Filed Under Biography

Harriet Keeler

Author and Teacher

In an era characterized by limited educational and career opportunities for American women, Harriet Keeler found celebrity in Cleveland as a nature writer, educator and social reformer. A memorial to the author in Cleveland Metroparks Brecksville Reservation marks her many achievements, as well as the legacy she carved out pursuing a love of teaching and nature.

In 1912, Harriet L. Keeler was chosen as the temporary superintendent of schools for the sixth largest city in the United States. The Cleveland Leader released a feature interview with the recently honored public figure to mark the occassion. The conversation began wth the most pressing of questions: had the unmarried 65 year old ever had a romance in her life? The accomplished author, suffragist, civic activist, social reformer, and retired school teacher offered the politest of responses, "I have lived an intellectual life for my romance, of course having that mother love which is natural to my sex, and which has had its outlet in the love and teaching of children, the love of animals and the love of plants." These outlets of Keeler's intellectual life served her well. Keeler's love of teaching and nature propelled her success as a writer.

While Keeler was recognized in Cleveland for a 38-year career in the public schools and as a respected voice in the Progressive Era women's club movement, she was best known as an author in her day. The life-long educator penned a series of seven nature guides between 1894 and her death in 1921. Keeler's writing style was informed by her experience as a teacher and vast knowledge of botany, language, and literature. Her work as a nature writer offers a glimpse into the way privileged women operated within and utilized conservative gender roles to better their own lives and make substantial, lasting contributions to society.

The opportunities afforded to Harriet Keeler in pursuing her passions as an author, educator, and amateur botanist inversely grew from a limitation of options available to American women during the 19th century. Born in the mid 1840s, Keeler followed a path taken by many young women with means and access to education during the era - she became a teacher. The job of providing an ethical and moral education to children seemed a natural extension of traditional female responsibilities; this allowed honorable, self-sacrificing women to take hold of an opportunity to be paid horribly as educators. After leaving school at the age of 14, Keeler worked as a teacher in Cherry Hill, New York. Working in schools provided women such as Keeler a temporary, socially accepted reprieve from domestic life and motherhood. It also gave them a chance to expand their education by attending either an Academy School (high school) or a "normal school" designed to train teachers. While the administration of schools remained predominately in the hands of men, the field of teaching became the domain of women. By 1900, 75% of American teachers were female.

After a short stint teaching, Harriet Keeler studied at a college preparatory school and proceeded to attend Oberlin College. Keeler's decision to attend Oberlin College in the 1860s set her apart from her female peers; co-educational and women's colleges were scarce, but would grow in popularity toward the end of the century. Graduating with a bachelor of arts from the College Department at Oberlin College, Keeler likely received advanced training in classical languages, literature, and higher mathematics in addition to more common liberal arts studies that centered on education. With few professional job options deemed respectable for women at the time, it is no surprise that upon receiving her degree she accepted employment with a school system.

Just as ideas of proper gender roles steered Keeler and other American women towards careers such as teaching, the study of nature had also become an acceptable pursuit for those deemed the fairer sex. Interaction within the tamed outdoors was already understood to be an extension of a woman's domestic life. With popular conceptions of nature morphing in contrast to an urbanizing country during the latter half of the 1800s, what the city lacked in virtue was imbued upon the natural world. The morality of womanhood found company in romantic visions of picturesque rural landscapes.

Additionally, a division between "scientific" and "recreational" botany emerged early in the century - the latter being cast from the world of science and left to the musings of writers and women. By the end of the 19th century, women had long been active in the informal study of plants. Botany, with its practical application in preparing home remedies, had been taught to women in order that they could perform domestic duties and educate children. Women played an integral part in the identification and organization of North American plant life, but often in an informal role. By the time of Keeler's first foray into publishing nature writing, a tradition of women botanists preceded her.

The opportunities and experiences afforded to Harriet Keeler as a teacher and student converged with the release of her first book on amateur botany in 1894, The Wildflowers of Early Spring. An extensive knowledge of science, Latin terminology, and classical literature, combined with the educator's sensibility for arranging information in a comprehensive and digestible format, can be credited for the popular success of Keeler's writing. Timing also played its part. Not only did her book coincide with the first realized efforts to develop a park system in Cleveland, but the concept of nature was finding new relevance throughout the United States. An increasingly literate female and male population was enamored with birds, flowers, and trees. The 1890s witnessed the beginnings of the nature study movement as well as the blossoming of a nationwide crusade to create idealized, rural-esque park spaces for city dwellers.

It was a good time to be a nature writer. In 1893, the first publication of Frances Theodora Parsons' How to Know the Wild Flowers sold out within five days. By the turn of the century, similar "how-to-know" nature guides were commonplace. Within this overcrowded market, Keeler's comprehensive and scientific approach distinguished her writing from the glut of nature writing available to the public. Her 1900 book Native Trees and How to Identify Them became a seminal amateur work on the subject and would be reprinted over a dozen times.

Harriet Keeler, in the company of countless other middle- and upper-class American women at the turn of the 20th century, navigated through cultural restrictions using preconceived ideals of womanhood as a springboard for creating professional and personal opportunities. While her work as an author and educator were informed by societal boundaries, these acceptable outlets for Keeler's intellectual life proved frutiful.  Through her chosen vocations, Keeler provided lasting contributions to Cleveland in the social changes she helped push forward, the lives she touched as a teacher, and the legacy of her written word. 

Harriet Keeler's life also inspired a different type of tribute. Following her death in 1921, colleagues and friends - including many prominent Clevelanders  - immediatley began work planning a physical memorial to the author, teacher and social advocate.  By 1923, three hundred acres of wooded terrain in Brecksville Reservation were dedicated as the Harriet Keeler Memorial Woods.  The Cleveland Metropolitan Park Board agreed to preserve the grounds from future development, so that the land would act as a home to the flowers, trees and animals that the prominent Clevelander loved.

Thumbing through the writings of Harriet Keeler, one is reminded of the knowledge and pleasure she has provided to explorers of open fields and forests in Cleveland and throughout the country. Following in this tradition, find a moment to peruse her work and identify a tree or flower when taking your next hike through the Harriet Keeler Memorial Woods in the Brecksville Reservation. Using her words and vast reserves of knowledge as a guide, we are encouraged to discover connections between our natural environment and its underlying world of science, history, and literature.

Audio

The Harriet Keeler Memorial Woods Sharon Hosko, park naturalist for the Cleveland Metroparks, explains the purpose of the Harriet Keeler Memorial Woods.
Harriet Keeler Memorial Cleveland Metroparks Naturalist Sharon Hosko describes the Harriet Keeler Memorial in Brecksville Reservation.

Images

Harriet Keeler Nature Trail, ca 1936 The Women's City Club of Cleveland established the first nature trail in Brecksville Reservation as a tribute to Harriet Keeler and and her passion for exploring the natural world. Dedicated in June of 1929, the mile long trail was funded with proceeds from the Small Garden Institute. The educational trail was blazed and maintained by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Source: Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection
Harriet Keeler, 1912 Keeler authored seven nature guides between 1894 and 1920, covering subjects such as shrubs, trees, garden flowers and wildflowers. Six of the books were published by Charles Scribner's Sons and reached a national audience. Still, having lived in Cleveland throughout her writing career, Keeler's work offers visitors to the Cleveland Metroparks an excellent resource for exploring the native plant life of northeast Ohio. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
The Beech Trees of Brecksville Reservation There was so firm a belief among Indians that a beech tree was proof against lightening, that on the approach of a thunder-storm they took refuge under its branches with full assurance of safety. This belief seems to have been adopted by the early settlers of this country and it is very common to hear a farmer say, "A beech is never struck by lightening." This popular belief has recently had scientific verification. As a result of careful experiments it has been found that the beech really does resist the electric current much more vigorously than the oak, poplar or willow. The general conclusion from a series of experiments is that trees "poor in fat" like the oak, willow, poplar, maple, elm and ash oppose much less resistance to the electric current than tress "rich in fat" like the beech, chestnut, linden and birch. Of course varying conditions modify the practical working of these facts, but the Indians' conclusion was well founded. Source: Keeler, Harriet L. Our Native Trees and How to Identify Them. 3rd ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902. 383. Print.
The Swamp Rose-Mallow of Brecksville Reservation
The Swamp Rose-Mallow is one of the most beautiful of our wildings. Growing the swampy tangle among Sedges and Cat-tails, its magnificent flowers give an air of distinction to any group however humble the others may be. The following poem from The Boston Transcript on gathering Mallows is worth remembering: "...Rooted deep in river slime, secret, hidden long, Give them light, and air, and time, then they bloom to song. Leaves of maple, copper stems, buds of emerald lustre, Like a branch of rose-lit gems how the blossoms cluster. See the silken petals lift, pink as baby's fingers, Crimson heart, where still a drift of silver pollen lingers. Lad, let's leave them at their best, in their stately growing, Where the marsh-wren builds her nest, by the river flowing. Let no wanton fingers harsh those sweet branches sever, Then will mallows of the marsh in memory ever." Source: Keeler, Harriet L. The Wayside Flowers of Summer. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1917. 114-116. Print.
The White Oaks of Brecksville Reservation Common; grows to the height of eighty or one hundred feet with a trunk three or four feet in diameter. Is tolerant of many soils, often forms the principal tree of large tracts. Reaches its greatest size in the valley of the lower Ohio. Is difficult to transplant and is best grown from seed planted where the tree is to remain. Grows rapidly. Although called the White Oak it is very unusual to find an individual with an absolutely white bark, the usual color is an ashen gray. All in all, this is the most valuable as well as the most stately and beautiful of our oaks. In the forest it reaches a magnificent height, in the open it develops into a massive broad-topped tree with great limbs striking out at wide angles and carrying the idea of rugged strength to the very tips of their branches. Source: Keeler, Harriet L. Our Native Trees and How to Identify Them. 3rd ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902. 328. Print.
The Cardinal Flowers of Brecksville Reservation Perennial. Native. Bearing the most brilliant red flower in our norther flora. Wet or low ground, beside streams, ditches, and meadow runlets. The Cardinal Flower is rarely found by the roadside, its color is too brilliant to escape marauders; but over the fence where a runlet makes its way through a meadow one often sees it following the course of the tiny stream and sometimes it appears in mass. Apart from it gorgeous color the corolla is interesting as a typical example of the Lobelia group. The two-lipped corolla has a long, slender tube which is split down the upper side its entire length, and through this the stamen tube and the style protrude. This is characteristic of the genus. Source: Keeler, Harriet L. The Wayside Flowers of Summer. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1917. 223-224. Print.
The Chestnut Oaks of Brecksville Reservation A mountain tree through found in the low lands, usually sixty to seventy feet high, sometimes one hundred; the trunk dividing into large limbs not very far from the ground. The Chestnut Oak is accredited in the books to dry soil and sandy ridges but it loves we situations as well. The little streams of northern Ohio which make their way into Lake Erie cut for themselves deep channels through the yielding shale and form ravines from fifty to to hundred feet deep. Down the sides of these ravines and into the narrow intervale crowd the chestnut oaks, until the lowest stands at the water's edge, its pendulous branches bending over the stream. Source: Keeler, Harriet L. Our Native Trees and How to Identify Them. 3rd ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902. 340. Print.
The Sycamores of Brecksville Reservation The distinguishing peculiarity of the Sycamore is that it "casts its bark as well as its leaves." All trees do this more or less, it is a necessity of life that the bark should yield to the pressure of the growing stem; and the outer layers becoming dead fall off in scale or plates of varying size...but the Sycamore proclaims the fact more openly than any other tree of the forest. The bark of the trunk and larger limbs flakes off in great irregular masses leaving the surface mottled, greenish white and gray and brown, sometimes the small limbs look as if whitewashed. In winter it can be recognized from afar by this characteristic alone; and as it likes to grow upon river banks the course of the stream may often be traced for a long distance by the white branches of this tree. The explanation of this is found in the rigid texture of the bark tissue, which entirely lacks the expansive power common to the bark of other trees, so that it is incapable of stretching to accommodate the growth of the wood underneath and the tree is obliged to slough it off. Source: Keeler, Harriet L. Our Native Trees and How to Identify Them. 3rd ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902. 265-266. Print.
Poison Ivy of Brecksville Reservation Two plants now known as Rhus microcarpe and Rhus radicans...are plants poisonous to the touch, and to many persons the neighborhood of the plants is dangerous...There are always three leaflets, there are never any more. These leaflets are ovate or rhombic, entire or coarsely and sparingly serrate, acute or acuminate, sometimes lobed. They are more or less variable, the main and central fact is that there are always three of the, the lateral ones sessile, the terminal one on a a short petiole. These plants should be exterminated root and branch, but instead of that they are increasing. This is largely due to the immunity they enjoy because people are afraid to touch them, but in winter they could be easily and more safely destroyed; destroyed they certainly should be. The poison is an acrid oil which is easily liberated from the leaf tissue, and quickly permeates the skin of its victim, spreading its irritation on the surface. Water will avail little in removing it; alcohol is much better. Some persons are immune to the poison, others are affected by nearness alone. Source: Keeler, Harriet L. The Wayside Flowers of Summer. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1917. 104. Print.
Harriet Keeler Memorial A boulder monument was placed within the Harriet Keeler Memorial Woods grounds in 1925. This original tribute was replaced in 1936 by the six foot granite boulder still found in the park today. The bronze memorial tablet inlaid in the stone was created by Miriam Cramer, and reads "Teacher - Author - Citizen: She liveth in the continuing generation of the woods she loved." Although missing for many years, the original boulder is now located at the entrance of the trail leading to the current Harriet Keeler monument. The original inscription can still be found faintly etched into the boulder: "Harriet L. Keeler, 1846-1921, Student - Teacher - Author -These Woods and Meadows are Dedicated." Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
Harriet Keeler Shelterhouse, 1936 The pavilion located within the Harriet Keeler Memorial Woods is the oldest shelter house in the Brecksville Reservation. Dating back to 1928, the pavilion was constructed using sandstone and wood sourced from the surrounding park grounds. Source: Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection
Harriet Keeler Memorial Woods, 1942 Within months of Harriet Keeler's death in 1921, friends, colleagues, and women's club members organized to find a suitable place of tribute for the prominent Clevelander. By 1923, the Cleveland Park Board had agreed to set aside over 300 acres of land along Chippewa creek in Brecksville Reservation to Keeler's memory. The grounds were selected for their diverse habitat, rich in native specimens of trees, shrubs and flowers found in the writings of Harriet Keeler. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection

Location

Metadata

Richard Raponi, “Harriet Keeler,” Cleveland Historical, accessed October 3, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/669.