Seventy-five years ago this month, moviegoers flocked to theaters to watch Dorothy Gale and her little dog Toto go on an adventure in the land of Oz. The Dakotah Prairie Museum in Aberdeen is celebrating that anniversary with an exhibit paying tribute to the man who wrote the Wizard of Oz books.
Most of us have seen the classic move, the "Wizard of Oz" at some point in our lives. But before there was a movie, there was a book written by a man named L. Frank Baum who lived in Chicago. And before he lived in Chicago, Baum lived in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
“His wife’s brother and sister had come out to Dakota Territory from New York to establish business here,” Sue Gates says. “And of course the little sister kind of missed her family, so she and her new husband Frank moved out here to join them. And that’s really how they got here.”
Sue Gates is the Director of the Dakotah Prairie Museum in Aberdeen. She says Baum arrived in town in the summer of 1888, and moved to Chicago a few years later, in 1891. But, Gates says, Baum managed to do a lot during his time during his time in South Dakota. He started by opening a store called “Baum’s Bazaar.”
“Which was kind of a gift shop on steroids if you will,” Gates says. “He had all kinds of exotic gift items and things that people around here just couldn’t buy in a normal mercantile store. So it was quite the fancy department gift store that he ran for about two years.”
Gates says a severe drought in the area made it difficult for Baum’s customers to pay their bills.
“He was very generous, extended them credit, but finally the bank said, ‘You know, Frank, we just can’t carry you anymore.’ So he had to close the shop,” Gates says.
Then, Gate’s says, Baum did a bit of writing. Just not the children’s books we know him for.
“He started a newspaper,” Gates says. “It was called the “Saturday Pioneer.” And it was a weekly paper that he did do some boiler plate publishing that came from the east coast. But he also covered local stories, local people. He had an interesting column called “Our Landlady” that thinly veiled some of the characters in Aberdeen and their escapades. So that was kind of interesting. And again he did that for about two years.”
Those columns were compiled into a book, which is on display at the Dakota Prairie Museum. Baum used his columns to express his opinions on everything from politics, to his views against Native Americans. After the Wounded Knee massacre, he called for the extermination of Native Americans.
The building itself is actually 125 years old. And Gates says L. Frank Baum came here to conduct business. Now, visitors to the building can see Baum’s family photos as well as documents from his time in Aberdeen.
“He was actually involved in professional baseball here,” Gates says. “He was on the, I guess you would call it the executive committee of a professional baseball team. We have a letter that he had written to a player negotiating a contract. It’s written on Baum’s Bazaar stationary and letterhead.”
Just a few years after arriving in Aberdeen, Baum and his family moved to Chicago, where he wrote “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” But Gates says it’s possible he carried a bit of South Dakota with him.
“You know there have been people who have suggested that the experiences that he had here were then built into this fictional Kansas family,” Gates says. “And I know his niece, Matilda Jewell Gage who lived here was a small girl at the time and many people think that Dorothy was kind of based on Matilda as a little girl.”
Gates says she can’t say for sure whether any part of the story is based on Baum’s time in South Dakota, and a quick search on the internet shows conflicting answers as to who inspired Dorothy. But Gates says those who have been longtime residents of Aberdeen are proud to claim someone who made themselves a part of history.