COW project documents history of Wooster

COW project documents history of Wooster
Courtesy of Harry McClarran

The old Pennsylvania Railroad depot on the east side of Wooster.


Editor’s note: This is Part I of a two-part series on the Wooster Digital History Project, developed by faculty and students of The College of Wooster as a comprehensive history of the City of Wooster. Part II will be published in the Jan. 25 Bargain Hunter.

The Native American Erie people, who hunted over 350 years ago in the region now known as Wooster, may have made camp in your very backyard. That area road you recently traveled may have been forged by wagon trains journeying from New York or Pennsylvania, their occupants hoping to make their homes here. Perhaps your favorite downtown establishment is the site of a bygone log cabin inhabited by settlers from England, France or Ireland.

Read all about it, thanks to the Wooster Digital History Project. Developed by faculty and students of The College of Wooster, the project was initiated by the department of history in an effort to compile and share a comprehensive history of the City of Wooster. The site,, brims with captivating information.

Exhibits are categorized by early settlement, cultural and religious communities, agriculture, economic development, conservation and the environment, society and social movements, civic development, wartime Wooster, and the college itself. Rare photographs and video interviews enhance the material, and links are provided for further exploration.

Gregory Shaya, professor of history, conceived and organized the project six years ago with the help of Katherine Holt, associate professor of history. Shaya had been guiding his students in other studies involving the area such as the Wayne County Fair and crime and punishment in Wayne County. At the time Holt was working in digital history, so the two collaborated to provide their students with research experience and to do something for the city.

Shaya and other colleagues have since directed this ongoing effort. According to Holt, “This endeavor has provided an opportunity for students and faculty to work together, and that is a joy.”

The project generated great interest among students, who had to apply to be considered for the undertaking.

The students extensively research the history of Wooster, its environs and the experiences of its inhabitants. They collaborate with the Wayne County Historical Society, the Wayne County Public Library and the college’s department of special collections. They also gather memories and expertise through interviews with local residents and historians.

A grant for interdisciplinary scholarship from the Mellon Foundation helps cover expenses. Further support is provided by The Five Colleges of Ohio Next Generation Libraries Grant and by a College of Wooster grant for interdisciplinary research.

“There is enormous value in this kind of independent project,” Shaya said. “It is a great research experience for the students, and it produces a tangible result. It also connects the students to Wooster in some really neat ways.”

Jordan Biro Walters, assistant professor of history, agreed. “There is great satisfaction in seeing the students engage with the community,” she said.

Elisabeth Abell, a 2015 COW graduate, was one of four students who helped establish the WDHP.

“My favorite thing to research was the Jewish community,” Abell said. “It was one of the first times I realized how connected the Wooster community is. I began by researching Freedlander’s, which I connected to Knesseth Israel Temple, which I connected to a professor who studied modern religious communities.”

Abell, a Texas native who majored in both history and in French and francophone studies, is now a master’s candidate in international education development at Columbia University.

Biro Walters brings her public history expertise to the project. “This also is a way to determine today’s common interests and problems of the city and the college and how this history might be utilized to help serve those interests and solve those problems,” she said.

Some of the sentiments unearthed during the research are not so far removed from attitudes of today. During the Civil War years, patriotism and support for the troops ran strong in Wooster.

The Wooster Republican newspaper published letters sent home from Wayne County soldiers. At times even the Wayne County Democrat, which was never shy in displaying its opposition to the war, chose to put patriotism first. When praising the deeds of two returning officers, the paper guessed that they “must have felt proud of both parties welcoming them home and doing honor to them as soldiers of the Republic. More unity of this kind would work miracles in the cause of the country, where the prosperity of all the people is contingent upon the unity of the country.”

Click on the site’s interactive map for a peek into what once happened on various sites. You might see an 1848 German Reformed Church membership certificate or a photograph of men cutting wheat with a cradle and binding it by hand in 1919.

“The project has helped tell the stories that most people don’t know, and it preserves them,” Shaya said.

Next week learn about Wooster’s Italian community, the area’s Native Americans and the great fire of 1901.

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