In February 2006, I had lunch with Jocelyn Burdick, who briefly served as a Democratic U.S. Senator from North Dakota in 1992, and she helped to verify something that I had only speculated about — her mother was very likely the inspiration for Dorothy in "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."
Her mother, Magdalena (Carpenter) Birch, grew up on a farm in LaMoure County, N.D., and was the niece of L. Frank Baum, the author of 1900's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," a children’s book that the Library of Congress declared “America’s greatest and best-loved homegrown fairy tale.”
Baum’s wife, Maud, and Magdalena’s mother, Julia Carpenter, were sisters. The Carpenter and Baum families were very close, and they spent considerable time together at the Carpenter homestead. The Baums had no daughters of their own and became very attached to Magdalena. They even proposed the idea of adopting her, but “Julia would not consider it.”
Author Elizabeth Letts also came to the conclusion that Dorothy was patterned after Magdalena while she was researching material for her book, "Finding Dorothy," which was published in 2019. Letts also believed that the Carpenter home closely mirrored the farm home of Uncle Henry and Aunt Em in "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."
Magdalena Towers Carpenter was born April 2, 1887, on a farm 1 mile north of Edgeley, to Julia (Gage) and James “Frank” Carpenter. Magdalena is the centerpiece of a fascinating genealogy. Her maternal grandmother was one of this country’s most noted suffragettes, and one of Magdalena’s daughters, Jocelyn (Birch) Burdick, became the first woman in North Dakota to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Magdalena’s maternal grandparents were Henry and Matilda Joslyn Gage, and their home in Fayetteville, N.Y., served as a station for the underground railroad, a safe house for fleeing slaves. In 1876, on the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Matilda wrote the Declaration of Rights for Women. She also co-authored the first three volumes of "A History of Woman Suffrage" with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Matilda published the book "Woman, Church and State" in 1893, and worked with Stanton on "The Woman’s Bible."
Henry and Matilda had four children: T. Clarkson; Helen; Julia; and Maud. Magdalena’s mother, Julia, was born in May 1851 and, after graduating from high school, attended Syracuse University for two years. She fell in love with James D. Carpenter, who was from the town of Pompey, N.Y., just south of Syracuse, and many of James’ close friends called him Frank.
Early in 1882, Frank and Julia got married in Fayetteville and then traveled to LaMoure County in Dakota Territory, where Frank established a homestead just north of a tiny hamlet called St. George. “The location was isolated, bleak, and treeless,” and originally, they lived in a sod hut, but later built a frame house. Ellendale was the closest town, which was 27 miles away, and Jamestown, the next closest town, was nearly 40 miles from their home.
They had three children: James Jr., who died in infancy; Harry; and Magdalena. Julia’s youngest sister, Maud, married L. Frank Baum in 1882. To support his wife, Baum took a job as a traveling salesman, but the time spent away from home became an ordeal that was hard to bear.
Maud’s father died in 1884, and she became especially close to her mother during the time that her husband was away on sales trips. Baum was suffering from a serious congenital heart condition, and his long trips were adversely affecting his health. Through the encouragement of Maud’s brother, T. Clarkson Gage, and her sister, Julia, along with Maud’s insistence, the Baums also moved to Dakota Territory in 1888, settling in Aberdeen (now in South Dakota), 80 miles south of Edgeley. T. Clarkson and his wife, Sophie, had moved to Aberdeen in 1881.
After arriving in Aberdeen, Baum opened a store named Baum’s Bazaar. To attract customers to his establishment, he created a scarecrow and thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if the scarecrow had a brain?”
Now that they were closer, the Baums, Gages and Carpenters were able to spend more time together. Each spring, Matilda would arrive and spend six months with her children and grandchildren. The visits between the families became extended stays because their children loved playing together. Baum watched with fascination as the youngsters cavorted about on the open prairie in apparent harmony with the abundant wildlife on the Dakota Plains.
The Carpenters were far less isolated than when they had originally settled in 1882. Midway through the 1880s, Englishman Richard Sykes arrived and bought up large tracts of land from the Northern Pacific Railroad. In 1886, he changed the name of St. George to Edgeley and had it incorporated. Sykes contracted Frank Carpenter to plant trees in the town and cut and stack hay on the prairie for the large number of animals that Sykes would be bringing into the area.
The temporary economic upturn of the Carpenters in Edgeley was not experienced by the Baums in Aberdeen. Times were tough for the farmers around Aberdeen, and Baum, through his generosity, allowed many of his customers to purchase goods on credit. When they were unable to pay their debts, Baum was forced to close his store in 1890.
North and South Dakota had recently entered the Union as separate states, and Baum founded The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, a weekly newspaper, on Jan. 25, 1890. Baum began to closely examine the politics of the time in the Dakotas, where populism was becoming very strong. This political movement hoped to break the grip that the bankers, millers, elevator men and railroads out East had on the two new states.
Baum embraced populism as he watched the small farmers forced off the land because they could not compete against the large corporate interests. The economic crisis soon engulfed Baum, and he was forced to file for bankruptcy. He published his final edition of the newspaper on March 21, 1891.
In 1891, the Baums moved from Aberdeen to Chicago, where Frank was hired as a reporter for the Evening Post. One day, his mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, overheard him telling stories to his sons, who were completely transfixed on his every word. She encouraged Baum to consider writing his stories for publication, and in 1897, his book "Mother Goose in Prose" was published, which became an immediate success. Then, in 1900, he wrote the children’s classic "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."
We will conclude the story of Magdalena, Dorothy and "The Wizard of Oz" next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.