Mabel Wagnalls Jones was an only child who benefited from many advantages in life. Growing up, she traveled to Paris, studied music in Berlin and Vienna, and lived in New York City, where she went to plays and took art and singing lessons. She became a concert pianist, wrote piano compositions and authored nine published books. She and her husband, Richard, lived on Long Island, New York in a house called Doremi Manor. But her most significant accomplishment was creating the Wagnalls Memorial, a public library and community center in Lithopolis, Ohio, as a tribute to the memory of her loving and generous parents.
Born in Atchison, Kansas on April 20, 1872, Mabel was the daughter of Adam and Anna Willis Wagnalls. Adam (1843-1924) was born in Lithopolis to a German immigrant named Christopher Wagenhals who worked as a carpenter. When Adam was five years old, his family moved away from Lithopolis, a name derived from the Greek lithos, meaning stone, and polis, meaning city. After Adam graduated from Wittenberg College in 1866, he became a Lutheran minister. Two years later, he changed his profession to the practice of law; then, he became the editor of the Atchison (Kansas) Globe. To simplify his family name, Adam changed it from Wagenhals to Wagnalls.
According to “Producers of Big Things: Funk and Wagnalls,” an article in the September-October 1999 issue of TIMELINE, Adam became the business partner of fellow Wittenberg graduate and former minister Isaac Kaufmann Funk in 1877, publishing works of a religious and family-oriented nature. In 1890, the pair changed the name of the firm of I.K. Funk & Company to Funk & Wagnalls Company and began publishing a general-interest magazine known as the Literary Digest. The New York-based firm became known for its general reference dictionaries and encyclopedias. It published The Standard Dictionary of the English Language in 1894. By spelling words phonetically and giving definitions based on contemporary usage, the dictionary appealed to a popular audience. In 1912, the firm published the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Encyclopedia.
Adam married Hester Anna Willis, also a native of Lithopolis. Raised by her widowed mother, Anna worked her way through Xenia College and taught in the Columbus Public Schools when she married Adam. The Light in the Valley: Being the Story of Anna Willis (Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1925) is Mabel’s account of how her mother triumphed over hardship, became a cultured woman, and achieved her greatest accomplishment: educating her only child without the help of schools and colleges.
Emily McClay, a librarian at Wagnalls Memorial, shared many interesting facts with me as she gave me a tour. Ray E. Sims, a Columbus architect, designed the Tudor-Gothic building. Local workmen used sandstone from nearby quarries to construct it. About 2,000 people attended the May 30, 1925 dedication ceremony, including poet Edwin Markham and portrait painter John Ward Dunsmore, both close friends of the Wagnalls family. Markham’s “Impromptu Verses To Mabel Wagnalls on Presenting Her a Laurel Wreath, Christmas, 1923” can be seen in the Wagnall Memorial’s formal entrance hall. Several of Dunsmore’s paintings hang on the walls of the original library, including portraits of the Wagnalls family.
The original 1925 building includes a library, two tower rooms, an auditorium, and a banquet hall rentable for special occasions, complete with a fully functional kitchen and a pantry stocked with over 100 placesettings of Wagnalls Memorial china.
Mabel intended the Memorial to bring culture to rural Ohio, so it has hosted organ recitals, concerts, movies, classes and literary arts activities over the years. Children’s acting classes, historical radio plays and community theatrical productions take place in the auditorium. The room includes a Welte organ, a projection booth, and unique under-the-seat racks that were designed to accommodate hats. Photographs and letters that famous people of the day sent to Mabel on the occasion of the Memorial’s dedication hang on the room’s walls. A note from Harry Houdini, another family friend, describes the event as “ripping.”
I could spend hours soaking up the lovely atmosphere of the original library.
Hand-wrought chandeliers complement leaded-glass windows with stained-glass inserts of the Great Seal of the State of Ohio, a printing press, a log cabin, the lamp of learning, and the Great Seal of the United States.
A sculpted grape vine and heraldic shields run along the walls. Hand-carved owls are perched around the room, sitting in ceiling arches above hand-carved representations of religion, education, industry and government. The owls recall the baby owls that were found in a tree that had been cut down during the quarrying of the stone from the ravine behind the building during its construction.
Mabel’s favorite Steinway “Model A” grand piano sits in front of the fireplace. A silver loving cup that was filled with roses and presented to Mabel by the people of Lithopolis at the Memorial’s dedication sits atop the piano. A Dunsmore portrait of Adam Wagnalls hangs above the mantel. The inscription above the fireplace is from The Rose-Bush of a Thousand Years, Mabel’s 1918 book that she based on her student days in Europe, when she visited Hildesheim, Germany and saw the world’s oldest living rose bush growing on the wall of the apse of St. Mary’s Cathedral. That same year, the book became a motion picture called “Revelation.”
Several paintings that served as covers for the Literary Digest hang on the walls of the Rager Reading Room. Two original Norman Rockwell paintings that served as cover illustrations for the magazine — “Friends and Allies” (April 19, 1919) and “The Boutonniere” (April 15, 1922) — are displayed during special events throughout the year.
However, the best part of the Wagnalls Memorial resides beside the patron services desk. An elegant covered wooden showcase houses a display of some wonderful archival treasures connected with one of my favorite authors: O. Henry.
While I admired O. Henry’s talent for storytelling by reading “The Gift of the Magi” as a CSG girl, I was more fascinated by the fact that he wrote stories for publication and practiced his craft as a pharmacist while serving a prison term at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus from 1898 to 1901. I learned more about this author when I attended the 2006 RBMS Preconference in Austin, Texas and visited the O. Henry Museum, the cozy Eastlake cottage where he lived between 1893 and 1895, when he worked as a teller and bookkeeper at the First National Bank of Austin.
As I looked at a page in a copy of Letters to Lithopolis: From O. Henry to Mabel Wagnalls (Doubleday, Page & Company, 1922) that Mabel had inscribed to her husband, I was anxious to learn more about this connection between Mabel and the Ohio Pen’s famous inmate.
In the preface to the limited-edition book with 427 copies, Mabel shared how she met the author. After reading O. Henry’s “Roads of Destiny,” Mabel thought about her great-grandmother, whose last name was Henry, and wondered whether she and the author might be related. She searched in “Who’s Who,” asked literary friends, and then wrote O. Henry’s publisher in May 1903 to find out who the author was. The next month, she received a reply from O. Henry during her and her mother’s annual visit to her grandmother’s home in Lithopolis. She pronounced it “the jolliest, breeziest, most unusual letter that had ever come my way” (p. xvii).
Even though they weren’t related, O. Henry and Mabel started a correspondence. Mabel sent him newsy letters from Lithopolis, a copy of her book, Miserere, and press notices about her achievements as a concert pianist. He shared his magazine stories with her. In an October 13, 1903 letter, he confessed that he disliked publicity and told her that O. Henry was a fictitious pen name for Sydney Porter.
Mabel kept O. Henry’s letters, eventually storing them in a safe at her father’s office. After Mabel returned home to New York City, she invited him to tea at her family’s home, and he called there occasionally. She and her mother attended his funeral in June 1910 at the Little Church Around the Corner, also known as the Church of the Transfiguration, in New York City.
Mabel made other gifts to sustain and improve Wagnalls Memorial for the benefit of its patrons. Additions to the Wagnalls Memorial were built in 1961, 1983 and 1992. Downstairs in the Children’s Library, you can see a train station and corral that were built by a local craftsman whose children enjoyed participating in storytime at the library. Signed original illustrations by artists like P. Buckley Moss adorn the walls. Teachers and parents can use the library’s laminating machine and its extensive collection of Ellison dies, perfect for crafts and scrapbooking.
The Wagnalls Memorial is a member of the Central Library Consortium, a partnership that allows patrons to access and obtain information resources from eight other member public libraries in six central Ohio counties. Columbus Metropolitan Library, Worthington Libraries and Southwest Public Libraries will join the consortium this year.
Mabel also helped Lithopolis residents receive a college education. In her will, she provided money for scholarships so that Lithopolis and Bloom Township residents could attend “institutions of learning, music and art.” Since 1948, the program has allowed thousands of people – including five of my cousins — to go to college.
Mabel died on March 22, 1946 and is buried alongside her parents, husband and grandmother in the Lithopolis Cemetery.
The Wagnalls Memorial isn’t the only “ripping” attraction in Lithopolis. If you’re hankering for the atmosphere of a European coffeehouse, walk down Columbus Street to the black-and-yellow doorway of Das KaffeeHaus von Frau Burkhart, have a seat at the Stammtisch inside the front door, page through a copy of German World magazine and listen to modern Techno music, just like what you’d hear in Germany.
Influenced by coffeehouses in Aachen, Germany, Das KaffeeHaus von Frau Burkhart serves coffee made from a recipe derived from the owner’s favorite coffee in Germany. Other coffee choices are Italian Danesi espresso, coffee drinks like Aachen Mokka, a frozen beverage called Deutschland Frostlatte, and German Meßmer Black Label tea. Daily specials include German Chocolate Latte and Bienenstich Latte, reminiscent of the German “Bee Sting” custard-filled cake topped with glazed almonds. German-inspired pastries like Stollen, strudel bites, fruit kolache, and cake balls called Umlauts are also on the menu. Whatever you choose, raise your mug and say “Vielen Dank,” not only to Mabel Wagnalls Jones for the thoughtful gift she gave to Lithopolis residents, but also to the Burkharts for bringing an authentic German atmosphere to the community.