Born of Imagination & Inspiration

In his original tale, Little Toot is a pint-size tugboat who spends his days “playing” in New York Harbor, getting in the way of the other tugs that are working hard.  He enjoys making figure-8s and blowing big balls of smoke. While his father and grandfather, famous for their strength and bravery, work diligently, Little Toot plays around.

The entire fleet of tugboats worries that Little Toot will never learn to do the job he was born to do.  However, when a big ocean liner gets into trouble during a storm, Little Toot must decide if he will continue his childish antics or rise to the occasion and save the day. He is able to signal the other tugs with his smoke — but only he can get over the waves to save the ship. The experience changes him. He summons up his courage and works harder.

Ultimately, Little Toot is rewarded for saving the ocean liner. He returns to a hero’s welcome in New York Harbor—and his father and grandfather beam with pride. Little Toot is a tale of overcoming fear and self-doubt. It teaches several life lessons that are valuable to us all. Work hard. Be responsible. Never quit. Use your imagination. Believe in yourself.

In 1939, Hardie Gramatky saw a little Moran tugboat in New York’s East River not willing to work. The tugboat inspired Gramatky, an artist who was also an animator for Walt Disney Studios from the late 1920s to 1936. He painted several watercolors of the tugboat and gradually wrote Little Toot. It became a Library of Congress children’s classic with five sequels. The story was retold in a 1948 animated short that was part of “Melody Time,” an animated feature by Walt Disney Productions.

Quite by chance, our founder, Christopher Robin Obetz, discovered an old Crosby tugboat in an historic barn in LaBelle, Florida that immediately brought back the life-changing impact of the Little Toot story for him. He left his job in the corporate world to restore the vessel stem to stern. Today he devotes his talents and resources to spreading Little Toot’s life lessons and messages through The Little Toot Foundation and the real-life tugboat that inspired him, docked at the Edison-Ford Marina in Fort Myers, Florida.

The Story Behind the Story

Little Toot’s creator is author and illustrator, Hardie Gramatky. He was born on April 12, 1907 in Dallas, Texas. When his father died of tuberculosis, Hardie was only ten years old. Eventually, his mother moved the family to Los Angeles where his mom’s sister lived. Hardie wanted to become an artist since his fifth-grade teacher praised his artistic abilities. His art career began with ghosting the comic strip “Captain Kidd Jr.” for the Los Angeles Times.

After Alhambra High School, he headed to Stanford University, where he majored in English. While taking art classes there, a professor realized his talent and encouraged Hardie to transfer to Chouinard, a respected art school in Los Angeles, to further his training. While at Chouinard, the energetic artist attracted the attention of his future wife, Dorothea “Doppy” Cooke. He also began working for an up-and-comer named Walt Disney, whose new character “Mickey Mouse” had just caught America’s attention with the release of the film, Steamboat Willie.

Hardie stayed on at Disney after his schooling finished and worked as an illustrator for some of the Mickey Mouse comic books and as an animator for shorts from 1930 to 1936. Hardie married his fellow Chouinard student, Dorothea “Doppy” Cooke, in 1932.

Hardie left Disney, turning his back on an annual salary equal to $125,000 today, during The Great Depression in 1936 to move to New York City with his wife. Walt had given him two letters of recommendation, but Hardie put them in a trunk and never used them. He and his wife started a new life and new careers in New York. They began working as pictorial reporters and commercial illustrators for various publications—Hardie at Fortune magazine, and his wife, Doppy, at King Features. Then Colliers, a top-notch publication of the day, called. At this point, he finally felt some job security.

One day while he was watching the boats on the East River from the windows of his studio, he got an idea. According to his daughter, Linda Gramatky-Smith, he wrote in his diary on January 12, 1938, “IDEA—do children’s book on East River—little boats as characters. Sketch character in them each day—chesty little tugs pulling a big load.”

“Little Toot” began to take form that year. Hardie drew sketches and painted watercolors of tug boats, then began writing a story of a tugboat that would always get into trouble. After turning his work into a manuscript, Putnam decided to publish the book, Little Toot, in September 1939 as its first children’s book. It would go on to become a best-seller, and Little Toot’s worldwide travels would be documented in sequels, like Little Toot Through the Golden Gate and Little Toot on the Grand Canal.

Hardie’s daughter, Linda Gramatky-Smith, says that her father really loved children and enjoyed working with them. Hardie enjoyed giving “chalk talks” at local elementary schools near his home in Westport, Connecticut, where the family lived from 1946 until his daughter and son-in-law Dr. Kendall Smith moved out in 2017. He gave numerous talks around the United States and England, and in 1977 he returned to his birthplace of Dallas, Texas, to give a chalk talk to 400 children. Happily, the school system recorded his presentation on a now-grainy videotape where current Little Toot fans can see what Hardie Gramatky was like.

He encouraged children to create for themselves: “What you’ve got to realize when you’re an artist, this is the first time in your life that you’re the boss! You can put birds in the sky or you can put fish in the sea, or you can reverse it.” By all accounts, Hardie was a master of his craft, highly regarded by his peers throughout his long career, yet genial, gentle, unaffected by fame and down-to-earth.

“He really was very humble,” his daughter Linda recounts. “Someone would come up and say, ‘My child wants me to read Little Toot ten times a night.’ It was always if that was the first person that ever told him they loved Little Toot.”

His long career as an artist and writer was filled with successes and accolades. Little Toot has lasted all these years because of an inspiring story and Hardie’s amazingly fresh watercolor illustrations. Hardie passed away in 1979 in Westport. His last children’s book, Little Toot and the Loch Ness Monster, was published posthumously in 1989. In 2006, Andrew Wyeth named him “one of the 20 all-time great American watercolorists” along with Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and Georgia O’Keefe. No wonder millions of children since 1939 have responded to his mastery of color in the Little Toot illustrations. The inspiration he brought to children worldwide endures today and for always.

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