Or, as I put it back when this was first published “How a Suave NE Ohio Urbanite Ended Up in the Town That Brought You Rubbermaid.” Anyway, here’s the last of my old articles that I’m putting up here on Mad Man on a Great Lake and perhaps it is worth a second look. I’ll let you be the judge.
“Late this summer, I accepted an invitation from friends to go on a road trip to a town I haven’t been to in ages, Wooster, Ohio. It is the county seat of Wayne County, a big rectangle 58 miles south of Cleveland. I knew about this place for two things: the College and Rubbermaid. Established in 1866, the College of Wooster is one of the premier Liberal Arts Institutions in the nation, and alma mater of John Dean of Watergate Fame. As for Rubbermaid, it was founded there in the 1920s and became a major company. Rubbermaid was to Wooster what the steel and tire industries were to Youngstown and Akron. Its decision to pack up and leave in 2005 was a big blow to the town.
Driving down from Cleveland
Wayne County is quite rural and flat. The hills and valleys of Eastern Ohio smooth out and the land takes on a real Midwestern feel. Except for two new housing developments near town, my ride down was quite rustic despite all the traffic. This is the Corn Belt and from what I saw, the green rows of maize weren’t as affected by the drought as places further west. Route 83 and Burbank looked like there’s a major highway interchange waiting to happen just a few yards north instead of the present fields.
The Northern outskirts of the city along Route 83 appeared just like any suburban area in the nation with standardized fast food restaurants, gas stations, big box shopping, and plenty of auto traffic. Except for Interstate 71 grazing it to the northwest and a highway to the south of the town that sputters out at the Stark County border, the county and Wooster have no major highways crossing them. I felt that it was a condensed version of everything I’ve seen built out in Cuyahoga County in only a few miles. There is no Wooster Heights or exurban sprawl because it is all within the city limits.
Driving down Quinby Avenue toward the city center, seeing the big colonial and Tudor style houses lining the street with wide lawns felt like I was in Cleveland Heights. By the time I reached the corner where I needed to turn, the place looked much more like Lakewood or Cleveland’s East Side. As for downtown Wooster, it was a lot like Painesville or Elyria. There were many 19 century commercial buildings along Market Street with a court house of the same era at the main intersection. The place could be the setting of a Booth Tarkington novel.
Spending a night on the town
My friends, let’s call them Fearless Leader and his fiance Sue, have a place near the center of town. Built in 1925, it is a brick two-and-a-half story house with a front porch and hipped roof. It belongs to Sue, who actually has a house in another part of town but now lives here in what really is her law office. The ground floor consists of his and her offices with the upper floors being living spaces, including a spacious guest room with a ceiling fan. Sue has done a good job decorating the place, and from the books she had around, enjoys interior design.
Once Fearless Leader pulled into her parking lot, they took me on a tour of the town. As we drove around, Sue showed me the country club and the houses where Rubbermaid executives used to live. Many still keep their homes in Wooster but, for the most part, have relocated to other parts of the country. As for the locals left behind, it seems many commute to other urban areas like Sue does to Cleveland. However, people do seem to stay there because of the quality of life. The college is rather impressive. Most of the buildings were built around or after World War II in what was then the favored style. The student union building is much newer and we stepped inside, though it was for the most part empty at that time of day. You would think you were in Cambridge Mass. rather than Central Ohio. Kauke Hall, built in 1901, stands on a ridge overlooking the town. Fearless Leader said that at night when it’s all lit up, the hall looks like a castle.
While Wooster and Wayne County tend to be conservative, the college itself is liberal, which leads to some tension. Apparently, for years, locals didn’t even want the students to rent in the town for that very reason.
There is no doubt that Wooster is a Republican town. For example, according to Wayne County Board of Elections, John Kasich beat out then Governor Ted Strickland two to one. Sue is, in fact, one of the very few Democrats ever to have held an office. Yet, Joe Biden recently spoke there at a rally. One can argue that places like Wooster are more representative of the state politically than Cleveland or Youngstown.
Though not at all intended, I came on the day Wooster had its Festa Italiana (Italian Festival). The main intersection in town was packed with people partying late afternoon into the night. There was a band playing as well as a game of chance where I won an extra dollar, stalls selling crafts, and the usual food stands. Every local official and candidate for office was at the festival, too, and I was introduced to a few of them. I also met a very nice lady who Governor Kasich recently appointed to a bench and is now facing the former judge who retired from that office and now wants it back. Political drama is not just for the big city. A little wine tasting here, a Mojito there, and I was a tad under the influence by the time we came back to the South Market Bistro (now called the Oak Grove Eatery) where we had dinner reservations, I switched to caffeine and a nice meal. It was actually a lot of fun and I didn’t seem to notice the sun setting and the street lights going on. We wound up on the front porch; I swung on the wooden swing while my friend went on about the State Senate race we were involved in and his better half snapped green beans. It was well after midnight before I finally went up to the guest room and crawled into bed.
The Next Day
It was a beautiful Sunday morning when I woke up. After putting on my tennis shoes and straightening my clothes, I lumbered down the stairs to the bathroom in Fearless Leader’s office. They invited me to go sailing with them, but I decided it was time to head back home. By 9:00 a.m., I was back on Route 83 up to Interstate 71 and Cleveland. The streets were pretty empty as they are every Sunday in an Ohio town. While it may not be a typical weekend getaway destination like the Lake Erie Islands or Niagara Falls, Wooster proved to be a surprising place to go on a road trip. If you want to get the pulse of the state of Ohio or just get away, this can be the place.”
What can I say, I get around.
Like Youngstown and Pittsburgh, I’ve been there more than once. The photographs for this post were in fact from this past year since I can’t seem to find the originals anywhere in my flash drives. It is definitely different down there in tone compared to Cleveland and as a college town Wooster isn’t at all like Oberlin. However, Woo-town is a pretty interesting place to see once you get to know it.