Thursday, April 30, 2009

W. W. Denslow: Oz and Booze

William Wallace Denslow (1856-1915) , usually cited as W.W. Denslow, was the American artist whoachieved fame and fortune as the illustrator of the book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. As shown here, Denslow was as a large man with a walrus mustache. His contemporaries noted his eccentric view of life, and a foghorn for a voice. Born in Philadelphia, Denslow was largely self-taught as an artist. When he was barely twenty-one, in 1877 he agreed to illustrate a book called Historical Sketch of Franklin County, PA. Denslow traveled the length and breadth of the county, making sketches of the most important landmarks.

Two drawings, shown here (double click for larger view), deserve special attention because they depict in detail the farm distilleries that characterized the whiskey industry of the East in that era. As Denslow’s pictures vividly portray, these were substantial facilities, ones that combined farming with the production of whiskey from local grains.

Spring Grove Distillery, near Franklin City, Pennsylvania, was the property of Robert Johnston (1825-1902) whose father before him was a distiller. He work for other local whiskey-makers until 1844 when he rented a facility. He worked at it until 1866 when he bought the farm distillery shown here. He ran it very successfully until he died. Then his son George took over and made the Spring Grove brand into a regional favorite.

John Downin, whose distillery Denslow also sketched, came from less fortunate circumstance than Johnston. A memorial after his death said he was “...a poor boy when he started out in life, but through hard work, industry and thrift, became a man of substance." Downin had been dead two years and his distillery in the hands of O.W. Good when the artist made the picture.

Denslow, ever a wanderer, gravitated to Chicago about 1893 where he met L. Frank Baum, a journalist and author. Together they collaborated on writing and illustrating The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the myriad Oz books that followed. Shown here is a Denslow drawing of Dorothy, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man. The stories brought riches to both men. Quarreling with Baum over royalty shares in 1902, the artist struck out on his own, creating an 18-volume Denslow Picture Book series (1903-1904) and a syndicated newspaper comic strip.

His revenues were sufficient to allow him to purchase an island off the coast of Bermuda. He moved there and crowned himself King Denslow I. It was an unhappy head that wore the crown, however. He ultimately drank his money away and died in obscurity of pneumonia in 1915. Denslow’s legacy lives on in the Oz books. In addition, his 1877 drawings in the Historical Sketch of Franklin County, including the Spring Grove and Downin distilleries, are currently for sale online.

1 comment:

  1. Robert Johnston is an ancestor in my husband's family, so it's really nice to find this print and know the artist. I have one correction, however - the distillery (and farm) are not "near Franklin City" but near Greencastle, Franklin County. Franklin City is 200 miles away in Venango County. Thank you for sharing this!