The Nevada Traveler: Napa Valley’s Sharpsteen Museum showcases Calistoga history

Richard Moreno 
One of the few surviving historic Brannan Cottages can be found at the wonderful Sharpsteen Museum in the picturesque town of Calistoga, California.

Richard Moreno One of the few surviving historic Brannan Cottages can be found at the wonderful Sharpsteen Museum in the picturesque town of Calistoga, California.

The Sharpsteen Museum in Calistoga celebrates not only the rich history of its home community but the interesting life of the museum’s founder and namesake, Ben Sharpsteen, a longtime Disney animator, director, and producer.
Sharpsteen joined the Walt Disney Studios in 1929 and within a short time he became an indispensable part of the Disney animation organization. Born in Tacoma, Washington in 1895, Sharpsteen was raised in Alameda, California, then studied at the University of California at Davis before joining the U.S. Marines in 1917.
After the war, he was hired by the Hearst International Film Service, working on its animated film projects, then worked as an animator at Paramount, Jefferson Films, and the Max Fleischer Studio in New York.
He came to the attention of Walt Disney, who hired him to animate his Mickey Mouse cartoons and Silly Symphony features. In 1933, Disney asked him to establish an in-house animation training program.
During the next decade, Sharpsteen directed animated shorts and worked in various capacities on the studio’s new feature-length animation movies including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland.
During the 1950s, Sharpsteen produced Disney’s live-action films, including Seal Island and the studio’s “People and Places” series, and earned three Academy awards. He also served as producer for the Disneyland television program for several years.
In 1962, Sharpsteen retired from Disney after 33 years and, with his wife, Bernice, relocated to a ranch originally owned by his grandmother in the late 1800s.
Fascinated by the area’s history, in 1978 he began construction of a museum dedicated to the area’s past. Sharpsteen died on Dec. 20, 1980.
Today, the Sharpsteen Museum at 1311 Washington St., offers top-notch displays that help to tell the story of the upper Napa Valley and the town of Calistoga. One of the museum’s highlights is an intricate diorama depicting the community as it appeared in the 1860s, when it was an elegant hot springs resort town.
Calistoga traces its roots to Sam Brannan, one of the most colorful characters in California history. Brannan arrived by ship in San Francisco in 1846 as leader of a Church of Latter-day Saints colonization party.
During the next few years, Brannan (who would eventually split from the church) made a fortune selling goods in Sacramento to gold rush miners, established the first newspaper in San Francisco (the California Star in 1847) and became the state’s first millionaire.
In 1859, he visited the hot springs located in the upper Napa Valley. Impressed, he began planning a new resort in the area that he said would rival the famed Saratoga Springs in New York. He purchased 2,000 acres, including the land containing the springs and embarked on developing the town of Calistoga, which took its name from combining the words California and Saratoga.
The diorama of the Victorian-style resort includes scale models of various resort structures that once existed such as a hotel, large glasshouse, hot springs bath house and pool, and several cottages to house visitors.
An adjacent diorama shows Calistoga’s Chinatown and the railroad depot, as they appeared in the late 1800s. A working model train runs through the miniature homes and buildings.
Other exhibits explain the role of the native Wappo people, the area’s original inhabitants, and describe some of the earliest non-native settlers including John York, who built the first permanent structure in the upper Napa Valley, and Edward Bale, who was given a Spanish land grant that included nearly all of the upper valley.
Attached to the museum is “the cottage,” one of the original Brannan resort cottages, which was relocated to the site and restored. Inside visitors will find a dining set from the Yount family (George Yount was the first white settler in the Napa Valley), Victorian bedroom and parlor sets, dolls, musical instruments, quilts, and vintage clothing.
The Sharpsteen Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily (except Christmas and Thanksgiving). Visitors are asked to make a $3 donation to support the museum.
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