Oil in the Land of Oz
The Tin Man’s oil can in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz can trace its roots to America’s earliest oilfields. L. Frank Baum founded an axle oil business before becoming the world-famous children’s book author.
“Sometimes, when researching history, you find places where it’s still alive,” says Evan Schwartz, author of Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story. Schwartz’s search for the Tin Man’s mythic oil-can led him to finding that in the 1880s L. Frank Baum and his brother owned a petroleum products business in Syracuse, New York. The business continues to this day.
The future world-famous author of the children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz once sold cans of buggy wheel and axle oil for a living.
In 1883, Baum and his brother Benjamin launched their 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 a 2011 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 exhibit also explains that although the company enjoyed some success, it “came to an end when the bookkeeper gambled away the profits.”
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.” Baum sold the business. In May 1900 he published the first of his children’s classics.
Son of a Successful Oilman
L. (Lyman) Frank 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 survive into adulthood.
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. “Frankie” 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.
“Benjamin recognized a splendid opportunity and joined the crowds who moved in to exploit the oilfields and develop the area. A hundred new wells were drilled every month, ingenious mechanical contrivances were invented, towns and cities were built,” writes Katharine M. Rogers in her 2002 book, L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz: A Biography.
“Benjamin began acquiring oilfields, including a particularly profitable one at Cherry Tree Run, a few miles south of Titusville,” Rogers explains. “He later bought property between Bradford, Pennsylvania, and Olean, New York, where he helped to develop the hamlet of Gilmour and built a hotel and an opera house.”
By 1862, the elder Baum owned Carbon Oil Company – and was 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.
“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 notes.
However, there was no longer unlimited free enterprise in the oil fields, says Rogers in her book.
“John D. Rockefeller had moved in and was increasingly controlling distribution. In 1878, Benjamin organized a group of independent producers to break Rockefeller’s grip by building a pipeline from Bradford to Rochester, where the oil could be transferred to tank cars and shipped to refineries in New York and Buffalo.”
Although the Standard Oil Company used its influence with the New York Central Railroad and the state legislature to block the plan, Rogers says, Baum continued to find success by discovering productive wells in New York.
In 1887, after almost 30 years in the oil business, Benjamin Ward Baum died in New York. His father’s prosperity in the oil business permitted Frank to pursue writing, publishing journals and writing for the stage.
There were nine daily and 18 weekly newspapers published in the oil region, Rogers notes, and “Benjamin Baum had used some of his oil profits to acquire a string of small theaters in New York and Pennsylvania.”
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, he 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.
Schwartz describes discovering that the company still manufactures industrial oils and lubricants under the brand name, Baum’s Castorine Company.
“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 says. “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?”
Learn about the historic Alleghany petroleum industry by visiting the Pioneer Oil Museum of New York in Bolivar.
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