BLOOMINGTON — Like most people, Bill Baker is familiar with "The Wizard of Oz," the movie about Dorothy Gale and her dog, Toto, trying to get home from the land over the rainbow.
Now the Oz books, and the story behind their creation, have become an inspiration for Baker, a tree carver from Top Notch Chainsaw Carvings in Naperville. He is nearing the end of work on a sculpture of Dorothy in Bloomington’s Evergreen Memorial Cemetery, near the grave site of the girl for whom she was named.
“I knew the story about 'the Wizard of Oz,' but I didn’t know about Dorothy’s connection to Bloomington,” he said. “Knowing that makes this project much more interesting and special to me.”
In the late 1800s, L. Frank Baum was putting the finishing touches on the story his wife, Maud, had been urging him to write for a long time. About that time, on June 11, 1898, Dorothy Louise Gage was born to Maud's brother and sister-in-law, Thomas Clarkson and Sophie Jewel Gage. Five months later, however, Dorothy died after a short illness from “congestion of the brain,” a pneumonia-like illness.
“His wife, Maud, loved little Dorothy as if she were her own,” said Gaye Nichols, an administrative assistant at the cemetery. “She was devastated when she died.”
The Baums had four sons of their own, but no daughters. Dorothy was buried in Evergreen, and Maud traveled from Chicago to attend the funeral.
In an effort to cheer up his wife, Baum named the main character in his story after his niece. He dedicated what became the first book in the series, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," to Maud.
Few knew of the backstory until Sally Roesch Wagner discovered Dorothy Gage’s grave in Evergreen in 1996. An educator and scholar from South Dakota, she has lectured and written about the Baum family and Baum’s Oz stories for decades.
She befriended one of Dorothy’s three sisters, and learned about the grave.
A year later, the marker, which was illegible, was replaced and dedicated during a special ceremony to open the Dorothy L. Gage Memorial Garden.
“I think this is wonderful,” Wagner told The Pantagraph. “I found the grave because I became friends with her sister, Matilda. The family only lived in Bloomington for a year.”
It took some time and effort, but eventually, the grave site was found.
But recently, cemetery officials noticed an oak near Dorothy’s grave had died, Nichols said.
“We knew we were going to have to take it down,” she said. “But because of Dorothy’s grave, we decided that we should add a new carving in her honor.”
After a search on the internet, Baker, who has nearly two decades of tree-carving experience, was summoned for the project.
“This tree is probably around 200 years old,” he said. “That’s interesting to think about that tree being around at the same time Dorothy was.”
Before starting the project, Baker researched both the story of Oz and the Baum family.
“I normally do something specific like an animal,” he said. “This time, it’s based off of a character, and so I wanted to do a little research, and because this is such a great story, I wanted to make sure it was done right.”
The carving, when finished, will feature Toto and a portion of the famous yellow brick road, he said.
“Toto will be in his own full body at her feet,” he said. “A lot of the pictures I’ve seen are of him in a basket, but I wanted to make sure that he was noticeable.”
The project is not yet finished. Baker is in the process of finishing another project and will return to Bloomington later this week to complete it.
“Already, I have spent about three six-hour days on it and I still have several more hours to go,” he said.
A special ceremony to dedicate the sculpture will be announced once the project is completed.
This isn't the first time a dead oak was transformed to mark the cemetery's history. In 2015, a tree that survived being hit by a plane in 1948 and later died was carved into a representation of the plane, a Vultee BT-13 Valiant.
Contact Kevin Barlow at (309) 820-3238. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_barlow