It first occurred to me, in the most minor of ways, back in 1965. I had been reading an old book once given to my Aunt Clara’s son, Leonard, back during the Christmas of 1923. The book’s title was “The Road to Oz,” published in 1909 and written by L. Frank Baum of “Wizard of Oz” fame.
As I turned the pages, I came to an illustration by artist John R. Neill on page 25. It showed Dorothy and Toto standing in the center of a cleared circle, looking in bewilderment at many roads radiating away from that circle. At the time I merely thought that it reminded me of Eight Corners, and read onward.
Twenty-four years later, in 1989, I was toying with the idea of creating some kind of “Eight Corners Game.” I was also rereading “The Road to Oz,” and rediscovered the Neill illustration. “That looks awfully familiar,” I said to myself. Then I wondered, “Could Baum have known about Grossdale? Or visited it?”
The Brookfield Public Library had an excellent biographical book to use for research, “To Please A Child” by Frank Joslyn Baum (L. Frank Baum’s son) and Russell P, Macfall.
The book failed to mention Grossdale (the name by which Brookfield was known prior to by name, as did other source material I consulted. Disheartened at first, I did not give up on locating a link. Not until 2000, did I finally once again take up the threads of my research. But since that time, I’ve added still more bits and pieces that may connect Baum to Brookfield’s early days.
What follows is a set of coincidences that can truly make one wonder: How much did L. Frank Baum know about Grossdale (now Brookfield), and did he consciously or unconsciously use this knowledge to create the famous Land of Oz?
Baum first visited Chicago in July 1890, and then came here to work briefly as a reporter for the Chicago Evening Post newspaper in 1891. In that newspaper were printed many advertisements for real estate promoter S.E. Gross’s subdivisions, especially for his newest “city,” Grossdale. So Baum certainly knew of Grossdale’s existence. Furthermore, train tickets to see the property were free, so the price was right. And even if Baum had failed to go at that time, the same free excursions were being offered for years afterwards.
After leaving the Evening Post and not wanting to take a pay cut, Baum became a travelling salesman, selling chinaware throughout the Midwest for the firm of Pitkin and Brooks. He certainly had a chance to visit or pass through Grossdale on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad.
On the evening of May 7, 1898, Baum continued a story that he had been telling to some neighborhood youngsters as well as his sons, about a magical land that had in it a girl named Dorothy finding a Scarecrow and a Tin Woodsman. Two years later, this story was published, and “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was destined to become one of the most famous children’s books in history.
If Grossdale, indeed, was an inspiration for the book, who was the Wizard? Well, S.E. Gross comes to mind, the founder and “ruler,” in many respects, of the village. Gross had both his admirers and his critics, the latter who waited in vain for some of his grand and lavish promises for Grossdale to be kept. As the Wizard was eventually found out to be a “humbug,” some would probably say the same thing about Gross, the real estate wizard of the Chicago area.
Upon arriving in Oz, Dorothy is awakened by a sudden shock. It is not too impossible to say that an engineer slamming on the train brakes would have the same effect on a sleeping passenger arriving at Grossdale. The train, in this case, doubles for the more interesting and exciting cyclone, or tornado, as we might say today.
Was there a scarecrow in Grossdale? Most likely, as there were farms all around it. A Tin Woodsman? There were tinsmiths in town. Max Johnke was over on Maple Avenue, near the S.E. Gross School, and the Kautts were over on Park Avenue, across from the railroad tracks. Now as to the Cowardly Lion, I don’t know of any lions lived in Grossdale, although it’s funny that decades later, the Brookfield Zoo certainly was to have lions, as well as many other amazing creatures.
Everybody remembers the Munchkins that Dorothy first meets. Gross had his own imported Munchkins, the visitors who came out on his free Palace Excursion trains from Chicago. Once here, they got free box lunches to “munch” on, containing food like sausage sandwiches. Maybe pie or cake for dessert. To drink, they had a choice of lemonade or beer.
Munchkins dwelt in the east quadrant of Oz (the first square of Grossdale), and the Munchkin-crammed trains out from Chicago stopped just over the Salt Creek, on the eastern part of Grossdale.
The original limits of the first square of Grossdale were from Washington Avenue on the north, to Southview on the south, to Grove, being along and just over the creek on the east, and to Maple on the west. Within a year, another square of land had been added diagonally, and up northwest, with the borders of 31st Street on the north, Washington on the south, Maple on the east, and Kemman Avenue on the west. Set at the center tip of these two squares was Eight Corners.
Oz’s yellow brick road was probably more solid and substantial than the yellow plank road, the wooden pine sidewalks that lined the sides of Grand Boulevard. Depending on weather or just natural inclination, Grossdale visitors could follow the yellow plank road leading up to the Eight Corners area, where a huge striped tent was set up.
Maybe this big tent, with flags flying in the wild, prairie breeze, inspired the idea of the Emerald City’s palace, or maybe it was the sight of the brick and limestone, towering S.E. Gross school that loomed gigantically above the flatness of the village and the nearby farmland. Also, an 1889 advertisement for Grossdale stated that “a new city will rise on this spot of emerald lawns.” Gross had laid out beautiful gardens here, too.
It is unknown whether Gross ever had any entertaining balloon ascensions from around Eight Corners. It’s possible. These were popular at the time. Did, one day, a balloon break free of its tethering rope and fly away, landing in Kansas?
The large Grossdale ad in the Chicago Evening Post for August 22, 1890 stated that “on every side, are rising, as if by some magician’s hand, handsome houses and villas, with delightful lawns, porches and verandas.”
Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Like Oz? Gross’s 1891 subdivision catalog states that “a beautiful city is rising like magic upon this superb property.” Gross wasn’t afraid of using a bit of magic to sell his lots and houses.
Oh, and don’t forget Gross described the Sylvan Grove forest just east, across Salt Creek as “a natural forest of grand old oaks, elm, walnut and various other forest trees.” Just the place for a Cowardly Lion to live.
Around Oz are deserts, and “great sandy wastes.” Around Grossdale, and even in it, roads were reputed to become impassable quagmires, and some areas were said to be of bottomless quicksand. If you wonder why, today, the streets around Brookfield sink, that’s probably the reason. Unless you’re practically sitting on the limestone shelf, as in the Congress Park area towards 47th Street.
I have a few theories as to the Grossdale residents who may have represented the Good Witches of the North (Mrs. Troegle or Mrs. Bergman), and South (Mrs. Sieling, who lived along Ogden Avenue), but I have none as to who the Wicked Witches of the East and West were. Perhaps it’s better that way.
In the 1908 book, Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, the meaning of the word “Oz” is given as being “great and good.” The German translation of the word “gross” also happens to be “great.”
Now we move on to the book that inspired my quest for the relation between Oz and Brookfield, “The Road to Oz,” first published in 1909. This book has the doubtful reputation as being the poorest written book among the series of the first six, concerned mainly with roads and having very little Oz in it. At least, that’s what Frank Joslyn Baum believed.
The first chapter is titled “The Way to Butterfield.” It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that place name as being Brookfield, as Grossdale was being called in 1909. Dorothy meets the Shaggy Man, who wants to know which is the road to Butterfield, not because he wants to go there, but because he wants to avoid meeting a man there who owes him 15 cents. During this same year, S.E. Gross was declaring bankruptcy. Was the kind-hearted Shaggy Man trying to let the man, maybe representing Gross, keep his 15 cents?
While Dorothy is trying to locate the road to Butterfield, the roads (called the Five Branches) seem to multiply around her, until the original five roads are counted up to being seventeen, and maybe more.
Many, many times, I have seen cars going around Eight Corners, some drivers wearing confused faces, wondering what street to pull into. Dorothy would understand perfectly. I have seen drivers appear to be ready to go down one street, then suddenly swerve and go down the next street over. That’s the kind of thing that makes things really interesting for pedestrians trying to cross Eight Branches, I mean, Corners.
Another funny thing is that if Butterfield is Brookfield, then Dorothy, Toto and the Shaggy Man are already there, in the village they don’t want to go to.
Now take a good look at John R. Neill’s illustration of Dorothy and Toto standing blankly and looking out across the multiplicity of roads, and see if you don’t think that looks like Eight Corners, but without any businesses, as it would’ve looked back in the 1890s. If you ask me, L. Frank Baum knew more than he was telling about the origins of his wonderful Land of Oz, which, possibly, many Brookfield people are now living in.