The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written by L. Frank Baum in 1900. The story was so popular it was expanded into fourteen series, forty-one other novels, eighty-three short stories, 200 poems, and adapted into the 1939 film we all know and love starring the one and only Judy Garland. But did you know that the Baum family made their fortune in the Oil Region of Pennsylvania? That L. Frank Baum’s father struck it rich in Cherrytree? Or that Pennsylvania oil money made it so that Frank could write the story that has been cherished for generations?
Benjamin Ward Baum was born January 3, 1821 in Minden, New York, a town with a population similar to that of Titusville. In March 1842 he married Cynthia Ann Stanton and began his first venture — the butter and cheese business. Lyman Frank Baum, a first name which he heartily disliked and went by Frank instead, was born on May 15, 1856 in Chittenango, New York, the seventh of nine children (only five of whom survived to adulthood) to a Methodist Scots-Irish family.
A few years after Frank’s birth, Benjamin Baum began a barrel-making business with his brother. Luckily for him, he started this business around the time that Edwin Drake struck oil fewer than 300 miles away.
In 1860, Benjamin Baum closed his factory in New York and headed to Pennsylvania oil country. He sunk wells at Titusville and Cherry Tree Run while still plying his barrel trade skills in selling barrels to wildcatters. Baum helped develop Plumer in Venango County with his brother and even founded a bank there. In 1862 the Baums owned Carbon Oil Company and diversified into the dry goods and mercantile businesses.
Money from the Crawford and Venango County oilfields was extremely important to the Baum’s at home. They purchased the Cynthia Oil Works in Bolivar, NY and produced lubricating oil under the auspices of B.W. Baum & Son. The Baums even tried to build a pipeline from Bradford, PA to Rochester, NY with independent producers in an attempt to break the stranglehold Rockefeller had in the region. Unfortunately, Standard Oil, the New York Central Railroad, and New York State legislature blocked the attempt. In 1875 the Baums purchased 100 acres in four plots of land in McKean County, Pennsylvania between Bradford and Olean, NY that produced many flowing wells.
Eventually, Benjamin left Pennsylvania and moved to Syracuse, NY to purchase Rose Lawn, a farm property where he and his wife raised their children in affluence. As Tim Ziaukas put it, “imagination-inducing opulence was largely financed with Pennsylvania crude” (41). Benjamin’s success in the oil industry allowed Frank the opportunity to focus on writing and artistry. However, young Frank did not solely focus on writing.
In 1883, Frank and his brother Benjamin created Baum’s Castorine Company which manufactured lubricants, oils, and greases, focusing mostly on axle grease for machines, buggies, and wagons. Their lubricant was said to be “so smooth it makes the horses laugh.” Frank was the superintendent and chief salesman for the company. His position as a traveling salesman in an oil company was extremely important to the development of his most famous work.
While traveling the country selling Baum’s Castorine products, the idea of a Tin Woodman hit Frank out of the blue. While selling oil cans, he conjured a character who would be in perpetual need of its service. There, the Tin Man was born.
L. Frank Baum’s life was about to go into a tailspin the in the late 1880s. In 1886, his brother and business partner, Benjamin Jr. suddenly died of pneumonia. On February 21, 1887, Frank’s father Benjamin Sr. died in Syracuse, NY. Still beloved by all who knew him in the Oil Region, Baum’s obituary was printed in the Warren Daily Mirror. Around the same time, the bookkeeper for Baum’s Castorine Company gambled away all of the profits and Frank found him dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound upon returning from a sales trip. Finally, in 1888, Frank sold the company to get out of the oil business and into his writing, though the company is still in operation today in Rome, NY.
Baum started to work on his writing craft and in 1900 found amazing success, just like his father did forty years prior. This time, instead of black gold, the Baum name was about to be attached to the stars.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a hit across the nation. In just under two months, more than 25,000 copies were sold. In 1902, the book was adapted into a Broadway musical and by 1938, more than one million copies were sold. In 1939, the book was made into the famous movie, The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland.
Unfortunately, L. Frank Baum never got to witness the heights to which his novel soared. He died on May 6, 1919 in Hollywood, California, just shy of his sixty-third birthday.
One hundred years ago this month, the man who took us down the yellowbrick road, who helped us see the man behind the curtain, who scared us with one of the wickedest witches the world has ever known, and who gave us hope that if we click our ruby slippers we can all go home again, passed away. L. Frank Baum created a sensation that has impacted children and adults across the world for over a century. None of it would have been possible without the influence and affluence of the Pennsylvania Oil Region.
Sources: Warren Daily Mirror 4/9/1887; “Oil in the Land of Oz” by the American Oil & Gas Historical Society; New York Times by Katharine Rogers 11/17/2002; “Oz in the Oilfields: Searching for L. Frank Baum in Bradford” by Tim Ziaukas Western Pennsylvania History Summer 2014; Rome Sentinel 11/23/2014