Disney’s “Thumper” Has a Newton Connection

Originally posted Thursday, September 5, 2013

Harvey County, Kansas has been the beginning point for many people that went on to become famous nationally.  In this blog post, HCHM Archivist Jane Jones, highlights the famous ice skater Donna Atwood.

by Jane Jones, HCHM Archivist
In the 1942 movie version of Disney’s “Bambi” there is an ice-skating sequence featuring Bambi, the deer and Thumper, the rabbit. The ice-skating model for Thumper is Donna Atwood who was born in Newton on February 14, 1925. She left Newton at the age of nine, the family moving to Arizona and then to California. The rest they say is history, because she became the very talented and popular star of John Harris’ Ice Capades from 1941-1956.
Donna being called to the podium
Dwarves in the background!
My connection to Donna Atwood goes something like this. I had stopped dance lessons at the age of 8 and my mother probably desperate to get me into something encouraged me to select ice-skating lessons. I along with some other classmates attended lessons once a week after school at the Pla-Mor Skating Rink in Kansas City.
I was certainly not destined to become a Donna Atwood, but I had some sense of what it took to become a good skater and was always enraptured when the Ice Capades came to the Pla-Mor in Kansas City. It was thrilling to watch Donna and her skating partner Bobby Specht do their eye-catching twirls.
The photos in this blog are in the photo collections at the museum. Donna is receiving roses from Merle Norton, owner of Norton’s Memorials in Newton and in 1954 Chairman of the Newton Planning Commission. My guess is Donna was being honored for her connection to Newton, Kansas. In April,1954 the Ice Capades were featuring Donna and Bobby in “Snow White” at the Pla-Mor. If you look at the top photo carefully you can get a glimpse of three of the seven dwarves.
Donna receiving flowers and giving kiss to Merle



Donna Atwood and skating partner Bobby Specht
The Atwoods are listed in the Newton City Directory from 1923-1931. (Our next City Directory is 1938 and the family is gone by then.) Donna’s father was a pharmacist at Knowlton Drug Store and Rexall Drug Store. She took dancing lessons from the age of 3, here in Newton. Their residences were 330 E. 9, 528 E. Broadway and 916 E. Broadway. She probably attended Cooper School. The family is listed in the 1930 census in Newton: Chester, Anna, brother Bill and Donna. By the 1940 census she is living in Los Angeles with her mother and brother. Her father had died.
 According to her obituary in the Los Angeles Times her brother gave her her first pair of skates. Atwood was mostly self-taught. She won the junior ladies title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1941. Harris offered Donna who was 16 a contract after seeing her skate. “For 15 years, billed as ‘the Sweetheart of the Ice,’ she gave over 6,000 performances in two dozen venues while touring the United States and Canada.” In 1956, her last performance year for the Ice Capades, she did “Peter Pan” which according to one of her sons was her favorite role.
Atwood and Harris, 27 years older, married. They had 3 children. Donna retired at the age of 31 to be a stay-at-home Mom. Later, she divorced Harris and never remarried. Donna Atwood died December 20, 2010 at the Motion Picture Television and Country House in Woodland Hills, California at the age of 85.
1.  Slides from Photo Collection at HCHM.
2.  Obituary by Valerie J. Nelson, LA Times January 21, 2011. http://articles.latimes.com
3.  Newton City Directories, HCHM

The Gentleman Who Built a Locomobile: L. P. Lestser

by Kristine Schmucker, Archivist/Curator

“Other Kansas towns may be able to boast more stylish and up to date appearing automobiles, but Newton is certainly entitled to the distinction of being the only town in the state having an automobile made within it borders by one of its citizens.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, the newest thing was the automobile. Before Ford and his Model T assembly line, there were many other inventors experimenting with creating an automobile using steam and electricity for power. One such inventor was L.P. Lester, proprietor of the Newton Machine Shop, on E. 6th in Newton.

Evening Kansan Republican, 16 June 1899.

Made In Newton

For over a year Lester worked on “fitting up a wagon which could be propelled by motive power furnished within itself.” He planned and constructed the vehicle from start to finish.

“In appearance the vehicle greatly resembles Welsh’s new camp wagon. It is sixteen feet long and six feet wide. The machinery and boiler occupy the rear end, leaving about eight feet in the clear in front.  This space will be fitted up with chairs and benches and will form the living place of the occupants.  Under the floor are two large steel chests, one for coal supply and the other for the water. Mr. Lester estimates that the coal bin is large enough to carry two days’ supply of that fuel. The weight of the entire outfit is about 2,500 pounds.” 

To test out his invention Lester, his wife and three boys planned a trip to Wall Walla Washington in the new automobile. Their route followed what was known as “the old Cheyenne route where the grades are not steep” through Nebraska and Wyoming. He expected to average about ten mile an hour with a goal of getting to Walla Walla at the end of summer. (Evening Kansan Republican, 11 May 1902)

Before going on the trip, Lester demonstrated his new locomobile in neighboring communities.

The Moundridge Journal commented, “Mr. Lester who gives the moving picture entertainment at the opera houses tomorrow evening . . . is the gentleman who built a locomobile. . . . He will have his locomobile in the street parade.”

The Lester’s locomobile was described as “similar to a cook shack and is 6×15 and weighs about 3,000. He and his family can all ride in it and also carry everything they want. They live in a tent at places where they stop and are going throughout the country taking their time to it. The locomobile is run by two engines which are fed by coal and gasoline. He travels about four or five miles an hour, but can run it at a speed of fifteen miles an hour which it too fast for roads in the part of the country.”

Lester made money along the way by showing “moving picture shows” and other photographic work.

“Undoubtedly the First Automobile Race in Kansas”

He also participated in a thrilling race in Moundridge. One of the attractions at the 4th of July in Moundridge was the automobile race. Both vehicles entered in the race were “genuine ‘autos’ made in Kansas.”  One auto was made by Charles Krehbiel for a Moundridge businessman, F. C. Thomas. The other was “the famous vehicle made by L.P. Lester.” Moundridge claimed that “his is undoubtedly the first automobile race that has ever taken place in the state.”

The editor of the Evening Newton Kansas observed that “Moundridge is all puffed up over the distinction it has gained.” He also reported that the “merits of the two machines are discussed just as if they were races horses.”

It is unclear if the race took place or that it was actually the first such race in Kansas. Coffey County had auto races as early as 1903.

L.P. Lester came to Newton in 1889 where he ran his machine shop. After his grand trip to Walla Walla, he moved to Nebraska where he continued his career as an engineer.  He died in Fort Madison, Iowa, Dec 30, 1910.

The Locomobile

In 1899, inventors became interested in steam powered vehicles resulting in the Locomobile.    A knowledge of pressure valves was a requirement to operate making them less user friendly. There was also a chance of kerosene fire. Still, between 1899 and 1902, locomobiles were the latest technology and became popular.

Locomobile, 1901.


  • Evening Kansan Republican: 4 July 1901, 10 July 1901, 15 September 1902, 14 January 1911.

What does the name “Topeka” mean? Where does the name come from?

Kansas Day is coming up! Some fun trivia for everyone to enjoy in the weeks leading up to January 29.

What does the name “Topeka” mean? Where does the name come from?

Topeka gets its name from the Osage word meaning – a good place to dig potatoes.

Aerial view of Topeka, 1869