Literary historians often compare Emerald City in L. Frank Baum’s novel, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," to Washington, D.C. The ruler of the land of Oz was the wizard, who made important decisions in Emerald City for the citizens of his domain, much like the president does in the U.S.

Within one family, both the mother and daughter had important roles to advocate for the people they represented in their seats of power: The mother, Magdalena (Carpenter) Birch, advocated figuratively, and the daughter, Jocelyn (Birch) Burdick, did so literally.

Magdalena, Baum’s niece, is said to have been the inspiration for Dorothy in her uncle’s classic children’s book. Jocelyn Burdick was a U.S. Senator, the first woman to represent North Dakota in the Senate.

Magdalena (Carpenter) Birch. Special to The Forum
Magdalena (Carpenter) Birch. Special to The Forum

"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" was published in May 1900 and proved to be very popular, selling out within weeks of its publication. The text of the book was then adapted into a theatrical musical and it premiered at the Chicago Grand Opera House on June 16, 1902.

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Because of its huge success, the musical was moved to the Majestic Theater on Broadway on Jan. 21, 1903, where it ran for 293 performances. The original cast then went on traveling tours across the U.S.

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Meanwhile, life was changing for Magdalena’s family. Dry summers, severe winters and poor grain prices had forced the Carpenters off of their land. In 1899, they moved their house off of the farm and into Edgeley, N.D., where her father, James, started a dray line business, transporting goods within the town. In 1901, the Carpenters moved to Fargo, and James became an insurance salesman.

Despite his new fame and fortune, Baum continued to remember the Carpenters. This was evidenced during the early part of the new century when Baum, under the pseudonym Laura Bancroft, began publishing "The Twinkle Tales." Originally, there were six individual stories, each published in a booklet, centering on the adventures of Twinkle in Edgeley that were reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland.

Twinkle was an inquisitive farm girl who was constantly swept away into the world of enchantment. She and her friend, Chubbins, were miniaturized by a prairie dog magician and then entered the world of sugar people. In 1906, these six stories were combined into a book titled "The Twinkle Tales," which was followed by "Policeman Bluejay" in 1907 and "Babes in Birdland" and "Twinkle and Chubbins" in 1911.

With his success as a writer established, a new opportunity was opening up that Baum hoped to capitalize on motion pictures. In 1908, he wrote, produced and starred in the two-hour movie "The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays." Even though it received good reviews, it did not have adequate funding and closed after appearing in only two cities.

Undeterred, he and his wife, Maud, moved from Chicago to Hollywood in 1910 and bought a home that he named Ozcot. For the next six years, Baum produced eight movies based on his writing, and on May 5, 1919, he died at his home in Hollywood.

Magdalena attended public schools in Fargo and went to college at the University of Wisconsin, graduating in 1913. She then taught school in Iowa and South Dakota before marrying Albert Birch on Nov. 20, 1913. Albert, who was originally from Minto, N.D., was also a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, where he majored in civil engineering.

The newlyweds relocated to Great Falls, Mont., and Albert was employed as an engineering contractor. The couple later moved to Fargo and Albert joined his father, Steven Birch, in establishing a construction firm, S. Birch and Son. When Steven died in 1942, Albert became president of the company and Magdalena became vice president, a position she held until her death on Oct. 9, 1948.

Albert and Magdalena Birch raised two daughters, Jocelyn and Helen. Jocelyn, who was born on Feb. 6, 1922, was named in honor of her great-grandmother, Matilda Joslyn Gage. Jocelyn grew up in Fargo, but also spent considerable time living with her aunt, Maud Baum, in Hollywood.

Following her graduation from Central High School in Fargo, Jocelyn attended Principia College, a private liberal arts college in Elsah, Ill. Two years later, she transferred to Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., and graduated in 1943 with a degree in speech.

Jocelyn (Birch) Burdick. Special to The Forum
Jocelyn (Birch) Burdick. Special to The Forum

Jocelyn returned to Fargo and worked as a radio announcer and disc jockey for the KVOX radio station. Jocelyn married Kenneth Peterson in 1948, but 10 years later, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

On July 7, 1960, she married Quentin Burdick, who had been elected U.S. Senator one week earlier. Quentin was reelected to the Senate five times, and when he died in office on Sept. 8, 1992, North Dakota Gov. George Sinner appointed Jocelyn to fill his vacancy four days later, which made her the first woman to serve as a U.S. Senator from the state of North Dakota.

Jocelyn finished out her husband’s term, which lasted until Dec. 14, 1992, and then returned to her home in Fargo, where she remained active in politics. On April 6, 2019, she again made news when, with the death of Fritz Hollings from South Carolina, she became the oldest living former U.S. Senator. Jocelyn died on Dec. 26, 2019.

In 1964, historians began to look at "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" in a new light. Similar to Jonathan Swift’s "Gulliver’s Travels," it is a children’s book that is also believed to be a satirical take on the political, social and economic situation of the time.

While Baum was a newspaperman in Aberdeen, S.D., during the late 1880s and early 1890s, many farmers lost their land because of the low prices they received for their produce and the severe drought that occurred at the same time. Baum embraced populism, a political movement that opposed the tactics of the railroads, bankers, millers and elevator owners who exploited the small farmers.

Many historians saw similarities between the characters in "Oz" and the groups of people in the Midwest. The Wicked Witch of the East represented the eastern industrialists and the bankers who controlled the people (the Munchkins). The Wicked Witch of the West represented the drought that melted away after Dorothy threw a bucket of water on her.

The Scarecrow was based on the wise but exploited Midwestern farmer, and the Tin Woodman was the dehumanized industrial worker. The Cowardly Lion represented William Jennings Bryan, who roared about the way the people were treated, but lacked the courage to do anything about it. The Wizard represented the presidents of the time who operated out of Washington, D.C. (Emerald City).

Who did Dorothy represent? Some wrote that she represented the American people: level-headed, innocent and naive, but when determined, capable of defeating the evil forces around her.

Baum’s description of Dorothy Gale’s home is that of Magdalena Carpenter’s home. Dorothy lived on a farm with her aunt and uncle, who were poor. Dorothy’s simple wood-frame home on the gray prairie very closely paralleled the Carpenter home as Magdalena described it to her daughter, Jocelyn Burdick.

The bleak setting near Edgeley was well-experienced by Baum, who was a frequent guest at the Carpenters' farmstead. In 1899, the Carpenters were forced to give up their farm, one year before the publication of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."

If Magdalena indeed was the inspiration for Dorothy, isn’t it ironic that, 90 years later Magdalena Carpenter’s daughter, Jocelyn Burdick, represented North Dakota Munchkins in Emerald City?

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“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 cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.

Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist
Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist