to expand Golden Oak. Jones and subsequently Jauregui had been Standard Oil (aka Chevron) leaseholders; Carr had leased the land that became the nucleus of Golden Oak, and Standard Oil may have been his landlord, as well.
Next to a church building is an old tree from which the Golden Oak Ranch derives its name. There are those who believe the oak associated with Francisco Lopez's famous 1842 gold discovery is not the one recognized as such at the Placerita Canyon State Park up the road, but rather a tree on the Disney ranch property. In fact, a plaque at the ranch says the oak next to the church building is the "Golden Oak," and that "Under this tree gold was first discovered in California by Don Francisco Lopez, March 9, 1842."
Update: During a tour of the ranch in May 2012, two Disney officials acknowledged to Ron Kraus of the Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates that they know the tree in the state/county park is the "real" Oak of the Golden Dream. Disney's plaque was no longer on display.