Leon Worden

Hart Bison Were Almost Burgers

By Leon Worden

Saturday January 13, 2001

ow many people know there are buffalo in downtown Newhall, a hop and a skip from San Fernando Road?
    The buffalo are at Hart Park, and they've been there for almost 40 years. Well, not the same buffalo. Some have died, others have been born. You know.
    To see them, you have to climb the hill to the Hart Mansion and look down into the canyon on the west side. Don't be disappointed if you don't get the elusive creatures in your sights, though. They like to hide in the canyon crevasses.
    There's a nice photo of a grinning Walt Disney and then-County Supervisor Warren Dorn in The Signal in April 1962 when Disney donated the small herd to the county of Los Angeles. Accompanying the photo is a cute story about the feisty buffalo making the two-mile trek from Disney's Golden Oak Ranch in Placerita Canyon to the county-owned Hart Park amid pomp, circumstance and tranquilizers.
    What wasn't reported in the paper, presumably because the editor didn't know, is that the creator of Mickey Mouse donated the one-time movie bison only after the slaughterhouses failed to meet his price.
    The 420-acre Golden Oak Ranch was a working ranch — not just a working movie ranch but a working cattle ranch, too. Three real cowboys ran herd on about 50 head and took them to market each winter to be sold for beef.
    Disney added the buffalo around 1960. He had purchased six cows from the Diamond Bar Ranch when it was about to be subdivided for homes and a county golf course. Later he bought a bull from Wyoming to complete the herd and one of the cows calved.
    CBS Radio's "Hollywood" commentator Ralph Story reported on the big buffalo "drive" (in a truck, anyway) across town to Hart Park. The transcript of Story's broadcast, along with the unpublished notes from his interview with then-Hart Park Superintendent Scott Thomas, are revealing.
    "Today's buffalo are mean, ornery and expensive," Story reported. "When Disney wanted to sell them, the best offer he could get was 20 cents a pound from a local meat packer. And that's when the county of Los Angeles came to the rescue ... . The civic fathers twisted Walt's arm gently to make a gift of Hollywood's last buffalo herd, and Walt agreed."
    Disney had acquired the buffalo, Story noted, "because he felt it would be advisable to have these animals on hand seeing as how he was shooting quite a bit of Western-type movies for both television and (the big screen)." They appeared in Disney's two-part television show, "Sancho the Homesick Steer," and other productions.
    And the shrewd Disney made sure he wouldn't lose out on the herd's money-making potential after they were ground into buffaloburgers — or, as it turned out, put to pasture at Hart Park.
    "Before Disney made arrangements to give the buffalo to the county of L.A.," Story recorded in his notes, "he made sure that his camera crews had thousands of feet of film of the bison, and this Disney now has a complete catalog of stock background shots for any possible needs in the future. Also if it should arise he has free use of the buffalo for any movie work he desires."
    Housing the herd at Hart Park was the perfect arrangement for Disney. At his own ranch the uncontrollable beasts would plow right through the electric fences and let the horses escape.
    He would have given nine buffalo, but one didn't make it. There was an old bull in the original herd at Golden Oak, but one day, as Story put it, "a hunter with a serious case of astigmatism ... mistook the bull for a misshapen deer and shot him."
    How do you mistake a 1,100-pound buffalo for a deer? I'm thinking Newhall may be able to expand on its long list of claims to historic fame with the entry, "Home of the Last Buffalo Hunt of the American West."
    Ralph Story's complete transcript and notes can be found in the Santa Clarita Valley History Archives at scvhistory.com.

    Leon Worden is the Signal's city editor.

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