When Disney Came to Verona for an "Adventure in Dairyland!"

The dairy story in Wisconsin is really told twice a day on 120,000 dairy farms.  Sometimes it seems pretty routine.  But for the past week, the story has become exceptional…” 

(Wisconsin State Journal, 6/17/1956)

It was Verona’s true moment in the spotlight – one that shined here all the way from Walt Disney Productions in California!  It was the summer of 1956, and children across the country were tuning in to see the second season of the “The Mickey Mouse Club” featuring young stars like the recently-discovered Annette Funicello.  If you know someone who was young at that time, they can probably still name their favorite Mouseketeer!

That same year behind the scenes, Disney was entering an agreement with the American Dairy Association to create a dramatic series that would illustrate life on a dairy farm in a way that would interest children.  In the story, kids from the Mickey Mouse Club take a trip to a farm in Wisconsin to live and work with a farm family.

As fate would have it, the picturesque Sisk farm on Sugar River Road here in Verona was selected as the site of this adventure.  For the month of June of 1956, cast and crew descended upon our town – including Annette and her co-star Sammy Ogg.  Scenes were shot on the farm and in surrounding fields, rural roads, and even at the agriculture department of UW Madison.  The Sisk barn was transformed into a sound stage in which a grand final barn dance scene would be filmed with members of the Verona area community performing square dances, yodeling, and playing Alpenhorns.  The series was titled “Adventure in Dairyland” and was shown in segments later that year during The Mickey Mouse Club episodes.

Above image:  A 1956 Promotional booklet for "Adventure In Dairyland", filmed in Verona, Wisconsin.

Traveling Back to 1956...

To fully appreciate what this experience was like for our small town, let's travel back to 1956 and take a look at what that year was like for Verona, television in America, and Disney.

Verona in the 1950s

Verona was still a mostly rural town with a small village in the middle.  The 1950 census had counted 748 people living in "Verona, Dane County".  Advertisers in the 1955 Verona High School yearbook reveal many of the businesses below that you may have patronized if you lived here at the time.  Of this list below, only "Miller and Son" still exists today, although its has been pluralized to "Sons".  Roughly 2/3 of the buildings housing these institutions are gone today:

Verona High School's 1956 collage of graduating seniors shows 30 students.  Their high school was a rectangular brick building that once stood on South Marietta Street where the Sugar Creek Senior Apartments are today.

Television in 1950s America

     Perhaps the most difficult part of this story to really appreciate for folks not around at the time was the rapid expansion of television media into American households in the 1950s.  At the start of that decade, only 9% of American homes had a television.  If you had ten friends, maybe one of them had a TV.  As a kid, you likely hung out by the storefront or showroom of a local shop that had a TV turned on, marveling at the grainy images displayed.  In Verona, that would have been at Blizard's Hardware (Avanti's today) or if you were older perhaps the Eagle's Nest bar - by several accounts the first two places in town to have a television.  By the end of the decade in 1960, the percentage of American households with a television had swelled to 89%!  At this point, nine of your ten friends likely now had a TV at home.  This remarkable transformation calls to mind the rapid expansion of the internet in the late 1990s or smartphones in the 2010s, but greatly preceded them both.

In her 1994 autobiography, Annette Funicello described what this media revolution was like for children at the time:

“To understand the phenomenon of a children’s program like The Mickey Mouse Club…it’s important to understand that “watching television” in those days…was not the same experience as it is today. 

After years of listening to radio, we found the black-and-white images mesmerizing, right down to the Indian-chief test pattern. 

Several years would pass before the family television descended from a magic box to just another piece of furniture you had to dust.” 

The Mickey Mouse Club

     With this sudden influx of television into our living rooms and daily lives came a vast opportunity and challenge to figure out what content might fill this new space.  For this, Disney was well suited given their track record of box office success.  Starting with "Snow White" in 1937, Disney had released a string of motion pictures still familiar today including Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi.

     "The Mickey Mouse Club" (MMC) emerged as one of Walt Disney's most successful, yet short lived, forays into early television.  The daily show featuring a cast of children (called "Mousketeers") performing skits, singing, and dancing.  Interspersed were prepared "newsreels" from across the country and "serials" with episodic stories that continued from one day to the next.  To fill the roles of Mousketeers, Disney searched for 24 non-professional child actors with little or no prior experience in movies or television.  The final child chosen (and according to her autobiography, the only one personally selected by Walt Disney) was Annette Funicello.  Annette was performing as the lead in her dance school's performance of "Swan Lake" and, unbeknowst to her, Walt Disney was in the audience.

     In its 1955 inaugural season, The Mickey Mouse Club was being watched by over half of the television sets in the U.S. that were turned on during its afternoon timeslot.

(Above image:  A 1940s "Admiral" television set used in Verona by the Roger and Esther "Millie" Whiting Family.  Courtesy of the Driftless Historium.)

"Adventure in Dairyland"

The "serial" portions of the Mickey Mouse Club were movie-like stories similar to a miniseries that were filmed outside of the regular studio and shown during the show in segments over many weeks.  In the theme of "What I Want to Be", Disney entered a partnership with the American Dairy Association (ADA) to create a dairy themed serial depicting the work and rewards of the dairy lifestyle.  Annette points out in her autobiography that although there were many nearby dairy farms in California, Disney decided to search for a farm in the actual Midwest.

Mentions of this started to appear in Wisconsin in Spring of 1956.  An article in the May 8, 1956 edition of the Monroe Evening Times reported that a Walt Disney film on dairy farming will "be produced under the auspices of the American Dairy Association" starting local groups and being filmed "at a farm near Mt. Vernon owned by a Madison physician."

The Monroe Evening Times followed up three weeks later with additional details including the exact location chosen and names of actors selected both from Disney Studios and the local New Glarus area.  The Dr. Ira Sisk farm on Sugar River Road in Verona would be that location.  Disney stars Annette Funicello (13) and Sammy Ogg (16) would star along with local Swiss musical group "The Edelweiss Stars".  Local yodeler Ernest Zenter was to be featured as a farmer in the series.

(Above image:  Monroe Evening Times, 5/8/1956)

(Above image:  Monroe Evening Times, 5/9/1956)

NOTE 7/3/23:  This article is still IN PROGRESS.  Please check back in a few weeks for more content :-)


Note:  Special thanks to Mary Schaller of Verona for finding many of the news articles used in this story.