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