Tall Tales from the Hill

Circa 1898 image of the Old Main building revealed from a glass plate negative.

Circa 1898 image of the Old Main building revealed from a glass plate negative.

During the process of digitizing images from a large donation of S. H. Dawson Photographic Studio negatives and prints something caught my eye on an old glass plate negative. On the glass plate was a negative image of the College of Wooster’s Old Main building. The massive brick structure had a central tower capped with a distinctive cupola that was supposed to have a clock with faces on all four sides of the cupola. Unfortunately, when the building was built there must not have been enough money in the budget for a clock and four large clock-faces as all the spaces built into the cupola for the clock-faces looked to be nothing more than vacant wood circles painted a solid black color. The College was probably hoping some wealthy supporter or alumni would eventually donate enough money to install the clock and faces. However, the money never materialized and the vacant faux-clock-faces on the cupola became a fixture on the building.

The six-storey high cupola that once topped the University of Wooster's Old Main building shows evidence of a student stunt.

The six-storey high cupola that once topped the University of Wooster’s Old Main building shows evidence of a student stunt.

After digitizing the glass plate negative of Old Main, I digitally inverted the negative image to get the original positive image that could be printed and brought back into the 21st century for all to enjoy for years to come. It turned out to be a splendid image of the long gone historic building but something drew my eye to the faux-clock-face on the front of the cupola: there seemed to be faint lines forming the numbers “1901”. I quickly talked myself out of what i thought i was seeing: my eyes must be playing tricks on me, my eyesight is beginning to fail in my old age, or my brain is connecting the dots of simple weathering lines on the wood. After all it is common knowledge that this building was utterly destroyed by fire in December of 1901. I surmised that perhaps Mr. Dawson had somehow superimposed “1901” on the glass plate to memorialize the last image he took of the building intact. In any case, there were 1,286 more images to digitize and i moved-on to the next picture and forgot about the faint “1901” on Old Main’s faux-clock-face.

That is — until i finished digitizing the whole collection of images and started working on identifying and dating the numerous unlabeled images. Since one-third of the Dawson Collection were images related to the College of Wooster i started looking in the old College yearbooks published as The Index. It was widely known that Mr. Dawson was often hired by college students to take their protraits and to take pictures of campus life for publication in The Index. These old yearbooks were a wealth of information and helped to correctly identify and date many pictures in the Dawson collection. Upon leafing through the 1901 Index I came upon a story, or “An Oft Told Tale” as it was titled, that vindicated my eyesight and explained how and why “1901” was inscribed on the front faux-clock-face of Old Main’s cupola.

An Oft Told Tale
‘Twas a moonlit night in the month of May, of the eventful year 1898. ‘Twas midnight of this moonlit night when three darkly clad figures, on mischief bent, left the highly respectable precinct of North Market street and, with stout hearts and an eighteen foot ladder, turned toward the forbidding pile which crowns the “Hill.” By following lanes and back streets the well-known campus was reached, and the figures proceeded without delay to ascend the fire escape of the main building. Here the ticklish work begins. How did they know that Shotgun Hammer was not at that very moment getting a bead upon a vital part? Over the campus also, lay Chief Mogul Eberley, the vigilant one, ever watchful of his valuable charge, and ever ready to “pinch” an unsuspecting victim.

COWIndex-1901-CartoonHowever, the main building was reached without mishap, although the noise made in crossing the tin roof folled back across the valley with power, ‘twould seem, to waken anything, even the dead and buried college spirit of Wooster’s palmy days. Perched upon the ledge surrounding the main tower, the figures viewed the beautiful expanse of country spread out in the moonlight, and debated which would be most likely to reach the ground first, were they to tumble off.

With much care and waste of nervous tissue the ladder was carried around to the front ledge of the tower and placed upright. Without delay one of the figures ascended and proceeded to adorn the bull’s eye with the figures of that year which is to open the great twentieth century, 1901.

When the first rays of sunlight ushered in the new-born day, old Sol must have smiled to himself to see heralded the coming birth of the new century from the old weather beaten tower of Wooster U, and, methinks, surprise had been entirely wanting had he been greeted with 1701, as being more in harmony with the surroundings.

A squad of janitors often did double duty as campus security. Janitor, Gus Eberley, was often the butt of student jokes and pranks, but he had the last laugh in May of 1898.

A squad of janitors often did double duty as campus security. Janitor, Gus Eberley, was often the butt of student jokes and pranks, but he had the last laugh in May of 1898.

But alas, for the pride engendered by fancied superiority, for, after being the “observed of all observers” for a few days, 1901 is found changed to 1900. The blind and ignorant followers of an age long past had dexterously transformed the 1 into 0.

The followers of 1901 were defeated, but not vanquished, and immediately began active preparations for a new assault. This was made a nights later and the old tower was rescued from its disgraceful condition and once more made self-respecting by having 1901 imprinted upon its face.

All went well until the descent down the fire escape was begun, when, whom should they see coming around the corner of the building but Chief Mogul Eberley. The terrified “painters” hastened to the top of the building, but not in time to avoid being seen. Tearing off the trap door they descended into the upper story of the building where they secreted paint and brushes. By this time the faithful assistants of the Janitor had been summoned and stationed at the bottom of either fire escape; and the Head Protector himself started for the top of the building, by way of the inside stairs.

Let the curtain drop here; with every avenue of escaped blocked, there could be but one ending. Sufficient to say that the old tower of Wooster U bore 1901 upon its face to the end of its days, and thus acted as a monument to that class, the greatest which ever entered the university, and greater than which the faculty can never hope to graduate.

Circa 1899-1900 image of Old Main missing it's bottle-top cupola.

Circa 1899-1900 image of Old Main after it’s bottle-top cupola had been removed by order of President Holden.

Another notation in one of the old College Index’s explained another glass plate image found in the Dawson collection that showed Old Main without it’s distinctive cupola: “At this time as the (school) year was drawing to its close certain valiant ones among them ascended the heights of the tower and inscribed, with much labor the name of the Not-one tribe, which remained until the first year of ‘I mean business Holden,’ (President Holden took office in 1899) who could not endure the sight of it and ordered the tower torn down in consequence.”

You might be wondering who the three crazy college kids were that outrageously risked their lives climbing six-storeys high to leave their class mark on the tower. The class of 1901 had 53 graduates: 40 men and 13 women. We can eliminate the 13 women as young ladies were pretty much under lock-and-key at night in those days. Which leaves us with 40 male suspects. Which can be narrowed down to only those students living or boarding in houses along N. Market St. Unfortunately, there was no City Directory, or census, published in 1898. However, there was a City Directory published in 1900 that showed two boarding houses operating on N. Market St. right next to each other: the Roth Club, which was located on the southwest corner of Bowman and N. Market street, and the Gregory House, which sat directly to the south of the Roth Club. One young man’s name living at the Roth Club in 1900 stood out to me: Joseph Nelson Pugh. His name and photograph appeared numerous times in the old College Indexes published between 1898-1902: he was president of the student athletic association, manager of the basketball team, and on the Index board, which likely allowed him to get the story about the great painting feat in the 1901 Index. He was a highly involved student at the College.

1901 Sigma Chi fraternity members at the University of Wooster.

1901 Sigma Chi fraternity members at the University of Wooster.

The other thing that really drew my attention was the fact that a small group of students petitioned to revive the Sigma Chi fraternity at the College in 1898 (it had been inactive since 1892) and their efforts were a success. In the fall of 1899 the Beta Chapter of the newly re-established Sigma Chi fraternity consisted of Joseph N. Pugh, James W. Morgan, and Cleves Harrison Howell. My three main suspects. I theorize that painting “1901” on Old Main’s Tower in the spring of 1898 may have been a fraternity initiation act as they became the first new Beta Chapter Sigma Chi pledges at the College a few months later in the fall of 1898.

Of course it’s only a theory and sadly we may never know for sure who actually painted the tower as all the school disciplinary records likely burned in the 1901 fire and nobody ever publicly admitted that they had performed the feat. President Scovel knew, as did the janitors Gus Eberly and Emmet Hammer, but they are all long dead and the names of the dare-devil students have blown away in the winds of time.

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