By the co-author of The easy Guide to Your Walt Disney World Visit 2019, the best-reviewed Disney World guidebook series ever.

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A Friday Visit with Jim Korkis: Harper’s Mill



By Dave Shute

Welcome back to Fridays with Jim Korkis! Jim, the dean of Disney historians, writes about Walt Disney World history every Friday on yourfirstvisit.net.

HARPER’S MILL ON TOM SAWYER ISLAND

By Jim Korkis

While the man-made Tom Sawyer Island was completed before the Magic Kingdom opened in October 1971, it would not open to the public until May 20, 1973. It is the one of the few locations at WDW that has changed relatively little since it first opened.

The interior of the island feels very much like a wilderness that encouraged exploration, with the indications of civilization like Aunt Polly’s house and Harper’s Mill placed along the shoreline facing Frontierland and the steamboat.

Of course, the island was inspired by a similar location at Disneyland that has since significantly changed, but also originated as a representation of Walt Disney’s rustic boyhood and his dreams of adventure.

One of the significant landmarks on the island is Harper’s Mill. (Disneyland’s Harper’s Cider Mill was changed to Lafitte’s Tavern in 2007.)

Outside the Walt Disney World building, a sign supposedly scrawled by a young Tom Sawyer himself states: “This here deserted grist mill wuz (sic) named after my frien (sic) Joe Harper’s old man. If ‘n’ you chooze (sic) to go inside, please don’t scare the birds that you will find there unless some no good done scared ‘em before you did.”

The mill represents a working grain mill of the sort that used to be quite common on the Mississippi River. In Mark Twain’s novel, Tom and his friend Huck Finn ran away and accompanying them was another boy, Joe Harper. According to the sign, the mill belonged to his father.

However, if you talk with Imagineers who worked on the park, the name of the mill (like the one at Disneyland) was meant to be a tribute to Imagineer Harper Goff, who contributed so much to the design of Frontierland at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. As with much of WDW history that was just passed along orally rather than being officially written down, it is almost impossible to verify whether this is true.

What is indisputably true is that inside Harper’s Mill is a tribute to the Disney Academy Award winning animated short The Old Mill (1937), the first cartoon to make use of the multiplane camera. In the cartoon, animals seek refuge from a thunderstorm inside an abandoned, decrepit old mill.

In the short, one of the bottom sockets in the gear has become a temporary home for a mother bluebird and her eggs. However as the storm rages, the wind causes the gear to start to turn and now those eggs are in danger of being crushed by an upper prong from another gear as they join together. Luckily that upper gear is missing one of its teeth and so disaster is averted after several tense moments.

The Walt Disney World mill looks nothing like the one in the cartoon (and is attached to a waterwheel rather than a windmill), and even the interior gear configuration is different, but there is no mistake that this was a conscious nod to the film.

Looking upwards, guest will see an owl similar to the one in the cartoon and sitting in her nest in the socket hole is the blue bird. As an added treat, as the gears move, the Imagineers have the gears “creak” to the tune of the classic song Down by the Old Mill Stream.

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Thanks, Jim! And come back next Friday for more from Jim Korkis!

In the meantime, check out his books, including his latest,  The Vault of Walt Volume 7: Christmas Edition, and his Secret Stories of Walt Disney World: Things You Never You Never Knew, which reprints much material first written for this site, all published by Theme Park Press.

 

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