It’s highway robbery in the Land of Oz.
Drawn by websites and Facebook pages specializing in spooky, abandoned places, vandals and thieves are stealing artifacts from the old Land of Oz theme park – particularly bricks from its signature Yellow Brick Road.
“It’s probably the most sought-after relic we have,” says Cindy Keller, caretaker, keeper and militant defender of the mountain-top attraction that closed 35 years ago.
Land of Oz is falling prey to an Internet fad called “urbex” for urban exploration.
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Adventurers seek out deserted places and post eerie pictures of their expeditions on sites specializing in what is called “ruin porn.”
Though Land of Oz is not an amusement park anymore, those who label it abandoned are mistaken, Keller says. It still throbs with life at times.
Tours are offered every Friday in June. Tourists can even rent Dorothy’s farmhouse for about $200 a night.
On the first weekend of October, it hosts its annual “Autumn at Oz” festival that attracts sellout crowds of 8,000. People show up dressed as classic characters: scarecrows, tin men and dozens of Dorothys in gingham.
Every summer the park is rented out for whimsical weddings, birthday parties, family reunions, even book club meetings. One year the International Wizard of Oz Club convention was held there, attracting 300 of the club’s royal historians.
“Marriage proposals, marriage proposals that didn’t go well,” Keller says. “We get a lot of good stories.”
Whenever she discovers a website declaring Oz abandoned, she asks for a retraction, but to little avail.
“This year, we have suffered more trespassers and vandals than in any year before,” Keller says.
“This Facebook thing is killing me.”
Lasted a decade
Land of Oz was built atop Beech Mountain by the Robbins brothers, Harry, Grover and Spencer, founders of Tweetsie Railroad in Boone. They were looking for an attraction to bring summer visitors to the ski resort.
Charlotte artist Jack Pentes, who died this year, designed the park. Visitors would enter a five-eighths scale replica of Auntie Em’s house, get shooed into the cellar to escape an onrushing cyclone and pop out in the back, where the house was re-created askew.
First thing they’d see is the legs of the Wicked Witch of the East sticking out from under the porch, ruby slippers a-sparkle.
From there, they’d wander down the Yellow Brick Road, led by a Dorothy, and meet the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion in turn. Dorothy and her entourage would do skits and sing songs written by Charlotte composer Loonis McGlohan.
On opening day, June 15, 1970, 4,000 people turned out, and the attraction drew 400,000 the first summer, making it one of the leading attractions in the Southeast.
But crowds ebbed through the decade. Land of Oz couldn’t compete with newer, slicker destinations such as Disney World and Carowinds, and the gas crisis dealt it a blow. It closed in 1980.
New life for the park
For a decade, the park sat unused and overgrown. In 1991, Keller was hired to help market luxury housing being developed on Oz’s fringes by Emerald Mountain, named with respect for the Emerald City.
Keller and her husband moved into a three-bedroom apartment built in Uncle Henry’s barn, which housed a petting zoo in the park’s heyday. Gradually, she oversaw restoration.
“It was a little sad and neglected,” says Keller, 55. “Years of vegetation had covered the Yellow Brick Road and our first few years were basically excavation.”
As part archaeologist and part treasure hunter, she used an old souvenir map to pinpoint various features, and Oz came back to life.
Occasionally she’d confront a trespasser, but there wasn’t much trouble in those days.
“It didn’t hurt,” Keller says, “that we had a German shepherd and a Rottweiler at the time.”
The Yellow Brick Road
One of the grandest features within the ramparts of Oz is the Yellow Brick Road, a third of a mile long and paved with 44,000 custom-glazed bricks with the color baked in.
Keller has long since exhausted her supply of replacements and now must resort to regular bricks painted yellow to replace those that get pilfered.
Those new bricks don’t hold the paint long in the harsh weather of Beech Mountain, elevation 5,506 feet. One stretch of the road beyond the witch’s castle has about 400 replacement bricks gradually reverting to their true ruddy hue in contrast to the hardy yellow originals.
“There’s a saying that everybody in Avery County has one of those bricks in their house,” says Craig Distl, a publicist for Beech Mountain and other tourist destinations in the N.C. highlands.
Crackdown on trespassers
Shawn Freeman, police chief of the 10-officer force in Beech Mountain – about 100 miles northeast of Charlotte as the monkeys fly – says websites labeling the park “abandoned” have probably encouraged trespassing.
“Teenagers go up there on scavenger hunts or whatever,” he says. Although patrols have been increased, police have investigated three break-ins at Oz since January.
On Jan. 24, about a half-dozen teen boys were seen carrying items away. Police gave chase, and the interlopers dropped their loot in the snow and scattered.
Officers recovered about 20 large decorative mushrooms, a gold-framed picture of Oz cast members, a big rubber rat and a dozen other artifacts estimated at more than $2,000 in value.
On April 1, someone pried open a gate and made off with a sign that said “Haunted Forest.”
On May 5, Beech Mountain police cited three students from nearby Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk for trespassing after they scaled the park’s fence on a picture-taking expedition.
Freeman has asked authorities at Lees-McRae and Appalachian State University in Boone to tell students during orientation that the park is off-limits.
“There’s not a day goes by I don’t escort somebody off this property,” Keller says.
In May, she found two young men standing at the precipice of one of the park’s steepest cliffs.
“Most of the time I scold them, educate them and escort them out,” she says.
Keller prefers to spend her budget on improvements to the park and gardens but says this year it will mostly go to security devices – more fencing, “No Trespassing” signs, video cameras with feeds to the police department, door alarms and motion sensors.
“Nothing fun,” she says.
Break-ins and vandalism stand in stark juxtaposition to the park’s fantasy nature, where only farm girls from Kansas are accepted as unexpected drop-ins.
“This is a magical place,” says Jana Greer, who’s active in Ashe County Little Theatre.
Dressed as Dorothy and crooning “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Greer, 30, has led tours of Oz for 10 years and never grows tired of watching Oz’s enchantment work its spell.
She says tourists grow relaxed and nostalgic, step by step and stop by stop, as they follow the Yellow Brick Road.
“People come here,” she says, “to let their inner child out to play.”
Want to see it?
Group tours are offered every Friday in June at noon, 1:30 and 3 p.m. at the old Land of Oz. Visitors can ride the chairlift from the Beech Mountain Resort for $10 to the park; the tour is an additional $10. Must be 3 feet tall to ride the chairlift. Information: beechmtn.com. 828-387-2000; 800-468-5506.
L. Frank Baum (1856-1919), writer and showman, published “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1900. It became the first children’s best-seller of the century. He wrote 13 additional Oz books, many of them with dark themes and aspects of horror reminiscent of the works of the Brothers Grimm.
In 1939, MGM released “The Wizard of Oz” with Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale. It was the studio’s most expensive movie to date and lost money. It was nominated for best picture, but lost to that year’s blockbuster, “Gone With the Wind.”
In the movie, Dorothy was submissive and seemed to luck into success with the help of male characters. Baum, an early champion of the feminist movement, sketched her in his books as a fearless, take-charge leader. But it was the movie version, which later became an annual TV sensation, of Dorothy as a damsel in distress that is ingrained in the national consciousness.
Oz marches on. In 1975, “The Wiz,” an African-American adaptation, debuted on Broadway, winning many Tony Awards, and it was made into a 1978 movie that flopped starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. The film has become a cult classic in recent years, and NBC will air a live production on Dec. 3 before the show returns to Broadway in the 2016-2017 season. In 2003, the Oz prequel “Wicked” debuted on Broadway and remains successful. In “Wicked,” the Wicked Witch of the West is named Elphaba, a mash-up of the name of L. Frank Baum.
What is urbex?
Urban exploring is a hobby in which people enter abandoned or unused sites, often posting pictures of their expeditions to the Internet. Trespassing and navigating unsafe structures is often part of the adventure.
Detroit’s accessible, crumbling and once-monumental infrastructure made it an early attraction in the phenomenon. Some explorations there have yielded magnificent photojournalism. Photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre chronicled the decay of Detroit in their award-winning 2010 book “The Ruins of Detroit,” now in its sixth printing.
Web pages can be found describing expeditions into places around Charlotte including the storm sewers beneath the city, the ruins of PTL Heritage Village in Fort Mill and the old Stonewall Jackson Manual Training and Industrial School near Concord.
One of the best websites on the topic is American Urbex: Exploring America’s Gritty History, AmericanUrbEx.com. It is run by Ken Fager, a former technical support analyst at UNC Charlotte. Fager provides research into historic sites explored in the website.