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Peekskill's L. Frank Baum - OZ Connections

An interesting case is made that the author's inspiration for the WIZARD OF OZ "yellow brick road" came from a distant memory of Frank Baum's experiences in the Peekskill village during the 1860s.

Peekskill, New York Has a Singular Claim to the World Famous “Yellow Brick Road” in the First OZ Story

After so many years, it turns out that tiny Peekskill has a direct and signficant connection with author Frank Baum. An interesting case can be made that the author's inspiration for the OZ "yellow brick road" came from a distant memory of his experiences in the village during the 1860s.

THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ story was originally published in 1900 as children’s fantasy adventure with improbable characters in a fairy tale setting. Most people are familiar with Wizard of OZ story from the musical film starring Judy Garland made by the MGM studio in 1939. This movie and the original book story are nearly identical, as the author’s wife was hired as a consultant during production. Her husband was Lyman Frank Baum, who preferred to be known as Frank Baum.

For most of his adult life, Frank Baum was a small time businessman and traveling salesman. His personal manner and style was similar to the traveling salesmen acted in THE MUSIC MAN story. They are full of glib talk with fantastic claims about their products.

In his later years as an established author, Frank Baum created one of the first film studios in Hollywood, California. The OZ Film Manufacturing Company occupied seven acres on Santa Monica Boulevard in 1910. With all of this, Frank and wife Maude had four children.  What does Peekskill have to do with any of this?

I remind you of this bit of dialogue from the musical film: “SCARECROW:  I haven't got a brain, only straw. DOROTHY:  How can you talk if you haven't got a brain? SCARECROW:  I don't know, but some people without any brains do an awful lot of talking.”

Lyman Frank Baum was born in year 1856 at Chittenango, New York, located five miles from Lake Oneida.  At age 12, three years after our terrible American Civil War, Lyman Frank was sent by his family to Peekskill Military Academy on Oak Hill, where Peekskill High School is now located.  He may have arrived by steamboat from Albany to the lower dock where Peekskill’s well known steam passenger vessel Chrystenah was often photographed. Chrystenah was an elegant large boat capable of carrying 1,000 passengers.

The Peekskill Military Academy was considered an educationally advanced private school for its time. The school offered courses in book keeping, law, economics commercial correspondence; also chemistry, botany, geography, geometry, Latin & Greek literatures, French and German languages.

In the year 1868 the total village population was 6,560 people. This is when young Frank Baum first arrived for his formal education at Peekskill Military Academy.  It is important to note that this was the first year the school began its military focus. That meant that students wore uniforms, practiced marching drills, and had some Civil War veterans on board as teachers. These qualities turned out to be a mismatch to young Frank’s artistic nature and frail health.

A significant fact is that Frank Baum experienced his only formal schooling during his less than two years as a teenager in tiny Peekskill. The future author’s dramatic childhood experiences at that school at that time may explain how Peekskill became part of the famous story.

Frank experienced the academic year 1868-69 without incident.  The '69-70 school year was different. He afterwards explained: "I complained to my father about the brutal treatment I felt I was receiving at the school. The teachers are heartless, callous and continually indulging in petty nagging. They were quick to slap a boy in the face, use a cane or ruler for the slightest offense."

At age 14, Frank Baum was physically rebuked by a schoolteacher for looking out a window during a lesson. His previous childhood rheumatic fever produced chest pains and dizziness that led to a physical collapse. He left the Peekskill Academy before June 1870. This obviously was an intense real life experience. Such strong personal memories show up on the OZ book, as detailed by author Evan Schwartz in his recent study, FINDING OZ.

Think how memorable your own school days are to you. Frank Baum at that time was several hundred miles from home, experiencing a harsh encounter leading to a physical crisis. The fact that Frank Baum never forgot, and always remembered Peekskill appears in the 1905 PMA Alumni Bulletin.  Along with a portrait photograph of himself, and a very positive write-up about this former classmate, Mr. Baum indicates his intention to donate his books to the Academy Library.

His great grandson, Robert A. Baum has mentioned that Frank’s experiences at Peekskill seem to have had a positive effect on him, as he sent three of his four sons to Michigan Military Academy.

Furthermore, after his book’s success in 1900, he created a musical theater version of Oz stories. This theatrical version played in 1903 at the 'Majestic Theater' in Manhattan, where it was as a hit. The show seen by Ray Bolger who later acted the straw man part in the MGM musical film. This theatrical "Wizard" also performed at the Peekskill Colonial Theater on Park Street in 1905. The show received a local good review in the old Highland Democrat newspaper.

In own life and in his writings, Frank Baum preferred whimsy and fantasy over the demands of everyday reality. His driving personal engine throughout his life was his inventive and playful imagination.

This curious bit of conversational logic takes place in the film between a witch and Dorothy. Dorothy says she thought all witches were bad. "Oh no, (says the good witch) that is a great mistake. Is Kansas a civilized country?" "Oh yes" says Dorothy. "That accounts for it, says the witch. In civilized countries I believe there are no witches, nor wizards, nor magicians left.  But you see, the land of OZ has never been civilized."

Whether or not Peekskill offered civilized schooling in the 1860s, the community can claim its historic part to the OZ story and its author. A section of roadway paved with early1800s yellow brick once connected Water Street and the pier where steamboats docked. A small portion of this same roadway was later named “West Street.” A 50 feet portion of the brick roadway reaching toward the river still exists near the railroad tracks, immediately north of the fully renovated Standard House on Hudson Avenue.

In the fanciful Land of OZ, a yellow brick passageway stretches to an Emerald City. A great wizard there can presumably fulfill wishes, restore hearts and minds. Dorothy is the determined young girl who guides three extremely curious characters thru strange lands along this golden passageway that ties all the fantastic lands, characters and story together.

We know that the Peekskill’s roadway paved with yellow bricks existed at Peekskill at least in the 1830s. In his arrivals and departures from Peekskill, either by train or steamboat, this yellow brick road was convenient, busy and always visible. An observant and sensitive young Frank Baum may well have noticed the road of yellow pavement as it connected Peekskill to the outside world, and as a passageway to his home in upstate New York. His several comings and goings into and out of Peekskill during his two years experience at Peekskill apparently remained stored in his mind for future use.

An expert on Frank Baum and the OZ stories is Kathleen Discenna* who works from Baum’s home town. She indicates that the “yellow brick road” inspiration may have been a plank or wooden road near his boyhood home in Chittenango. But the Peekskill roadway is brick not wood, and it is yellow in color, not brown.

This Peekskill historian in June 2011 claimed in a front page Wall Street Journal article, and on CBS Early Show five-minute segment, and repeated to the London Times newspaper that Peekskill has a direct, plausible and verifiable claim to the yellow brick road inspiration of Frank Baum.

The assertion and its explanations have so far not been questioned or challenged by anyone from anywhere else. Peekskill has demonstrated its singular literary and historical connection to the famous OZ story.

*Kathleen Discenna is Central New York L. Frank Baum Historian, and official with the Land of OZ Preservation Company in Syracuse, N.Y.

Written by John J. Curran, Historian

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

John Curran December 29, 2011 at 04:41 PM
By the way, the photos are of Frank Baum at 12 years of age wearing unifrom, postcard of old P.M.A., one of the book's original Denslow graphics, CBS Early Show crew outside Peekskill Museum, and CBS narraror Michelle Mitchell. Great job was done by this crew. Their Video can be found at: www. CBS Early Show yellow brick road
Ded Yorick December 29, 2011 at 06:03 PM
Thanks for identifying the photos, John. I was wondering who the people were. Jill and Patty make some good points. It's a shame Peekskill can't capitalize on its past. I know some people were trying to raise money to get some statues of the characters placed on the YBR but I guess they couldn't get enough dough. But the larger issue, as mentioned, is that no one under 50 could care less about the history. Locals named Juan or Pedro couldn't find Kansas on a map much less identify the name Frank Baum. Maybe if Peeksill could find a connection to Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Jorge Luis Borges, we'd have a chance to stimulate some interest. Actually, probably not. I doubt Juan and Pedro have heard of them either. The only way, as Jill mentioned, is to get a notarized source document attesting the validity of our YBR claim. I happen to know a couple of notaries and I'm pretty good with a pen, so I'll get started on it. Anyone know how I can age some paper by 100 years?
John Q. Public December 29, 2011 at 07:46 PM
You're all missing the point. In Baum's book/movie based on it, the Yellow Brick Road leads away from a ravaged area and toward OZ, a better place. Who cares about notarizing a possible fiction from a dead man? You don't need a notary to dream! Why not tell a much more compelling story, unique from all the other hangers-on towns? No reason anyone cannot say the yellow bricks were the intended pot of gold, the magical termination point of the Rainbow? That way we can bring in Oz in a more position fashion "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is much more positive story than "Miss Regime Change of OZ" Dorothy's, who is a spoiled sport in the end and wants to return to the black and white world of a dirty pig farm, mired in poverty. We wouldn't want to beat others to that punchline. By being "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Peekskill can be termination point of Yosemite Sam, for example, and the old prospecters and gold rushers, a true destination, a great American story. More important, maybe we can convince Warner Brothers to sponsor it and turn Peekskill into the Turnerland on the Hudson. And this is in keeping with Peekskill being an arts destination, after all Turner is the best show at the Tate in London. We have to do something more than swim in the dead past. Dream big now, people. We're going after the majors! No more of this "Target can't here." No more people with money who can support downtown business. We need to attract big money in a big way. Dream with me!
John Curran December 29, 2011 at 08:01 PM
CORRECTION FROM WRITER: The Peekskill Academy adopted a military style in 1857 with the formation of the Highland Cadet Corps. This group was the only crowd protection for President-elect Lincoln during his brief appearance and statements on February 19, 1861.
Monk E. Lopez December 29, 2011 at 08:18 PM
Interesting. He could have used them four years later.
RealTimeRufus December 29, 2011 at 08:53 PM
I share your enthusiasm, my good man, but, frankly, I have no idea what you're talking about. "Hangers-on towns"? "Yosemite Sam"? "Target can't here"? Rather than a dream, this linguistic patchwork sounds like some kind of peyote trip gone horribly wrong. Can anybody in Patchland translate this post for me?
peekskillman December 29, 2011 at 09:07 PM
very informative article, Mr. Curran. It was a good read. Thanks for trying to bring some history and enlightenment to the citizens of the City. A shame that some of the other posters took this neat little story and had to put their own spin on it regarding the downtown, etc. Please dont let this be a deterrent to future stories, as many of us "old-timers" enjoy reading about the history of the City. Happy New Year to you!
John Q. Public December 29, 2011 at 09:21 PM
Rufus, there is some other town that has an Ozfest (regarding Baum not the metal band) - by definition they are hangers' on because Baum felt tortured while in school in Peekskill and there dreamed that his future lay beyond the Yellow Brick Road. Yosemite Sam stole gold in the Bugs Bunny I watched. "Target can't be here," is what the Peekskill Dems said did once they posed a hostile takeover of Peekskill's future. I typed that note in about 2 minutes, didn't have time to proof. Sorry for the confusion. You can't edit these things.
Frank Cimino December 30, 2011 at 01:00 AM
It would be a great idea to have a Baum/Oz festival. Done correctly, this would put Peekskill on the map. Maybe attract new businesses, boost our "tourism" efforts, and give a shot in the arm for our Artist District. I've often thought of having a casting call for look alikes for some of the major characters. Like, does anyone know of a look alike for the Wicked Witch of the East?
Frank Cimino December 30, 2011 at 02:51 AM
My bad. Thats the Wicked Witch of the West.
Liz Giegerich December 30, 2011 at 02:51 PM
Deb Carlin-Polhill running the project is very enthusiastic and got a good idea off the ground, but the meetings have stopped temporarily. I am not sure why, but I can assume it is because Deb has been dealing with a personal tragedy. I will keep all posted on Patch if I hear the fundraising meetings have started up again.
Liz Giegerich December 30, 2011 at 02:53 PM
I deleted a comment. I don't like where this thread is going. Let's keep this on topic, either about L. Frank Baum or how the city could capitalize on his relation to Peekskill. If people make it ugly on here I am going to close the comments. Thanks for reading!
Frank Cimino December 30, 2011 at 03:12 PM
I totally agree with you Liz. My comment about having a Baum/Oz festival was real and I believe will present another "positive vision" for the City. My call for "look alikes" was merely meant to be whimsical and a move to gather more interest in this seemingly important endeavor.
Liz Giegerich December 30, 2011 at 03:27 PM
I didn't have a problem with your post Frank. It was the person who posted after you in response to your call for the Wicked Witch of the West. I actually think it would be pretty cool to have Oz look alikes...maybe you can find them for the next Italian Fest! I'm not a look alike but I'll play Dorothy for free!
RealTimeRufus December 30, 2011 at 04:45 PM
I will volunteer to be a Flying Monkey. Those dudes never got the credit they deserved. They practically made that movie. The Wicked Witch never would have seemed so threatening without her henchmonks. They made the assault on Dorothy an attack of biblical proportions. Whenever I see a film society list the best celluloid villains, they invariably leave off the Flying Monkeys. It’s always those ridiculous Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney characters they include. The lead Flying Monkey was far more terrifying than some stupid Frankenstein or Phantom of the Opera or whatever those guys played. He was as menacing and ruthless as Dr. Szell in “Marathon Man”. I heard the monks were modeled after the West Point cadets in their gray uniforms. Perhaps John C. could confirm that for us.
Kathleen Schleimer December 31, 2011 at 05:33 PM
I was told by my mother, who died two years ago at the age of 94, that there was a stockpile of yellow bricks discarded years ago. I build meditation walking paths called labyrinths and the yellow bricks would make an incredible one; maybe somewhere in Peekskill.
damien January 02, 2012 at 02:33 PM
There was also a connection to Garrison. Osborne Castle was said to be his inspiration for the castle in the story. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4d/CastleRockGarrison.jpg/800px-CastleRockGarrison.jpg

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