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A Calistoga museum that's a little Mickey Mouse

An early drawing of Mickey Mouse by Ben Sharpsteen.
An early drawing of Mickey Mouse by Ben Sharpsteen.
Photo by Kevin Nelson

Traveling can lead to unexpected pleasures, and that’s what happened this week when I stumbled onto a piece of old Hollywood tucked away in a museum in the Napa Valley resort town of Calistoga.

Best known for its natural hot springs that have been attracting travelers since the 1800s, Calistoga is home to the Sharpsteen Museum, which was founded by its namesake Ben Sharpsteen, an Oscar Award-winning animator, director and producer for Walt Disney Studios. In fact, you can see one of the Oscars he won in an exhibit in the museum.

The museum is a short block off Lincoln, Calistoga’s main shopping street. Sharpsteen and his wife Bernice paid for and oversaw its construction, then donated it to the city. Next to it—and part of the museum—is a restored cottage based on an 1860s cabin owned by Sam Brannan, the San Francisco gold rush pioneer who himself sought to lure travelers to the area by founding a resort in Calistoga later in his life.

When you step inside the Sharpsteen you expect to see old-timey things from pioneer days, and in this regard you will not be disappointed. An old piano and a very, very old song sheet (dated 1863) are in one room with a bed, dresser and other things from bygone days. Other displays feature a blacksmith shop and stagecoach. One exhibit pays tribute to Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island whose stay in Calistoga in 1880 revived his health and his literary career.

But what caught me by surprise was the Founders’ Room, the room to the left as you walk in the front door. It’s devoted to Ben Sharpsteen’s career, and what a career it was. He directed more than 30 films for Disney beginning in 1929, joining the studio around the same time that Walt was dreaming up a new cartoon character named Mickey Mouse. Sharpsteen was among those who drew Mickey for the movies, and you can see his early sketches as well as that 1951 Oscar statuette and his old drawing board or “illumination board,” as it was called.

Sharpsteen’s family owned property near Calistoga, and he and his wife moved there after he retired. He died in 1980, two years after the museum was born. His greatest legacy is his work on such Disney classics as Fantasia, Dumbo and Pinocchio. But a piece of his legacy lives on in this friendly little historical outpost in spa country.

The Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History is at 1311 Washington Street. Admission is free; a $3 donation for adults is suggested. Docent tours can be arranged in advance by calling 707-942-5911. Hours are 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Its store includes a nice collection of Calistoga and regional histories.

The Calistoga Farmers Market takes place every Saturday from 8:30 a.m.-noon in the plaza in front of the museum. For more ideas on things to do in Calistoga, see the Visit Calistoga website.

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