The Bricks of Oz

L . Frank Baum was born in 1856 in Chittenango, NY. Inspired by his lush natural surroundings, Baum became a writer who would throughout his life pen 59 novels, 82 short stories, more than 200 poems, an unknown number of scripts, and many miscellaneous writings. But most famous of all Baum's works was his 1900 novel, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” which would, of course, in 1939 inspire the MGM classic, The Wizard of Oz.

The folks of Chittenango never forgot Mr. Baum or his legacy; and proclaimed Chittenango the “birthplace of Oz.” Since the movie's release, an annual Oz-Stravaganza celebrates Baum's greatest work and has in the past featured most of the cast who performed in The Wizard of Oz movie. To increase the authenticity, folks in the town decided to take out the sidewalks and replace the concrete with Z-shaped golden bricks. That “yellow-brick road” for years welcomed cast members and impersonators; hundreds of dancing and singing munchkins, Tin Mans, Scarecrows, and Dorothys to town each June.

After a number of years, the Upstate New York winters made these bricks a maintenance problem. They were removed and stored behind the Chittenango Waste Water Treatment Plant.

In 2010, Walter Dutcher and John “Sunny” Sundbeck of Turn Key Controls, Inc. in Rochester were doing some controls work at this plant, noticed the bricks, and found out the story behind them.

Sunny is a long-time friend of Mark Cassara, a director at Oz Saferooms, Inc., a company that creates single-cement-pour shelters that can withstand up to Category 5 tornadoes. Sunny thought the company might be interested in purchasing the bricks for their historic value and could perhaps use them in the saferooms that are manufactured at the Oz plant in Oklahoma.

The idea took. Oz Saferooms, Inc. purchased 108,000 bricks from the town of Chittenango and moved them to Oklahoma. There is now one-quarter of an Oz brick cast into the wall of every saferoom built: the same bricks that the real Tin Man, Lion, and Munchkins danced on in the Village that calls itself OZ. More than five million of those saferooms have been pre-ordered for every Home Depot in regions of the United States hardest hit by tornadoes.

When the last brick was counted and loaded, Chittenango's mayor Ronny Gohler was asked how hard a job it was. He said “I wore out four pairs of work gloves, and I am now the fastest brick-moving mayor in the World.”

Many bricks were relocated to Oklahoma; some were left in Chittenango, and some were kept by Sunny and Walter. The men brought some of these remaining bricks to their summer cottages on Butterfield Lake in Redwood, N.Y., where the bricks sat piled up outside to enjoy their newfound anonymity amidst lovely North Country summers and bitter-cold winters.

Sunny would eventually in 2011 regale me with this story while sipping Woodford Manhattans in the Redwood Tavern. And then, last week, Sunny stopped in to see me. As I looked up at him and said hello, he extended his hand and laid a single, yellow brick on the counter. A brick touched and danced on by virtually all the characters of Wizard of Oz except Judy Garland herself. A brick inlayed in a small town called Chittenango, whose siblings are being cast as we speak into safety shelters that will scoff at Category 5 tornadoes and refuse to be blown away to Oz. One sits on the floor in front of my car's passenger seat as I cruise around the North Country, and I fantasize about casting this unusual item this spring into the floor of the Art Barn at Better Farm. A bit of magic, right here in Redwood.

We are all connected.