'Wizard of Oz' mystery: Is the Yellow Brick Road in Peekskill?

This film image shows the character China Girl,

This film image shows the character China Girl, voiced by Joey King, left, and James Franco, as Oz, in a scene from "Oz the Great and Powerful," which hits theaters March 8, 2013. Local historian John Curran has evidence that the inspiration for "Oz's" Yellow Brick Road may have Peekskill origins. (Credit: AP Photo)

Dorothy Gale, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion would have nowhere to go in "The Wizard of Oz" without the Yellow Brick Road, a fantastical path whose real-life origins could be traced to northern Westchester.

L. Frank Baum, who spent part of his childhood in Peekskill, published "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" in 1900. The beloved children's classic was adapted into the iconic film starring Judy Garland in 1939, as well as Disney's "Oz the Great and Powerful," which will hit movie theaters nationwide Friday.

Peekskill Museum president John Curran invites fans of "Oz" interested in the Yellow Brick Road's back story to check out a 50-foot stretch of golden-hued brick on South Water Street behind the Standard House building on Hudson Avenue.


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Although it's true that patches of yellow brick road can be found throughout the country, there's a compelling case for Peekskill serving as inspiration for the Yellow Brick Road: Baum spent 1868-1870 in Peekskill, and when he was a student at the defunct Peekskill Military Academy, he followed "the Yellow Brick Road to get back home -- similar to what Dorothy does in the story," Curran said.

Curran, who recently served as Peekskill's city historian, first learned of the connection through the 1998-2001 restoration of the Standard House, a commercial building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. At that time, the building's owners and project managers, Kathy and Richard Cerreta, claimed that the golden path behind the building may have inspired Baum to include it in his famous tale. Curran said he spent subsequent years investigating the evidence.

"What we did find was that this roadway was a dedicated street called West Street, and it extended from Water Street all the way out to the lower dock," Curran said. "The lower dock is where the steamboat came in, and it was on one of those steamboats that L. Frank Baum, when he was a child, first arrived in Peekskill."

Baum's time at the Peekskill Military Academy, which he attended from ages 12 to 14, wasn't always happy. Living with a heart defect -- which Curran said may have been caused by a bout with rheumatic fever -- Baum endured more than a tongue-lashing when he was caught looking out a window and daydreaming during a lesson.

"He was rough-handled by one of the teachers in the school," Curran said. "Frank had a seizure and he fell to the floor. And it was at that time that he wrote to his father that he needed to go back home."

Perhaps Baum thought something along the lines of, "There's no place like home," as he followed the Yellow Brick Road back to the steamboat that would help return him to his family in Madison County.

Evidence for Peekskill's claim as the home of the Yellow Brick Road is strengthened by the fact that many of the city's streets, including the small patch that remains, had been paved with yellow Dutch brick, well before Baum's arrival. "The yellow brick in this roadway [on South Water Street] dates, on Peekskill maps, at least to the 1830s," Curran said.

Curran isn't the only expert who could see Peekskill as the home of the Yellow Brick Road. Evan Schwartz, the author of "Finding Oz," told CBS News two years ago that Baum's classic tale pulled from many of the "Oz" scribe's life experiences, including his Kansas upbringing and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, which is said to have inspired the Emerald City.

However, a Michigan community also could have a case for being the home of the Yellow Brick Road. According to an April 2012 article in The Holland Sentinel, some say Baum may have noted the brick floor of a lakefront castle while writing "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."

Curran admitted that although Peekskill's evidence is circumstantial, it has the strongest case among communities laying claim to the Yellow Brick Road. It's one of the reasons he has helped spearhead local efforts to install "Oz"-related sculptures and stage events in Peekskill -- to celebrate the connection between Baum and the city.

"I think it would be great if the Peekskill community made better use of the Yellow Brick Road connection to the 'Oz' story, for all kinds of very interesting and positive reasons," he said. "They could be artistic. They could be commercial."

If "Oz the Great and Powerful" is a box-office smash, the city could benefit.

"There's no doubt that the new feature film on the 'Oz' theme will bring more attention to Peekskill and its claim to the Yellow Brick Road inspiration," Curran said.

At the very least, the true tale of Baum and his brief stay in Peekskill feeds imaginations and makes for a good story.

"So many people come by and they look at this Yellow Brick Road, and it does inspire them -- especially children," Curran said. "This is a real thing. It's a real story, and they love the story. So, it's a nice connection to make from a community to a really wonderful story."

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