- Historic Sites
The Father of the Wizard Oz
December 1964 | Volume 16, Issue 1
Soon there was a baby son, and with a family to support, Batim left the theatre and went into his family’s petroleum-products business. For a while he sold Baum’s Castorine, a patented axle grease. But in 1887 Benjamin Baum was severely injured in an accident, and without the astute old man’s guiding hand the business failed.
It was Maud who rallied from the blow and kept the family going. The Baums had two sons now and had salvaged only a few thousand dollars from the wreck of the family fortune. From Aberdeen, South Dakota, where a gold rush was raging, Maud’s brother wrote that there were unlimited opportunities for anyone who wotdd open a small store for the gold seekers. So the Baums went to Aberdeen and started a shop called Baum’s Bazaar. Maud’s brother had been almost right; it was impossible for anyone to fail in a gold rush town—anyone, that is, except L. Frank Baum. He did it by refusing to accept money from those who were destitute. His habit of ignoring customers to sit on the curb outside the store telling stories to groups of enthralled children didn’t do the business any good either. In two years, he had 161 strictly nonpaying clients and the bazaar went bankrupt.
Baum then started a newspaper called The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer , setting the type himself and doing most of the writing, including a special column called “Our Landlady.” This was a fantasy describing a community where people rode in “horseless carriages” (the first American automobile had not yet gone on sale) or flying machines, did their dishes in mechanical dishwashers, slept under electric: blankets, and ate concentrated foods. The cattle were fed wood shavings, having been fitted with green glasses that made the shavings look like grass. (In the Emerald City, everything looks green to the inhabitants, even the sky. The Wizard achieves this magical effect by requiring everyone to wear green-tinted spectacles.) In spite of the prophetic element in these tales, they are told simply as burlesque—or as Baum would have put it, “banter.” Neither he nor his readers took such ideas seriously, and the stories resemble the typical “tall tales” of the West more than they do science fiction.
In the tradition of western newspapermen of that period, Baum made a brave attempt to turn his talent for satire against rival editors. He succeeded so well that he found himself challenged to a duel by an enraged subscriber. The two men, each with a revolver low-slung on the hip, were to walk around the town until they met and then shoot it out in nowfamiliar Grade B movie style. In this crisis, Frank Baum was magnificent. All his latent sense of the dramatic came to the fore, and he made an imposing picture as he strode off from his doorway, while passers-by took refuge behind the false fronts of nearby buildings. But as soon as he had turned the corner, Baum, like his Oz general, decided that fighting was unkind and someone was likely to be hurt. He quietly disappeared until the affair blew over.
Maud Baum had her third son in Aberdeen. The father was so sure the child would be a girl that he had even picked the name Géraldine for the baby. He desperately wanted a little girl, and Mrs. Baum made one more attempt to oblige. Alas, a fourth son arrived, and Frank Baum was never to have the little daughter he so greatly craved.
In 1891 the Pioneer failed, or as Baum put it, “I decided the sheriff wanted the paper more than I did.” The family left for Chicago. Baum had no regrets in leaving South Dakota and the great, barren prairie. A passage in the Wizard was to describe his feelings toward it: “Dorothy could sec nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of Hat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere.” Dorothy escapes from this bleak, colorless land to the cool green hills, soft shadows, and clear, fresh streams of Oz, which bore a strong resemblance to the Baum family estate in Chittenango.
But Chicago was not Chittenango. Baum got a job as a reporter for twenty dollars a week, and the family moved into a wretched house with no bathroom or running water. Maud gave embroidery lessons at ten cents an hour. When Baum’s salary was cut to 818.62, he IeIt his job with the paper and became a travelling salesman for a crockery firm. About the only recreation the four boys had was to listen to their father’s fairy stories, in which Baum himself became so lost that his wife once said rather unhappily, “I honestly don’t believe he can tell truth from fancy.” These tales were his escape from his miserable existence.