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Exploring Bloomington's Tie To An American Classic

Dorothy tree carving at cemetery
Evergreen Memorial Cemetery
A "Wizard of Oz" tribute is placed near the grave of Dorothy Gage in Bloomington's Evergreen Memorial Cemetery.

"The Wizard of Oz" was first published in 1900. It's an American classic, with many knowing the story by heart.

But Candace Summers, education director at the McLean County Museum of History, said there’s a local tie to the story that still surprises some.

“Not many people, even if you’ve lived here all of your life, know the connection Bloomington-Normal, McLean County, has to one of the most beloved stories turned movie in our history,” Summers said.

It starts in 1898. A baby girl is born by the name Dorothy Louise Gage to parents, and Bloomington residents, Sophie Jewell and Thomas Clarkson Gage. Five months and four days later, baby Dorothy died tragically of “congestion of the brain.”

That would have been the end of Dorothy Gage’s story, Summers said, if it weren’t for her aunt and uncle.

After having four sons, Maud (Gage) Baum loved Dorothy “for her very own and loved her devotedly,” Summers explained. “And so when Dorothy passed away suddenly, it was like Maud had lost her own daughter.”

At the time of Dorothy’s death, Maud’s husband, L. Frank Baum, a well-known author, was just putting the finishing touches on his most recent novel.

“He ... decided to memorialize Dorothy Gage by naming the heroine, the main character of the book, after little Dorothy,” Summers said. “So in a way, it was almost like he had imagined her as a teenager having grown up and this was her adventure through this magical tale through the wonderful Land of Oz.”

And so Dorothy Gage became Dorothy Gale.

But the local story has its doubters. Dorothy was a common name at the turn of the century.

“I mean, there really is no answer. Because we don’t know what he was thinking,” Summers said.

Bloomington has embraced the connection, erecting a monument near the gravesite of Dorothy Gage in Evergreen Memorial Cemetery and naming the children’s section in her honor.

“Nobody is going to forget little Dorothy Gage, not if you have seen the movie, if you have read this book, if you know the story,” Summers said. “Dorothy is going to live on in our minds and our hearts for the rest of whatever.”

You can also listen to the full interview:

WGLT's full interview.

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