Oil in the Land of Oz
“Sometimes, when researching history, you find places where it’s still alive. My search for the Tin Man’s mythic oil-can led me to such a spot. L. Frank Baum sold cans of buggy wheel oil for a living as the co-owner of Baum’s Castorine Company of Syracuse, New York.” - Oz historian Evan L. Schwartz.
The future world-famous author of the children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz once sold petroleum products in Syracuse, New York. In 1883, L. Frank Baum and his brother Benjamin launched a small business offering lubricants, oils, greases – and “Baum’s Castorine, the great axle oil.”
Reporting on the July 9, 1883, opening, the Syracuse Daily Courier newspaper noted that Baum’s Castorine was a rust-resistant axle grease concoction for machinery, buggies, and wagons. The grease was advertised to be “so smooth it makes the horses laugh.”
Baum’s Castorine Company prospered with L. Frank Baum serving as superintendent and chief salesman for the next four years. “He was a traveling salesman for the company,” notes an exhibit at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum in Michigan. ”On one of these trips, while installing a window display for a customer, the idea of the Tin Woodman came to him. The company enjoyed some success but came to an end when the bookkeeper gambled away the profits.”
L. Frank Baum wrote of Baum’s Castorine Company, “I see no future in it to warrant my wasting any more years of my life in trying to boom it.” He sold the business and in May 1900, published his children’s classic.
The Baum’s Castorine Company retains the name – and today operates from Rome, New York.
Baum was born in Chittenango, New York, on May 15, 1856, the seventh of nine children of Cynthia Stanton and Benjamin Ward Baum – one of only five of the children to survived into adulthood. He would have many job experiences – as a newspaper publisher, actor and the lubricant salesman.
His connection to the oil and natural gas industry began earlier.
Son of an Oilman
L. Frank Baum wasn’t a true oilman – but his father was. Thanks to Benjamin Ward Baum’s financial success in the newly born Pennsylvania petroleum industry, the young Baum grew up in an environment where his imagination and love of reading flourished.
In 1860, just one year after America’s first commercial oil discovery, Benjamin Ward Baum closed the family barrel-making business to risk his fortunes in the western Pennsylvania oilfields. His son L. (Lyman) Frank was then only four and a half years old.
Productive oil wells drilled near Titusville and Cherry Tree Run will bring Benjamin Ward Baum great wealth.
Just two years later, the elder Baum owned Carbon Oil Company – and is a well-established oilman. His success helped finance diversification into dry goods and other mercantile businesses. Son Frank found employment in several of these family ventures as a young man. When his father purchased the Cynthia Oil Works in Bolivar, New York, Frank operated a retail outlet for awhile.
“The Cynthia Oil Works, the first refinery in Bolivar Township, was erected on the Porter Cowles flats at the north end of Bolivar village in 1882,” explains historian Ronald G. Taylor. Visit the Pioneer Oil Museum in Bolivar.
“The plant, owned by B. W. Baum & Son, dealers in oil leases and managers of the first opera house at Richburg, was designed as a lubricating oil works and for the manufacture of ship oil of 300 fire test for illuminating on board ships,” Taylor adds. ”The capacity of the stills was 85 barrels a day. It advertised to manufacture ‘just as good quality machine oil as the big Eclipse refinery at Franklin.’”
In 1887, after almost 30 years in the oil business, Benjamin Ward Baum died in New York. His father’s prosperity in the petroleum business permitted Frank to pursue his interests in writing, publishing, acting, and even raising poultry.
Baum continued to learn his craft by writing for newspapers, journals, and the stage. His first book, a poultry manual called The Book of the Hamburgs, was published in 1886, the year before his father died. It would be 13 years before Baum would forever secure his place in children’s dreams with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Finding the Tin Man’s Oil Can
When historian Evan L. Schwartz researched his 2009 book, Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, his was surprised to learn of the role petroleum played in Baum’s life – and that the Tin Man’s oil can trace its roots to Baum’s Castorine Company.
“L. Frank Baum sold cans of buggy wheel oil for a living as the co-owner of Baum’s Castorine Company of Syracuse, New York,” Schwartz explains, noting the company’s troubles that led to Baum’s selling it in 1888. He describes discovering that today the company still manufactures industrial oils and lubricants under the Baum’s brand name.
“So I visited the current location in Rome, New York, and sat down for a peek into the archives with owner Charles Mowry, whose grandfather was one of the investors who bought the company from Frank Baum himself,” Schwartz explains. “The smells of fine lubricant wafted in the air as I perused the collection of historic oil cans and heard the legend of Baum’s magic balms.”
He concludes: “What if Frank had never sold oil cans? Would we have never met the heartless Tin Man? And in 1939, why wasn’t Baum’s Castorine given the chance to pony up for some choice product placement?”
Read Schwartz’s March 17, 2009, Finding the Mythic Oil-Can website post.