An Oz tale: Lyman Baum, ‘The Book of Failure,’ and a prairie disaster

Posted 5/31/19

You might be familiar with Lyman Baum. This is the story of the thin but sturdy thread connecting him to me.

Baum was something of a daydreamer. He had a restless spirit, especially when it came …

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An Oz tale: Lyman Baum, ‘The Book of Failure,’ and a prairie disaster

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You might be familiar with Lyman Baum. This is the story of the thin but sturdy thread connecting him to me.

Baum was something of a daydreamer. He had a restless spirit, especially when it came to seeking the fortune that always seemed to elude him. In turns he pursued stamp-collecting, poultry breeding and publishing. Baum also got involved in theater and dabbled as a playwright before moving his family west from his native New York to South Dakota.

There, he opened a retail store — Baum’s Bazaar — which sold novelties from Japan and glassware made by Native Americans. He was known to be generous with store credit, though, and that generosity soon bankrupted his establishment.

A serial entrepreneur who once published a trade magazine for retailers, Baum next got into the newspaper business in South Dakota and, when that failed, worked as a reporter in Chicago and as a freelance writer. Between newspaper jobs he also spent time as a traveling salesman, peddling fine china and glassware.

All along, he kept a private notebook of ideas for stories which newspapers and magazines rejected. He called it “The Book of Failure.”

Where Lyman Baum most wanted to succeed was in writing books. Children’s books were becoming commercially viable, thanks to the enormous success of a series of books about a place called “Wonderland” by an author named Lewis Carroll. So in the summer of 1899, Baum got the idea to write a story about a Wonderland of his own.

For inspiration, he turned to remembrances of newspaper stories he’d never forgotten about a Kansas farm town decimated by a tornado some time before. In a particularly gruesome detail from one, he recalled a storm victim — a young girl found buried face down in a mud puddle. Her name was Dorothy Gale.

As his book took shape in his mind and on paper, Baum needed a name for his own Wonderland. Looking around his basement den for ideas, his eyes fell upon his two-drawer filing cabinet.

The upper drawer was labeled A-N.

The other was labeled O-Z.

Oz, then, was it. The book that would bring Baum his fortune would be called “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” He published it not under his given name of Lyman – he was named for an uncle, his father’s brother – but the name he preferred, his middle name.

It was thus that L. Frank Baum finally found success and fortune and literary immortality.

Baum went on to write another 13 books in the “Oz” series. Oz wasn’t real, of course, but the town in which the real Dorothy Gale lived and died was — which is where Baum and I are connected.

The town was Irving, Kansas, located a scant five miles down the Blue River from my adopted hometown of Blue Rapids, where I moved from North Carolina when I was 8 and lived until going off to college.

I relocated to Kansas in 1972, but it was a long time before — on May 30, 1879 — when two massive tornadoes struck Irving, then a town of about 300 souls, an hour apart. More than 60 people were killed by the twisters, including six members of the Gale family. Poor Dorothy, according to one newspaper report, was driven into the mud by the winds with such ferocity that she was buried past her shoulders.

Some Irving residents were never found, whisked away by the winds to places unknown. A letter written by Irving resident Annis Minerva Crawford two weeks after the storm to a woman who lost her husband and son to the twisters describes the aftermath.

“I learn from the men who found them, that your husband was found on his back about the middle of the lot,” Crawford wrote. “What hurts he received I cannot say, nor could they as he was so covered by mud…and I think his face was not hurt. Your son had a large gash over his right eye. Both were easily recognized. When found they were close together. Mrs. Keeney was carried somewhat farther than they were, and was driven head first into the ground almost to her breast. We suppose that death in each case was instantaneous, that they did not suffer, for all the wounded give the same story, that consciousness was lost.”

Named for author Washington Irving, the Kansas Irving was founded in 1859. The town rebuilt after the tornadoes, which marked the first time in history a single town was struck by two tornadoes on the same day. (It happened again in Xenia, Ohio, in 1974.) The town was flooded by the Big Blue River in 1908, and again in subsequent years. Fires also plagued Irving, including four in a devastating 11-year period — the last in 1916.

It’d be nice to say that the Irving lived happily ever, but the town clearly had its own Book of Failures. The last was a man-made event — the construction of a dam in the Blue River Valley resulted in government-mandated closing of the town, one of several in the valley. Most of the abandoned towns were submerged by waters created by the dam, but the resilient Irving ended up not flooded, and had the last word in the matter: the former town site is still visible, and you can even walk its overgrown streets. A stone monument with the word “IRVING” sits there, with a mailbox behind it.

I’ve visited this ghost town several times over the years, and it’s a haunting place. Tornado chasers like to stop by to visit there, leaving messages for fellow chasers in the mailbox.

In Baum’s book — and in the movie that helped make it famous (see Randall Rigsbee’s excellent story in this edition about a different book related to that same film) — the fictional Dorothy returns home to Kansas.

In the abandoned town of Irving, the real Dorothy’s memory still lives.


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