Road Less Travelled

Road Less Travelled

By Jane Helpern

No Man’s Land of Oz: An Eerie Traveler’s Hidden Gem where ex-performers, curious road-trippers and movie buffs still gather for an annual festival to celebrate all things Oz.

There’s an abundance that most of us don’t know about North Carolina. Like that the UNC Chapel Hill is the oldest state university in the US; that med-school dropout Caleb Davis Bradham invented the Pepsi beverage, originally named “Brad’s Drink,” in New Bern, NC in 1893; and that North Carolina has historically lead the nation in production of tobacco, textiles and brick. And speaking of bricks… perhaps the oddest and most fantastical bit of trivia about this historical state is that it’s home to a semi-abandoned Wizard Of Oz theme park where ex-performers, curious road-trippers and movie buffs still gather for an annual festival to celebrate all things Oz.

 

Dreamt up in 1970 by visionary designer Jack Pentes and amusement park kingpin Grover Robbins of Tweetsie Railroad fame, the Land of Oz was once an enchanted fantasy-world inspired by the L. Frank Baum book, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” from which the beloved 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” was also adapted. Nestled high in the snowy resort town of Beech Mountain, the storybook destination was originally built as a year-round attraction to draw crowds and boost tourism after last frost. Among its many whimsical offerings were a long and winding Yellow Brick Road, a theatrical show starring the Wizard overlord, and local performers cast as our fictional friends: Dorothy, Lion, Scarecrow, Tinman, and the pint-sized inhabitants of mythological Munchkinland. It’s no surprise then that word spread quickly about this hidden gem. Vacationing families soon began making the trek to explore Emerald City, get caught in the tornado that fatefully uprooted Dorothy, and soar high above the playground in a makeshift hot air balloon that had been engineered from a modified ski lift.

While the park welcomed more than 400,000 visitors in its first summer of operation, the fun was short-lived. In 1976, less than a decade after the grand opening, a devastating fire nearly burned it to the ground, torching many of the treasured artifacts that had been purchased in an auction at MGM Studio (including the actual dress worn by Dorothy Gale, played by Judy Garland, in the movie). The exact details surrounding the fire are still unknown, but legend has it that a gang of disgruntled Oz performers set the park ablaze in a vengeful act of arson (though no evidence has ever been found to substantiate that rumor). Cindy Keller, Manager of Emerald Mountain properties and unofficial Keeper of Oz, was hired in 1993 to do real estate sales for the surrounding Emerald Mountain development and has remained employed by the company ever since. She tells us, “The park closed in 1980 due to the advent of much larger amusement parks, soaring gas prices and lack of travelers, as well as the much needed and expensive facelift that it required after ten years of operation in a fairly extreme climate.” With no one to look after it, the forgotten utopia became a target for trespassers who defaced and ransacked the property and made away with entire farmhouses. “I became caretaker and self-appointed Oz-keeper in 1993 as part of my duties, and to help with security mostly. Unfortunately, it does occasionally attract an evil element,” says Cindy, whose affection for her job goes far beyond maintaining the land. “I cannot believe that over 20 years has passed. Like Dorothy says, ‘There’s no place like our home.’ Most days I’m very proud of it.”

Though it hasn’t been fully operational in decades, the ghost town remains a popular road-stop for diehards and novelty-seekers intrigued by its dark and twisted story; one that’s been plagued with tragedy since six months before the park even opened, when co-founder Grover Robbins succumbed to bone cancer, never living to see his grandiose dream become a reality. “We have lots of grandparents and grandchildren…folks wanting to share their love of Oz with the next generations,” says Cindy, when I ask about the types of people who frequent the defunct park. “The fans are normally rather fun and fanciful, and I enjoy sneaking around to see their individuality,” she adds. Strolling through the dilapidated grounds, haunted by cracked, piss-yellow bricks and ramshackle cottages (once proudly built by the craftsman of Beech Mountain), with a little imagination you can see how in its heyday this hair-raising little village entertained more than 20,000 visitors a day and touted itself “A place of rainbow colors and blue and white gingham… a happy land where songs are sung, and with puppets so delightful you’ll want to reach out and hug them…”

The park is off limits in the wintertime (talk about serious Shining vibes), but available for guided tours, private parties and even weddings in summer months. There are three or four nuptials each summer, says Oz’s keeper, “Each quite special and unique.” For $165 a night you can sleep in Dorothy’s cottage. For $100 Dorothy will even join your party. And for $35 you can experience Autumn At Oz, an annual festival to raise money for park repairs and maintenance. Or in Keller’s words, “Lots and lots of Dorothy’s. Old, young, large, small, ladies, gents…traditional…new age…all in search of THE yellow brick road.”

It’s strange and surreal to imagine the demise of a place once so full of laughter and childlike wonder. But perhaps it suits the mythology of book-turned-movie, which has long been blemished by darkness. You may have heard the widespread conspiracy that a munchkin suicide by hanging was accidentally caught on film during the scene when Dorothy and co. skipped arm-in-arm through the forest off to see the wonderful Wizard, blissfully unaware of the shadowy figure that loomed in the background. Though most experts confirm that this mystery object is nothing more than a bird perched in the trees (which makes sense, considering that particular scene was filmed at a zoo), logic hasn’t deterred the grim theories. Jack Pentes and Grover Robbins masterminded a supernatural place that existed somewhere between nightmare and fairytale, that tip-toed the line of magical and menacing, much like Oz and Emerald City did for a young, ruby-slippered Dorothy.

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