After years of neglect and self-inflicted wounds, Central Ohio's most unlikely cultural treasure might also be its most endangered.
If not for the Marcy Diner, I might still be driving around Fairfield County. A road sign announced I was entering “Marcy,” but there is no Marcy, really. It’s just a crossroads in the boonies with a small restaurant where you might get good old-fashioned directions. Three fellas wearing ball caps and drinking coffee looked up when I walked in: “Anybody know how I can get to Lithopolis?” Yes. “Go back a few miles to that traffic light, take a right, go a few more miles, and you can’t miss it.”
And he was right. There’s no way to miss Lithopolis—once you’re on the right road—because at the end of the main drag, right before you go past the cemetery and head out of town, sits the Wagnalls Memorial Library. It looks like the manor house of an estate Henry VIII gave to one of his favorite mistresses. It is unique in Central Ohio, to say the least, a private library and museum of sorts housed in a grandiose Tudor-Gothic mansion that has been at the center of Lithopolis educational and cultural life for almost a century.
My guess is you’ve probably never heard of it. And if you have, you’ve probably never been there. You should go—and sooner rather than later. Why? Because by the time the Wagnalls library is set to celebrate its 100-year anniversary in 2025, there may be nothing to celebrate. Beautiful and monumental as it may look, the building is falling apart, and there’s no money to fix it. If Wagnalls closes, Lithopolis will lose more than a library. It will lose much of its history. Without Wagnalls, Lithopolis is just another bedroom community swallowed up by the ever-sprawling metropolis we call Columbus.
If that sounds bleak, it also happens to be the view shared by the library’s leaders. “It’s depressing,” says library director Tami Morehart. “It is,” agrees Larry Browne, chairman of the Wagnalls Memorial Foundation board of trustees, which is responsible for the library. Without financial help amounting to a miracle, “in five years we won’t be here,” he says. “Five years would be a gift,” says fellow trustee Anne Darling-Cyphert. The impact of Wagnalls’ failure on Lithopolis “would be huge,’’ says Lithopolis Mayor Joe Taylor.
Publishing fortunes just don’t go as far as they used to. The library was built and funded by Mabel Wagnalls Jones, heiress to the Wagnalls half of the Funk & Wagnalls company, best-known for its dictionary and encyclopedia. She put a half-million in 1925 dollars into the building’s construction and added an endowment for its operation. On her death in 1946, her will created a foundation with her $2.5 million estate to perpetuate the library and provide college scholarships for any high school graduate from Lithopolis or Bloom Township with a 2.0 GPA. That amount, for a town of 288 people, prompted news coverage calling Lithopolis “the richest little city in the world.”
The endowment swelled through the years, and the library launched an expensive expansion in the ’90s that created a pile of debt. Market losses sapped the coffers and mutters about financial mismanagement prompted news stories that led to an investigation by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. It resulted in no charges but compelled the foundation to alter some financial policies. The library decided to auction some of its treasures, which cost it goodwill in the community. Right now, the library is able to keep its doors open thanks to state funding, but the 94-year-old building’s condition is terminal. The library is in the middle of a campaign to raise $200,000 for the most immediate needs, but its leaders say much, much more will be needed to keep the place, well, perpetuated.
Wagnalls is now open five days a week. Hours have been reduced. Much of the small staff is essentially part-time. The scholarships, which have educated generations of Lithopolites, have all but dried up. There are popular programs, and sometimes the library is still the most bustling place in town. But the paint continues to peel, the roof continues to leak, the wood continues to rot, the antiquated HVAC system is a mess, and the lead is falling out of the lead-glass windows, one of which is a depiction of the classic Lithopolis log cabins where Mabel’s parents were born.
Mabel Wagnalls Jones (April 20 is the 150th anniversary of her birth) “would be appalled at what’s happened to this place,” Morehart says.
People never move to Lithopolis, but they can’t help being born there. This is what happened to both my father and mother. That was Mabel in a 1925 magazine article heralding the dedication of the library. She was interviewed “in her long, low mansion on the hill-top of her forty-acre estate in Northport, Long Island.” She’s surely the most influential person in the history of Lithopolis, but she never lived there full time.
Lithopolis stands alone, maintaining an aloofness, an exclusiveness that is unmatched. … Reposeful as a medieval princess in a rock-bound castle, Lithopolis takes no heed of the whirring wheels and high-pressure mechanism of the outer world. Mabel was a successful writer of early 20th-century romances, and apparently she spoke as she wrote. She also had a sense of humor: There are 350 inhabitants in Lithopolis—never more, never less. The 208 houses it contains are kept in repair, and even rebuilt, but a new house is never added. Rather than do this people leave the town—or die. It is cheaper.
Mabel was also a brilliant concert pianist and a brilliant woman all around, it seems. She studied music in Paris and Berlin and was a social fixture in New York and Long Island, hobnobbing with the magnates and celebrities of her day (she was friends with O. Henry and Harry Houdini, and their correspondence is on prominent display at the library). You could say she was ahead of her time. The library and foundation, however, are dedicated to her parents, Adam Willis Wagnalls and Anna Willis Wagnalls, who were certainly ahead of their time, too. In the middle of the 19th century, Adam took his wife’s surname as his middle name to signal their equality.
This history is related to me by Wagnalls historian Carol Gaal as we stand next to Mabel’s Steinway grand piano near the front desk of the library. It seems that Anna Willis was the engine that drove their little family: She was born in 1846 in a log cabin in Lithopolis, raised poor with an invalid sister by her widowed mother, but managed to put herself through school at Xenia Female College and was working as a schoolteacher in Columbus when she met Adam. He, too, had been born (as Adam Wagenhals) in a log cabin, had made his own way through school at Wittenberg Theological College in Springfield and looked to make his career as a Lutheran minister. He was at a church in Kansas City, Missouri, when Mabel was born in 1869.
Anna had ambition for her husband and her child: Kansas City was no place for her brilliant daughter, whom Anna had already decided by the age of 5 was destined for greatness as a writer and musician. They moved to New York, where Anna home-schooled Mabel, and Adam hooked up with a fellow Wittenberg alum, one Isaac Funk, who had just started a small magazine, The Metropolitan Pulpit, and become a publisher.
The partners’ early work was devoted to religious periodicals and reference works, but only with the success of the popular general-interest magazine The Literary Digest did the pair have the resources to publish “Standard Dictionary of the English Language” and later their encyclopedias, which made their name and their fortune.
When Anna took 7-year-old Mabel to Europe to study music, the family was not yet wealthy, Gaal tells me: “They lived in a little place near the Arc de Triomphe, and they really had to watch their money.” Culture shock followed. “Madame Skinflint” every day gets more repulsive, Anna wrote of her French landlady. Her stinginess amounts to meanness. Of course I will not be so unfair as to measure the French people by this thin-lipped, weak-minded woman. It was all for her daughter, but Europe was a trial for Anna.
In “The Mother of an Artist,” Mabel would later write: The American mother of a musical daughter feels herself called upon to face Europe. The newcomer is misunderstood, she seldom understands, and she cannot even apologize for the faux-pas that result. And far from being commended for her courage she more often hears insinuating remarks about “the women who travel around Europe while their husbands stay at home to earn the money.”
After returning from Berlin, where Mabel made her professional debut (she quickly became frustrated with musical opportunities in the U.S. and turned to writing), Mabel continued spending summers in Lithopolis to care for Anna’s mother and invalid sister. Lithopolis had a population of about 350 at the time: Though the place is small and primitive, the surrounding hills are delightful, Mabel said in that 1925 interview. The little community is almost self-sustaining. In its straggling business block you will find, besides the general store, a drug store that indulges in literature on the side, a barber’s shop—very active on Saturday evenings—and a butcher’s shop that never saw a filet or a tenderloin.
After Anna died in 1914, Mabel began thinking about a proper memorial for her beloved mother; she thought of Lithopolis: In her later years—when wealth came—my mother did not forget Lithopolis but always expressed a wish to do something for the little village which had never done anything for her. I have long dreamed of and finally at last have done what I know she would have me do—give to the boys and girls of Lithopolis the opportunities for which she had to struggle so hard.
The library was the biggest thing ever to hit Lithopolis. The village—Lithopolis is Greek for “City of Stone,” after the freestone quarry near where the library sits today, although most homes were built of logs because the stone was too valuable—was energized by Mabel’s determination to use local workmen and local materials. She bought the defunct quarry, rehired its masons and used its stone to build the library. She even hired young, unknown architect Ray Sims from Columbus. He proposed a Georgian design, but Mabel had her heart set on the Tudor-Gothic style she had seen in Germany, citing Cecilienhof Palace as a model.
Her husband, Richard Jones, a law-professor-turned-steel-company-executive, managed the project, which took more than two years to complete. It would be more than a library—Mabel’s mandate was to provide a full array of culture, including a 400-seat theater (which would be the first place movies were ever shown in Lithopolis), two “tower” rooms set aside for artists and poets, and a social hall that was Mabel’s pride and joy. “She used to talk about how all the women in Lithopolis always had to carry all their chairs and tables and place settings to the church socials,” Gaal says. “She wanted everything to be there.” It’s all still there, hundreds of full place settings, almost 100 years later.
The building would also house the art and memorabilia the Wagnalls family had accrued: Norman Rockwell originals that had graced the covers of Literary Digest along with other original cover art, portraits of all three family members by John Ward Dunsmore, Chinese statuary and jade, the letters from O. Henry complete with sketches, letters from Houdini (he wanted the Funk & Wagnalls dictionary to include “Houdini” as a synonym for making an escape, which was duly included) and a Welte-Mignon “reproducing” organ.
Dedication day was maybe the biggest day in Lithopolis history. More than 2,000 people descended upon the village (they had to put a loudspeaker outside so the speakers could be heard), luminaries whose names you wouldn’t recognize praised the project (President Calvin Coolidge sent his regrets along with an autographed picture) and after dinner, there was a screening of the film “Revelation,” adapted from Mabel’s book “Rosebush of a Thousand Years” and starring her friend Anna Nazimova. And there would be Esperanto classes (really—Mabel and her husband were vocal supporters of a universal language). Mabel spoke these words as she handed the deed to the land over to the foundation’s board of trustees: “Now this is our deed and I hand it over with no admonishments at all, because I know you will guard our building and use it wisely.”
Mabel was wrong. People do move to Lithopolis. The population is somewhere around 1,400 now, says Mayor Taylor. The newbies live in big houses in big subdivisions that line the road from Canal Winchester, and they spend their money at the shopping center near the highway where the grocery and all the fast-food restaurants are. The center of Lithopolis doesn’t look much different from a century ago—there’s no industry, no retail to speak of, a few bars and restaurants, a gas station—but the outskirts of the village look like most of Central Ohio.
“We’re basically a bedroom community,” Taylor says. “They live in Lithopolis, but they moved from Columbus. Two-income families, mostly, and their lives are back in Columbus. We have a lot of new population who don’t even know [Wagnalls] is a library. They think it’s a church.” This rankles the library folks, understandably. The population of Lithopolis is wealthier than it’s ever been, but Browne, chair of the board, says the library has not benefited.
Wagnalls is not in danger because its board frittered away Mabel’s money: Spending $7 million on scholarships over the decades, meaning college educations for any high school graduate who wanted one, was Mabel’s goal. But the board has committed some self-inflicted wounds: the expansion in the ’90s, a $600,000 loan to the Lithopolis Cemetery for a public mausoleum that has never been repaid. “How can we sue them?” Morehart says. “They have no money, we have no money.”
When the foundation first ran into real financial trouble about 15 years ago, as the scholarship money dried up, it came as a shock; older Lithopolites started asking questions about where the money had gone, and how much were those staffers being paid? The Ohio AG, wondering how a $10 million portfolio plunged to less than $3 million, looked into it and charged no one, but the library director resigned, and the board had new rules. No more loans: money was for library upkeep, education and scholarships, period. Also shocking was the auctioning of two of the Rockwell originals. “That’s what really started a lot of the ruckus,” Browne says. “I wish we’d never done it. The board will never do that again.”
Trustee Cyphert says transparency by the board might have led to better public relations: “That would have gone a long way toward educating the community, which might have been better prepared” for bad news. Cyphert is pessimistic about stepping up marketing and fundraising efforts to keep the library alive. Something more dramatic is needed. “What it needs is a savior, a major philanthropist to come in and save it. It belongs to the people of Lithopolis and Bloom Township. It is the cornerstone of the community.”
A huge Celtic cross in the Lithopolis Cemetery marks the final resting place of the entire Wagnalls family. Under a massive sarcophagus bearing the legend “Our Mabel” is Mabel Wagnalls Jones. You can’t tell if she’s spinning in her grave.