It’s 1961 month over in the Dissolve Facebook group, and one of the many oddities to come out this year was this slight bit of Americana. “The Saga of Windwagon Smith” is lesser known both as a folktale and as a Disney cartoon than its counterparts “Paul Bunyan” and “Pecos Bill,” but it’s one of a fair number of cartoons the studio made over the years to celebrate weirder bits of the American experience.
The story is a simple one—well, you could hardly fit a complicated one into the cartoon’s thirteen-minute runtime! One day, a strange wagon rolls into Westport, Kansas, where the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails began. On board is a ship captain named, obviously, Windwagon Smith. His wagon has no oxen, no horses—just a sail. He promises he can build a giant freight version that will make quite a lot of money for the men of the town. He catches the eye of the mayor’s daughter, the lovely Molly. The larger wagon is built. The men of the town climb aboard for its maiden voyage. A tornado whirls up. The men of the towhn escape, but stowaway Molly rides the prairies forever with her love.
Short, sweet, and to the point, really. One might almost believe Disney had made the story up, since it doesn’t have quite the scope of various other folktales borrowed for Disney. Even “Johnny Appleseed” takes place over the course of many years, even if it is nothing but the story of a guy who planted apples. This one is only perhaps a few months. Long enough to build the wagon and set off.
But its spirit appeals, I think, to something missing in a lot of the rest of the folktales. Most of the ones we’ve seen Disney take on over the decades were in some way about resisting progress. John Henry dies trying to prove that man is better than machine. Paul Bunyan fails to prove it, though I don’t think I would have used the metric the cartoon does. And Pecos Bill’s problem may have been the woman, but it was also that steel bustle, after all. But Windwagon Smith is an inventor and an entrepreneur, and that is both a pivotal part of the American consciousness and something strangely missing from many of our stories about ourselves. When we tell the stories of true figures, we focus on Edison and Ford; when we tell the stories of imaginary ones, we make up those fighting those same forces.
I don’t know. It says something. In a way, the figure from our folklore Windwagon Smith has the most in common with is that crossover between fiction and fact, John Chapman. Johnny Appleseed was trying to bring something of home to the wilderness, even if Disney rather glosses over the fact that most of those apples would be for cider, and hard cider at that. Windwagon Smith’s desire to make a buck is even more basic than that, but not something we bring up much in our fiction.
This isn’t the best animation going, but it is that strange cross you’d get sometimes between the homey and the exaggerated. Molly, in particular, is out of a very specific sort of illustration. It works nicely with Smith’s manly chin, I suppose. And the Sons of the Pioneers provide a nice, melodious soundtrack. All in all, there are worse cartoons. Worse cartoons in the Disney Rarities box set this appears in, come to that!