Easter Dinner in Wooster Taught Me Some New Things About Two Old Friends From Oxford

After 49 days of anticipation, we drove up to the Wooster Inn for its Easter buffet yesterday. Sitting in the main dining room overlooking the College of Wooster’s golf course, we feasted on chicken and dumpling soup with oyster crackers, fresh fruit salad, a salad of mixed spring greens, mustard potato salad, antipasto pasta salad, spiral sliced ham and roasted leg of lamb served at a carving station, butter-crusted scrod, apple-cherry stuffed chicken breast with cherry brandy sauce, bacon and scallion mashed potatoes, oven roasted potatoes, wild rice, seasonal vegetables, and several kinds of desserts. We didn’t leave hungry. 

The Wooster Inn is down the street from the College of Wooster. All I knew about this private liberal arts college was what I learned almost 30 years ago, when the school invited me to hear Caspar Weinberger speak at a reception for prospective students that was held at the Athletic Club of Columbus. So I checked out a couple of books before our trip and feasted on a few interesting discoveries that made my Easter in Wooster all the more worthwhile. 

As I read Lucy Lilian Notestein’s Wooster of the Middle West, I learned about the school’s early days after its founding by the Presbyterian church in 1866.  I reveled in reading about how its students debated serious questions of the day in literary societies, one of my favorite things.  I was intrigued to learn that, circa 1899, Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick made a $25,000 gift in memory of his parents, who were former residents of Wooster, for the building of the college’s library. Best of all, I was excited to recognize a familiar name of someone whom I met in the stacks of Miami University’s Special Collections. 

Born in Germany in 1836, Karl Merz came to the United States in 1854. He was a respected pianist who gave frequent recitals and composed over 150 pieces. He also wrote books for amateur musicians, including Musical Hints for the Millions and Music and Culture. Merz also edited Brainard’s Musical World, a Cleveland publication that was one of the leading musical journals of the day. In 1882, Merz was invited to Wooster to direct the school’s department of music. Prior to that, he taught music at Oxford Female College in Oxford, Ohio for over 20 years. 

Oxford Female College’s Junior Class of 1867 presented Merz with an “extra superfine edition” of a Bible published that year by the Philadelphia firm of W.W. Harding. Professor Merz’s Bible became one of my favorite items in the collections I explored as a Special Collections librarian at Miami University. After using the Bible in my work with “Curious Bible Questions,” a set of cards printed in 1868 by Colton, Zahm & Roberts that presented a six-question lesson designed to test knowledge of the Bible, I mentioned it in “Curious Bible Questions: Discovering Connections in Special Collections,” an article I wrote for the American Association of State and Local History’s Summer 2009 issue of History News. If you track down a copy of the article, you can see images of Professor Merz’s elegantly bound Bible and its handwritten inscription. 

Our Easter visit to Wooster also reunited me with another old friend from my days spent roaming the Butler County countryside. 

When a Wooster professor of rhetoric and philosophy named Elias Compton was a young man, he taught in the Butler County community of Woodsdale. One of his pupils was Otelia Augspurger, who lived in the brick house built by her father, Samuel, on the Chrisholm Historic Farmstead on Woodsdale Road.  After Otelia graduated from the Western Female Seminary in Oxford, she married Elias at Chrisholm in 1886. In 1891, they and their four children moved to 816 College Avenue, a Wooster home that was built in 1873. Today, it is owned by the College of Wooster and known as Compton House. 002

All four Compton children graduated from the University of Wooster. All three sons – Karl, Wilson and Arthur – earned their Ph.D. degrees at Princeton University and later became university presidents. Arthur received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1927. Daughter Mary and her husband served as educational missionaries. Otelia was elected national “Mother of the Year” and has a dormitory at Wooster named for her. Altogether, the Compton family held 75 earned and honorary degrees. 

To learn more about the Compton family, read The House on College Avenue: The Comptons at Wooster, 1891-1913, by James R. Blackwood. 

While the Wooster Inn won’t be having another buffet until Thanksgiving, it offers several dinners with winemakers and other special events. Throughout the year, dinner and Sunday brunch are served in the main dining room, while more casual fare is available in the Pub and the Library.

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