The Holland area’s connection to L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, has been brought to life in a literal sense in Centennial Park thanks in large part to Ali Jesky of Hope’s grounds-keeping staff.
Baum, who wrote 14 Oz books published between 1900 and 1920, spent about a dozen summers at Macatawa Park on the Lake Michigan coast west of Holland, first staying in the shoreline resort community in 1899.
A 10-foot by 12-foot “plant mosaic” shaped like an open book featuring the iconic Yellow Brick Road and Emerald City was installed at the park on Wednesday, June 5. Covered with living plants, the display was initiated by Jesky, who had seen similar pieces exhibited during a visit to Ottawa, Canada, in 2017 as a member of the city’s Holland in Bloom committee, and immediately envisioned the potential for the college’s hometown.
“I was blown away by them,” said Jesky, who is a grounds irrigation specialist at the college. “They were incredible.”
She spoke with the manufacturer and brought the idea back to Holland, where it ultimately dovetailed nicely with others’ vision for highlighting Baum and Oz specifically. “It has been a dream of the Visitors Bureau for a number of years to pay homage to Baum,” said Sally Laukitis, executive director of the Holland Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, in a news release announcing the subsequent “Holland Oz Project.”
Anchored at the northeast by the book, the project includes a path of yellow bricks that winds to the southwest, continuing at neighboring Herrick District Library, which is located across River Avenue and 12th Street. Full-size bronze statues of central characters including Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man are scheduled to be installed outside the library in August.
“Once everything’s all set, it’s going to be something really special,” Jesky said.
The Macatawa Park of the turn of the 20th century became a popular destination for summer resorters from the Chicago area, like Baum, who traveled there with his family across the lake by steamer. Baum named his family’s cottage (which no longer exists) “The Sign of the Goose” for a best-seller that he wrote before the Oz series: Father Goose: His Book.
It isn’t certain how much of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in May 1900, was written at Macatawa Park, nor exactly how it was shaped by Baum’s experience in the area. In her 2009 biography The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum, Rebecca Loncraine noted that Baum was midway through writing his “new story about a child called Dorothy” when he and his family arrived at Macatawa Park during the summer of 1899. During his time there, she wrote, “Baum continued working on his new story about a lost balloonist, as he sat next to the very lake that had seen many aeronauts disappear… weaving the characters, the narrative, and the landscape together in a whole, a feat that Baum hadn’t managed to achieve before in his stories, which had so far been episodic and fragmented.” By the time he returned to Chicago in September 1899, she continued, he had the new story “almost drafted.”
In any case, Baum’s seasonal tenure in a locale that he is believed to have described (as shared by Loncraine) as “the most original and wonderful place in all the world” spanned several of the years that he developed the Oz series. Because of the history, the International Wizard of Oz Club even met in the Holland area multiple times, most recently in 2012.
And perhaps it’s appropriate, even a feature, if there’s a bit of mystery associated with the origins of an imaginative fantasyland. How much of a role, if any, did the shaded walkways and Victorian-era cottages of Macatawa Park play in informing the development of Oz? How influential was the castle at Castle Park, approximately a mile to the south? Regardless of whether or not she unwittingly informed how Baum portrayed his heroine, isn't it interesting that a young girl named Dorothy from Chicago was told stories of Oz by Baum himself while she summered at Macatawa Park with her family — and well into old age delighted in the memory and continued to own a cottage there.