August 2019 is the 80th anniversary of the MGM movie premiere of The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Little known fact—about a half hour from my house in Wisconsin, the movie premiered in the tiny town of Oconomowoc on August 12, 1939, three days before Hollywood’s Graumann Theater showing. Oconomowoc is quite proud of being selected for such an honor, and they’re celebrating it on August 15. Join them if you live close by. More on that later.
So in that spirit, in May, I did my own Oz tribute by taking a trip. When I first featured The Wizard of Oz and its author L. Frank Baum on my blog and my trip to the All Things Oz Museum in Chittenango, New York last October (2018), a lady named Jane Albright contacted me. I’d never met her before. This isn’t any random person. She’s the president of the International Wizard of Oz Club (IWOC).
I’ll bet some of you had no idea there was such a thing! Well, I did. Because of my interest in L. Frank Baum, and because of the novel I’m writing (with him as a character), I joined IWOC two years ago. I wanted to receive The Baum Bugle, a scholarly tri-quarterly.
So when Jane Albright contacted me, I knew who she was. She said she enjoyed my four posts about Baum and Oz, and if I ever found myself headed to the Wamego, Kansas Oz Museum, stop by and meet her, too, in Kansas City. She’d show me her own collection of Oz memorabilia. She claimed to have a mountain of it.
I was thrilled! I’d already toyed with the idea of visiting the Wamego museum, so why not? I made my plan.
Thus, in May, I took a road trip. A rather Ozzy trip. Fitting for May, since it was the centennial of Baum’s death (May 6, 1919), and the very week and month of his birthday, May 15 (1856), 163 years ago.
My journey began with a stop in Bloomington, Illinois at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery, where the niece of Frank and Maud Baum was buried at the age of five months. Her name was . . . Dorothy Louise Gage.
Yes, Dorothy. Though many Dorothys claimed to be Baum’s inspiration, it’s generally agreed that this Dorothy is the namesake for the heroine in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The story goes that Maud’s brother Clarkson Gage, his wife Sophie, and their daughter Matilda lived in Bloomington in 1898, a respite from their permanent home in Aberdeen, South Dakota. In June, Clarkson and Sophie had a second child—little Dorothy.
The Baums lived in Chicago then, with four sons. They’d never had the daughter they’d wanted, so Maud grew very attached to her baby niece Dorothy Gage, and saw her often. When this child died at five months old, Maud attended the funeral.
She was so distraught afterward that she needed medical attention. Frank was currently working on his first Oz story. To offer Maud some measure of comfort, he named his main character Dorothy, after the dear baby niece.
At the cemetery, I met my friend Melody who showed me to the tiny little gravestone that marked Dorothy’s grave. For almost 100 years, it had been forgotten.
In 1997, Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner discovered it while researching Dorothy’s grandmother, Matilda Joslyn Gage, a suffragette. When word of the stone’s poor condition got out, a woman named Elaine Willingham called Mickey Carroll, one of the Munchkin actors from the MGM movie.
Elaine wanted to inquire about pricing, since Mickey was in the monument business. As it turns out, Mickey himself ordered and provided the new headstone. It was unveiled in 1997 at the dedication of the new Dorothy Gage Memorial Garden.
Last year (June 2018), Bill Baker of Top Notch Chainsaw Carving was commissioned to carve Dorothy, Toto, and the Yellow Brick Road from a dead tree trunk several yards from the gravestone. I’d never heard of chainsaw sculpting. Here’s the result:
I am amazed by the notion of sculpting with a chainsaw!
As Melody and I stood there admiring the sculpture, a flock of birds squawked overhead. They sounded like flying monkeys! No joke. If I’d been there alone, I would have thought I imagined it. But Melody heard it, too. Really.
Adlai Stevenson II and his family are also buried in this cemetery. He was the governor of Illinois, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., and running mate against Eisenhower in two presidential elections.
Melody and I wandered a bit, musing over various statues and grave markers, talking about how people commemorated their loved ones. About how Dorothy’s parents never saw the new gravestone or the sculpture honoring their daughter.
Worse yet, they never got to know their daughter. They could only imagine what she might have become. They’d never know. I wonder if they ever found any solace in knowing that Dorothy’s namesake lived in children’ literature as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz went on to become a best loved book for decades.
We found another chainsaw sculpture, this one of baseball player Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourne (1854-1897), who played major league Baseball for Boston in the 1800s.
On the way out of the cemetery, we discovered the Dorothy Gage Memorial Garden, with graves of children from the last few decades.
If you ever visit Evergreen Memorial Cemetery, check this site for directions and additional information.
Afterward, I drove to St. Louis and stayed with my friend Cheryl. The next morning, I got up at 5:30am (yes, on vacation!) to drive to Kansas City. I dropped by the National Toy and Miniature Museum for a couple of hours first, then showed up on Jane Albright’s doorstep at 12:30pm, as planned. Join me next time for my visit with Jane.
- “Dorothy Gage and Dorothy Gale” article by Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner
- “Story of Dorothy Gage” by Elaine Willingham
- Directions to gravesite in Evergreen Memorial Cemetery and additional information.
Do you have a special way that you commemorate a lost loved one?
I’d love to hear from you!