Land of Oz Park Beech Mountain NC
All photos and illustrations by Pat Johns ©2010 – present
|The park was open for just 10 years, from 1970 through 1980. After that, the assets of the park deteriorated, were vandalized or stolen through the 1980s and some of its props were donated to the now-defunct Appalachian Cultural Museum, itself a victim of budget cuts, closed by ASU Chancellor Peacock, its assets now sprayed about the region.
But the park is still there and some local people have worked to restore the remaining assets. Today, the park is more like Brigadoon or Camelot than the Wizard of Oz. Since 1993, the remnants of the park have come alive along with some its original workers, for just 2 days each year, to a limited number of visitors who book a time slot to go through Dorothy’s house, relive the twister and follow the Yellow Brick Road to Oz. In 2012, the event, called Autumn at Oz, was held October 6th and 7th.
History: Why the Land of Oz?
Like so many stories in our region, the idea for the Land of Oz is rooted in selling real estate. In 1961 a dentist from Alabama, Dr. Thomas Bingham, bought land on Beech with plans for developing a ski resort. The next year, he decided to begin a political career instead and sold the property to the Robbins family of Blowing Rock, NC.
Grover Robbins and his family were already accomplished theme park developers and land promoters. They had purchased the only surviving narrow-gauge engine of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad, know locally as Tweetsie, in the 1950s and built an amusement park in Blowing Rock. Bizarrely, the park was designed with a wild west theme, which it retains today, when the real history of Tweetsie is local. (See link below to learn about the railroad and its connection to our East Tennessee area.) The Robbins were already developing Hound Ears Resort near Blowing Rock, Land Harbor Development in Linville NC, another Land Harbor in South Carolina, and the Elk River Club.
|From 1965 to 1968, Grover Robbins spent $16 million acquiring more land on Beech Mountain and leasing land that was not available to purchase. He created the Appalachian Development Corporation with additional investors and later combined it with their resort property investment in St. Croix, the U.S. Virgin Islands, changing the name of the combined companies to Carolina Caribbean Corporation.
Skiing on Beech Mountain brought potential land buyers to the area but it created a problem. What happens when it is not ski season? What happens to the ski employees and what happened to all of the visitors?
Robbins determined to develop year round attractions that would keep the ski employees around and the potential real estate buyers interested. The 3-pronged attack was skiing, golf and, for the children, a theme park.
The Robbins hired designer Jack Pentes of Charlotte to design a park. He had loved the Wizard of Oz movie and found that the terrain of Beech Mountain reminded him of the forests Dorothy travelled through in the movie although, really, Beech Mountain looks nothing like Kansas.
Coincidentally, in 1970 MGM movie studio announced an auction of movie props, some from The Wizard of Oz. With the aid of actress Debbie Reynolds, the park designers bid on items from the movie. They were outbid for the red slippers but were able to share ownership of one of Dorothy’s dresses with Reynolds. They added this to the museum, a part of the new park.
|As the park was built in preparation for a June 1970 opening, Grover Robbins, 50, died of cancer that March. His golf course was well under way, the Beech Mountain Parkway was ready (re-christened the Grover Robbins, Jr. Highkway in 2006), the surrounding land was being prepared for development and the park was opening, but Grover Robbins was now gone.
The park opened on June 15 as scheduled with actress Debbie Reynolds at the ribbon cutting, along with her then little-known daughter, future actress Carrie Fisher. And the park made history that summer with 400,000 visitors. If you have been to Beech Mountain, you might find it difficult to imagine how 400,000 people could get there in one summer season much less get around those roads when they got there.
But once you made it to the parking lots, you could choose whether you wanted to ride a bus or ride the ski lift up to The Land of Oz. Once deposited at the park you waited in line to tour Dorothy’s house where she lived with Uncle Henry and Aunt Em.
|The park had, and still has, a linear design, with visitors made to move through the park in the same sequence as the events of the book (and movie). The ingenious design of the farmhouse starts with a pre-Kansas twister tour of the house and an opportunity to meet Aunt Em in the kitchen. But with the storm approaching you must go down in the cellar (in the park’s heyday your group was accompanied by one of the park’s 8 or 9 Dorothy’s down into the very dark cellar.) In the cellar visitors hear loud sound effects of the terrible storm.
After the noise of the storm you ascend what is actually another staircase to re-enter the house (actually a duplicate storm-damaged house on the lower rear of the main house.) The rooms are tilted and you lose your balance as you make your way out the door.
|And there you see the dead witch’s legs with striped stockings and the red slippers sticking out from under the house and before you is the Yellow Brick Road. Well, you know the rest of the story. You meet all of the characters along the road and, in the 1970s, arrived at the theater representing Emerald City where Dorothy was granted her wish to go home to Kansas and left in a balloon that was actually part of a ski lift. Today at the Autumn at Oz event, the story ends with a whimper rather than a bang, but you can get the feel for what it must have been like for visitors then. As their website says (see link below):
“The park is not, nor will it ever be, what it once was,” Keller writes. “However, with its maturing flora and graceful aging, it has evolved into its own unique entity.”
~ Cynthia Keller, Emerald Mountain Properties (Johnson City Press Back to Oz: Beech Mountain theme park has faded with time, but the magic endures September 26, 2011)
|Unfortunately, The Land of Oz is, at its heart, a story about business and business was not going well for the Carolina Caribbean Corporation. The problem was their resort property in St. Croix. In 1972, 8 people including 4 tourists were murdered at another resort in St. Croix, the Fountain Valley Golf Course, and tourism and development ground to a halt on the island for many years. Carolina Caribbean Corp. proceeded into bankruptcy in 1974/1975.
The mortgage holder brought in a new manager and the park continued on but in 1975 attendance was down to 66,000. In 1976 there was a fire at the park which destroyed the amphitheatre and the museum was vandalized. The prized Dorothy dress was either stolen or destroyed at that time (reports vary.)
The park was accumulating maintenance issues as the decade ended and they decided to close it in 1980. The property reverted to its owners, the Hufty family, who had bought it to grow apples but had leased it to Carolina Caribbean for the park. They hired Cynthia Keller to manage the property and later Emerald Mountain development was created to sell the land adjacent to the park.
|One visit to Beech Mountain will show that real estate development has been successful there. Houses seem to hang off every cliff you pass and cling to the sides of the ski slopes. This is a town for the wealthy; the real estate is expensive and its golf course remains private and exclusive (“Club membership is open only to owners of Beech Mountain, lots, homes or condos, with a current Beech Mountain membership.” according to the Beech Mountain Club website (see link below.))
But the Land of Oz and now the annual Autumn at Oz attract a wide audience devoted to L. Frank Baum’s story and the movie. The park was originally based on the books (there were 14), not the movie. They purchased rights to only one of the movie’s songs, “Over The Rainbow” by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Yarburg. New music was written by esteemed North Carolina composer Loonis McGlohon and his friend, the more famous composer Alec Wilder. (The link below will take you to a site where you can hear bits of the McGlohon-Wilder music.)
|This year’s Autumn at Oz brought visitors dressed as their favorite Oz characters. There were grown women dressed as Dorothy, little Dorothys talking to big Dorothys and a bunch of the cutest little scarecrows, tin men, munchkins and cowardly lions you can imagine, a welcome change from the weapon-toting superheroes we will see on Halloween.
The Saturday weather displayed the risk of holding any outdoor event on Beech Mountain. Low level clouds and a drizzle blocked the fabulous views, yet the weather also concentrated the visitors’ attention on the park. The power of the Wizard of Oz story was evident in the adults as much as the children and no one seemed disappointed.
Next year will be the 20th Autumn at Oz. Tickets are limited. Check their website (see link below) next year. You can book your tickets online.
[Left] Dorothy’s shoes and socks were mimicked by many little girls.
[Right] Visitors wait at the bus stop by the lifts for their return trip.
[Left] One of the “talking” trees.
[Right] Costumed visitors follow the path to the park,
[Left] In 2012, the real star, the view from Beech Mountain, was hidden by low-level clouds.
[Right] A character guards the Emerald City.
[Left] A reminder of the balloon that took Dorothy back to Kansas.
[Right] Vendors sold Oz toys and memoribilia.
[Left] A young Autum of Oz visitor dressed as Dorothy follows the yellow brick road.
[Right] Children dressed as Oz characters go through the foggy woods during Autumn of Oz 2012.
[Left] Aunt Em’s and Uncle Henry’s farmhouse kitchen after the twister.
[Right] Visitors go down to the cellar as the twister approaches.