In the 1970’s a world full of imagination and a little bit of magic sat on top of Beech Mountain, a town some 20 miles away from Boone, North Carolina.
The Land Of Oz Park gave children a chance to meet their favorite characters and experience the Emerald City. And of course the park came complete with a winding yellow brick road.
After a decade as a popular tourist attraction the park closed leaving itself vulnerable to vandalism. The park has reopened, but on a more limited basis.
WFAE’s Sarah Delia found the effort to preserve one of America’s best known pathways is ongoing.
To get to the yellow brick road you have to leave Kansas.
And conveniently located on the top of Beech Mountain is Auntie Em and Uncle Henry’s white house, complete with a tin roof, large front porch, and farm equipment scattered in the front yard.
If you head downstairs, you'll experience the "twister." It’s dark and windy and it’s clear you’re not in Kansas anymore. Furniture is turned upside down, picture frames barely cling to the wall…and walking is a challenge. It was built on a 15 degree slant.
But never fear a familiar path is waiting outside, the yellow brick road.
To get the complete tour of the trail, I’m greeted by Jana Greer, the park’s current Dorothy. She’s joined by Donna Devereux who played Dorothy at the park in the 1970’s.
Walking down and up the winding path (it is built within the curves of a mountain) it doesn’t take long to see the manmade potholes that frequent the trail.
"It's disheartening and makes you angry that people think they can just sort of pick its carcass clean," says Devereux.
A full yellow brick road has about 44,000 bricks. The Land of Oz Park is accessible for tours by appointment only. It struggles with the perception of being abandoned which often leads to disappearing bricks.
Page Leidy is one of the property owners. His family has owned the land the park sits on since the 1960's. He says the yellow bricks are the most popular item people take off the private property. He recalls visiting the park and witnessing some of the vandalism.
"While waiting to go into the Emerald City, I looked in front of me and unfortunately saw a couple of grown people taking part of the cracked yellow bricks. I asked them if they could please put them back. They tried to justify it saying they were already broken," Leidy says.
He says thousands of bricks have been replaced.
His family never ran the park in its heyday—his grandfather leased the land the park sits on in the 1970s. It operated for a decade, suffered from a fire, never fully recovered and closed in 1980. His family eventually repossessed the land and now works to make it functional.
There are plenty of no trespassing signs throughout the property, a barbed wire fence…still people come to steal.
Cindy Keller lives full time on the property as the care-taker since none of the landowners live in North Carolina. From the outside, her living quarters looks like a replica of Dorothy's barn. But the inside serves as a museum for guests—full of dolls, old clothes from the Wizard of Oz film, a pair of wooden witches’ legs stick out from under her bed which is in the center of the room. Keller lives there with her husband and two dogs.
"Before we had fencing, people would come in from various locations and walk the yellow brick road and upon occasion they will kick in a window or possibly find a door ajar. Their curiosity gets the best of them and they keep on exploring. It would be very scary to be sitting there, having your dinner and have someone walk in, it doesn’t happen often but it has happened," says Keller.
Keller says social media is a part of the problem. She thinks it encourages nearby college students to trespass, recent online articles have referred to the park as abandoned. At one point during our interview, Keller jumped because the back door in the room we were in opened suddenly—it was a handyman working on some repairs. Even when I pulled up to our scheduled interview a little early she was suspicious of who I was. Hard to blame her—when people have nonchalantly walked through her home before.
For people like Donna Devereux who spent their summers recreating the magic at Oz, seeing the park flourish is important.
Back on the yellow brick road she’s skipped a thousand times, it’s instinctive for her to care for the brick pathway—she automatically bends down to pick weeds she spies growing in between some bricks.
Jana Greer, is the park’s current Dorothy, but she also watches over the property. Instead of large daily crowds, the park is used as a venue for small weddings. Dorothy’s house is rented out to couples. The park can never be what it once was. Partly because it’s not as secluded as it used to be.
"We've got to keep reality in check. We have a private residency right up on our border. We have to be respectful of their wishes for their homes...not to let 4,000 people through on one day on a constant basis. We have to play a balancing game of people who want to enjoy the magic and people who built homes here when the park wasn’t in operation," says Greer.
Still, she dreams of what it could be.
"I would love to bring performances back, I would love to help rebuild. I would love to bring it back to what it was in the '70s," says Greer.
Once a year, the park does get to dream big. They open their doors for a weekend event called Autumn at Oz. Past employees, families, and fans of the film come, dressed in costumes to experience the park. The event is in such high demand they’re capping it at 7,000 attendees.
There’s something about this road, and the promise it gives people—the hope of finding happiness and home that draws them in.
Both Dorothy's just have to look at each other and smile before they link arms and skip down a road that means so much to so many people, it’s endangered of slipping away, brick by brick.