Would you hire this guy?
So….is this guy a wizard or a humbug?
Would you hire him? I suppose it depends on what you need. And how you measure success.
The thing that L. Frank Baum is best known for—writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—didn’t occur until he was 44 years old. He never envisioned himself as a writer of children’s books until four years earlier with the publication of Mother Goose in Prose (1896). At the suggestion of his mother-in-law and wife, he began writing the stories he told his sons and the neighbor kids.
A few years ago, reading a Baum biography gave me my first introduction to this fascinating man. When I learned that he had summered in Macatawa Resort in Michigan, I felt a sudden connection. That resort lies at the other end of Lake Macatawa in Holland where my family and I vacation yearly.
I’ll just touch on a few highlights from each decade of his life.
In June I visited my friend Nancy in Ithaca, NY, about an hour south of Syracuse. We took several hikes in the Finger Lakes area, appreciating the same kind of natural beauty that L. Frank Baum must have enjoyed in his early years, living in central New York.
The Rose Lawn Years (1860s-1870s)
L. Frank Baum (1856 – 1919) spent his teen years in Mattydale, NY (a suburb of Syracuse) on family property that his mother Cynthia christened Rose Lawn. After two rough, stifling pre-teen years at military school, he returned home to tutors, the delights of country living, and a family that highly encouraged his reading and creative ventures. When his father purchased a small printing press for his fifteenth birthday, Frank and his brother Harry printed and published several editions of the The Rose Lawn Journal for friends and family. Also, at age seventeen, Frank published a stamp dealer directory for collectors.
Frank’s parents had nine children; only five survived past two years. His father, Benjamin Baum, was a barrel maker by trade, and grew wealthy by investing in various businesses, oil enterprises, and opera houses. He also owned eighty acres near Rose Lawn, called Spring Farm, where he and Frank bred and raised chickens. After much success at fairs and poultry shows, Frank later (at age 30) published a manual titled The Book of the Hamburgs (1886).
The Syracuse Years (1880s)
As a young man in Syracuse, Baum took on a plethora of acting jobs. Eventually, he found success touring with an acting troupe, starring in the musical The Maid of Arran. He wrote the lyrics and script, adapted from a novel. He also wrote for a newspaper and contributed to the New-York Tribune.
Acting was Baum’s first love—until he met Maud Gage in 1881. He was smitten. The story goes that they met at the house of his sister, Harriet Baum Neal. His cousin Josie had roomed with Maud at Cornell. A relative introduced them by saying, “I want you to know Maud Gage. I’m sure you will love her.”
Frank replied, “Consider yourself loved, Miss Gage.”
“Thank you, Mr. Baum. That’s a promise. Please see that you live up to it.”
And he did.
Maud’s mother, suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage, was not happy with her daughter’s choice of a husband. No daughter of hers was going to marry a worthless, floundering actor. But Maud was determined, so Matilda gave in and hosted the wedding at their house (November, 1882).
Matilda’s life was devoted to liberty and equal rights for all. Her house was part of the Underground Railroad. For years, she worked tirelessly with fellow suffragettes Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Maud inherited her mother’s stubbornness, spunk, and vigor. And Frank, by marriage, acquired a staunch interest in women’s suffrage.
After Frank and Maud married, they traveled together with The Maid of Arran troupe across Canada and the U.S. During this time, one of the Baum theaters burned down, destroying his numerous scripts, costumes, and properties.
When Maud got pregnant with their firstborn, she insisted that Frank get a more stable job close to home. So he joined one of the family businesses and sold Casterine oil for his brother. His first two sons, Frank Joslyn and Robert Stanton, were born in Syracuse.
Nancy and I drove around Syracuse south of downtown to locate the addresses where Baum lived in the 1880s. Or course, most are no longer there (on Rust/Midland Street, Shonnard, and Slocum). But this house (below), 368 Holland (which was 43-1/2 in the 1880s) could have been his. But then again, maybe not, or somebody would have turned it into a museum.
Nancy and I walked around Clinton Square in the heart of downtown Syracuse. I wanted to get a feel for the Syracuse Baum knew. The Erie Canal used to run right through the square, bordered by the Weiting Block building on Water Street, housing the Opera House where Baum had performed, now replaced by the Atrium. Gone is the Jerry Rescue Building on Clinton and Erie, and the Baum business where Casterine oil was sold for decades.
The Jerry Rescue Building was named after a runaway slave, William “Jerry” Henry who lived in Syracuse. In 1851, he was arrested, charged, and thrown in jail. Twenty-seven people—defying the Fugitive Slave Law—helped him escape and sent him off to freedom in Ontario. The building named after him is gone, replaced by a monument.
Again, several buildings have disappeared, but several still grace Clinton Square today. We visited during a Polish festival.
Nancy and I toured the Erie Canal Museum and saw a barge similar to what Baum might have seen daily in Clinton Square.
After surveying more of Syracuse, we drove to the Salt Museum on Onondaga Lake. Due to the salty brine springs, commercial salt production was a big industry since the 1700s.
At the beginning of the 20th century, amusements parks and resorts popped up all over the United States, inspired by the midway at the 1893 Columbian Expo. Onondaga Lake had seven such resorts on its western shore, accessible by steamboat or trolley. They featured roller coasters, carousels, “shoot the chute” rides, picnic and dancing pavilions, fine dining, and more. One such resort was dubbed The White City. Today, the only remnant of these places are photographs and a carousel in the Syracuse shopping center, Destiny USA.
The Aberdeen Years (1888-1891)
Aberdeen in the Dakota Territory was an up-and-coming town when Baum moved his family there in hopes of a better life. South Dakota achieved statehood in 1889. Baum jumped into the community with both feet. He joined the Episcopal Church, participated in theater, formed a baseball team called the Hub City Nine, joined many community groups, and helped to facilitate the South Dakota State Fair. He and Maud thrived in the social life. Their third and fourth sons, Harry Neal and Kenneth Gage, were born there.
To support his family, Frank opened Baum’s Bazaar, a store that specialized in novelty items. But Baum was more attuned to the whims of children than the demands of business or the needs of his farmer clientele. He was easily distracted by kiddos who dropped by for candy, pop, or a story from him. The farmers, suffering from drought, had no use for much of his impractical merchandise. He also sold too much on credit. After fourteen months, the store closed.
With the little money he had, he bought a local newspaper and became editor of The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. His editorials expressed opinions about suffrage, lighter-than-air aircraft, the drought, local politics, technology, and religion.
Baum also had a clever column, “Our Landlady,” which he wrote under the pseudonym Mrs. Bilkins. It offered commentary on local goings-on. So-called Mrs. Bilkins had three male boarders yet found time to run for mayor, milk a cow, spout opinions about railroads and prohibition, and stick her nose in everybody’s business. She even paid a visit to the fictional Downditch farm where she was fascinated by the newest gadgets and tasks that could be accomplished with a mere touch of a button. Ironically, she and Baum had a lot in common.
Unfortunately, after fourteen months, the newspaper folded.
Aberdeen, an impossible place to live, had sucked him dry and spit him out. Perhaps this is how he felt:
Broke and discouraged by two failed businesses, drought, and a bad economy, he packed the family up and headed to Chicago.
He was still a long way from finding his Wizard of Oz success.
Have you (or has anyone you know) taken a long convoluted route before finding success?
I’d love to hear from you!
P.S. Join me next time for the rest of L. Frank Baum’s life story and his own road to Oz.