There are two amazing woman authors/naturalists from the turn of the 20th Century that I would have loved to have taken a hike with (or at least been asked over for tea): Gene Stratton - Porter from Indiana and Harriet Keeler, who spent most of her life here in the Greater Cleveland area.
Gene Stratton-Porter, the author of The Girl of the Limberlost, Freckles, and Laddie and several more novels. Gene was a heart-warming writer who captured the deep emotions of humanity while expressing her love of the natural world through the sensitive descriptions of birds, butterflies, moths and wildflowers that were found in the vanishing Black Swamp. My great-grandfather went to school with Gene. Some of her family members are buried in the same cemetery as my forefathers in a small Indiana country plot called Hopewell.
Harriet Keeler is a name that may sound familiar to many of you who visit Brecksville Reservation. Across from the pathway that leads to the nature center is a historic Depression era shelterhouse and picnic area in honor of Harriet Keeler. She also has 370 acres of woodland set aside in her name near the nature center called the Harriet Keeler Memorial Woods. Her contributions to field biology specifically in dendrology and botany were some of the finest of that time period in Ohio. Some of her most noted publications were: Our Native Trees and How to Identify Them (1900), and Our Northern Shrubs and How to Identify Them (1903). She published 11 books in all, covering English composition, ethical readings from the Bible, a biography, and flowers.
Harriet Keeler interpretive sign in front of shelterhouse.
Harriet Keeler shelterhouse in Brecksville Reservation
Harriet was the youngest of seven children who grew up on a successful farm in New York State. No doubt, her love for trees and plants were birthed in those early years amidst the rural life. Raised in a family that valued education, Harriet quickly excelled and became a teacher at the age of 14. She soon furthered her education by entering a school which was primarily for boys, Delhi Academy, in New York. After graduation she, like many of the young men at the academy, longed to further their education in college. Through great ambition and help from the master of the school, she was put in contact with an Ohio resident Betsy Mix Cowles – an educator, abolitionist, women’s rights activist and graduate of Oberlin College. Ms. Cowles took special interest in Harriet and with her advice and encouragement, Harriet Keeler attended and graduated from Oberlin College in 1870.
Through her long and distinguished career as an educator, Harriet taught for Cleveland City Schools for eight years, was a supervisor of primary grades for seven years, was an assistant principal for 10 years, and was the first female superintendent for Cleveland City Schools. She held that position for nearly one year.
As a citizen of the Greater Cleveland area, she was an active suffragist, president of the Cuyahoga County Suffrage Association and a member of several civic organizations, including a garden club, Women’s Club, Advisory Council for the College of Women and trustee of Oberlin College.
This is why you will find these words on a plaque entering Harriet Keeler Memorial Woods:
Teacher - Author – Citizen
She liveth as do the continued generations of the woods she loved.
I find myself drawn to these remarkable ladies who grew up with rural beginnings much as I did. Their love for the natural environment, their passion to share it with others and their ambition to educate those who will listen are still highly valued by those of us naturalists who have followed after them.
I hope you find some time to hike through the Harriet Keeler Memorial Woods or relax on a bench in one of Cleveland Metroparks reservations and read a heartwarming novel by Gene Stratton - Porter. Although we cannot take a hike with these two naturalists or sit down for a cup of tea, the spirit of their work lives on as we incline our minds and hearts to the natural world.