Filed Under Parks

Trailside Museums

Teaching Nature Painlessly

The 1930s signaled the beginnings of a new era for the Cleveland Metropolitan Park System. Under the guidance of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the Cleveland Metropolitan Park Board constructed three buildings that changed the way the public used and understood Cleveland parks.

Tucked away in the oak-hickory forests of the Cleveland Metroparks Brecksville Reservation, the black walnut doors, American chestnut paneling and Berea sandstone that front the Brecksville Nature Center blend harmoniously into the surrounding wooded landscape. Constructed with regional materials by laborers of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, the historic exhibition space is a shrine to its location. Details of the interior and exterior design relay stories of the flowers, trees and animals native to the vicinity. A short path leading to the building extends visitors an invitation to explore, learn, and immerse themselves into the natural world. Opened to the public in June of 1939, the Brecksville Nature Center was one of three trailside museums operated by the Cleveland Metropolitan Park Board in collaboration with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The construction of these trailside museums during the 1930s signaled the beginnings of a new era for the Cleveland Metropolitan Park System. Through the efforts and guidance of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, a foundation of educational and research programs emerged that both helped shape the use and provide cultural value to Cleveland's newest public spaces.

The partnership between the Metropolitan Park Board and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History that prompted the establishment of trailside museums grew from the board's efforts to display the benefits of a remote park system to Clevelanders. Through much of the 1920s, the Park Board had been busy both purchasing and pursuing eminent domain on what would amount to nearly 9,000 acres of land; while the property obtained was generally not suited for commercial, residential or agricultural uses, its speedy procurement was critical to keep prices low and prevent land speculation. By plan, the Park Board had devoted very few resources to developing spaces for public use.

With the skeleton of a park system in place, and the renewal of a tax levy up for a vote in 1930, the Park Board shifted the disbursement of over three-quarters of available funds to land improvements in 1928. By making portions of park land physically accessible and developing recreational spaces, the board hoped to garner public approval and interest in the metropolitan park project. There was a small hitch, however. While maintaining small departments for legal needs, draftsmen, accounting, landscape design, police protection, engineering and golf course personnel, the organization had no employees devoted to offering programs or educational services to the public. Additionally, the Cleveland Metropolitan Park Board was limited in its powers to enter into contractual relationships with outside organizations. The board relied on informal arrangements with civic institutions to provide cultural value to the public space. In 1929, the Ohio State Legislature empowered the Park Board to enter into working contracts with non-profit corporations. Collaboration between the board and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History was cemented that year with the designation of Arthur B. Williams as the park system's first naturalist.

Williams tirelessly worked as a "one-man department" performing extensive field research of the park grounds, creating publications for professional and general consumption, and integrating his findings into interpretive programs for the public. Emulating a trailside museum model popularized at Bear Mountain State Park in New York, a small rustic cabin was opened under Williams' direction in the North Chagrin Reservation during the summer of 1931. Conceived as a tool to get people into the park, the North Chagrin Trailside Museum was embedded within the woods and acted as an adjunct to a nearby educational nature trail previously established by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Both the museum and trail were designed to convey an educational narrative of the beech maple climax forest to park goers.

Visitors to the museum were instructed by an assortment of hands-on exhibits pertaining to the natural history of the region - both inanimate and otherwise. The most acclaimed attraction was an array of tame or baby animals, which included black snakes, skunks, opossums, woodchucks, turtles and owls. Whether it be Pete the raccoon, a collection of arrowheads or cross sections of trees, all exhibited objects and animals were common to the area. Each was chosen to help inform visitors in their jaunts along the park trails. With Williams generally on hand to answer questions, or to summon crows to perch on his arm in anticipation of food, a visit to the museum was designed as an exercise in non-compulsory education. Weekly informal talks and guided nature trail hikes were offered for those wanting more.

The exhibits, events and presentations offered by both Williams and Cleveland Museum of Natural History staff at the trailside museum proved successful in attracting an enthusiastic public. By 1935, the informal outdoor lectures performed in a small clearing between the cabin and nature trail regularly packed in over 140 eager, inquisitive visitors. Over 34,000 persons had visited the North Chagrin Trailside Museum the prior year, and the educational nature trails continued to attract throngs of park patrons. With the immediate and apparent success of the trailside model in North Chagrin Reservation, plans had long since been concocted to build similar centers along educational nature trails in other parks. Limitations in staff and funding due to the looming economic depression thwarted these efforts.

With the assistance of federal funding and work relief projects, additional trailside museums were erected in the Rocky River and Brecksville Reservations during the mid 1930s. Each mirrored the characteristics of the North Chagrin museum: small rustic cabins were set into the woods adjoining educational nature trails, and were devoted to telling the story of the unique environments in which they sat. In Rocky River, construction of the museum was supervised by the Metropolitan Park Board's Landscape Department as a Works Projects Administration project. The cabin premiered in the fall of 1935, and was opened to the public the following summer. Under the guise of eyeballing resident toads, salamanders and pollywogs, programming and exhibits interpreted the habitat of the northern Ohio flood plain. Situated just a short walk from streetcars, the Rocky River museum soon matched the attendance of its North Chagrin counterpart.

The location of the third Trailside Museum was chosen to depict the oak hickory forests of the Brecksville Reservation. While work on the building was started by the Civilian Conservation Corps, its completion - as well as the fine craftsmanship - can be attributed to skilled laborers employed through the Works Progress Administration. Accompanying the opening of the Brecksville museum in 1939, the North Chagrin cabin was also enlarged and remodeled as a Works Project Administration project. A fourth Trailside Museum was opened in 1943 by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History at Gordon Park to interpret the habitat of Lake Erie. This collaboration with the City of Cleveland proved short-lived, however; the building became inaccessible and was abandoned during the construction of the Memorial Shoreway, but was eventually revamped as the Cleveland Aquarium.

The three Trailside Museums within the park system continued to offer informal lectures, guided nature walks, and a variety of rotating and permanent exhibits. Guarded by the forests from the sights and sounds of urban life, these small buildings acted as a hub for interaction between the public and representatives of the Cleveland Metropolitan Park District. The Park Board eventually took over the reins of managing the museums in 1954 following the creation of its own educational department. Having consistently provided interpretive programming and hands-on educational opportunities at trailside museums for a quarter century, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History helped change the way the public perceived and used parks in Cleveland.

Building upon the Natural History Museum's legacy, the Metropolitan Park District continued to expand educational programming within the park system. New, modernized nature centers were built to house public events and exhibitions, as well as to provide amenities to visitors. While both the North Chagrin and Rocky River Trailside Museums were eventually destroyed by fire, the museum in Brecksville Reservation was revamped as the Brecksville Nature Center. The structure, dating back to the days of the Works Progress Administration, still stands as a reminder of the Park Board's earliest efforts to both engage with and provide educational programming to the public.

Audio

Lending a Hand at the Brecksville Trailside Museum Roger Rodsworth describes his summers spent at the Brecksville Trailside Museum during the 1940s. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
Memories of Park Naturalist, Harold Wallin Bill Zelazny, who worked a summer job at the Brecksville Trailside Museum in the mid 1950s, shares his memories of Harold Wallin. Wallin was the Cleveland Metropolitan Park District's first Park Naturalist. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
Cub Scouts at the Rocky River Trailside Museum Gordon Griffin remembers earning a Cub Scout badge at the Rocky River Trailside Museum during the 1940s. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
Sunrise Walk at the North Chagrin Trailside Museum Cleveland resident Ms. Hutter remembers a sunrise walk at the North Chagrin Trailside Museum during the early 1970s. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
Lectures at the Trailside Musuems William Pierce recounts visits to the North Chagrin Trailside Museum during the Great Depression. Source: Courtesy of the Cleveland Metroparks
Education in the Cleveland Metropolitan Park District Harvey Webster, Director of Wildlife Resources at Cleveland Museum of Natural History, describes the relationship between the museum and Cleveland Metropolitan Park District during the early years of the park system.

Images

Harold Wallin displays Fibber the barn owl Harold Wallin, pictured above, was contracted as the resident keeper at the Rocky River Trailside Museum during the late 1930s and early 1940s. From summer to fall, keepers lived in the small cabins and tended to the animals. Wallin would eventually resign from his post as curator of education for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in 1954 to accept a position as the Cleveland Metropolitan Park System's first park naturalist. Source: Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection
North Chagrin Nature Trail and Trailside Museum Trailside Museums were designed and strategically located to draw the public into the natural world. Each museum was representative of a unique environment in the Cleveland Metroparks, and accessible only by a short trail into the forest. The rustic buildings were meant to draw attention to what Arthur B. Williams considered the true exhibit - the surrounding environment. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
Nature Study at the Brecksville Trailside Museum As a component of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's efforts to cultivate a sympathetic appreciation toward nature and wildlife, many programs at the Trailside Museums were geared towards children. Beginning in 1940, the Natural History Museum expanded its outreach to the community's youth by inviting public school classes to the Trailside Museums for nature lessons. Additionally, the Trailside Explorer's Club and Junior Explorer's Club were established. Divided into groups based on interest in birds, insects, trees or the miscellaneous, a resident naturalist at each Trailside Museum met with recruits on weekday morning throughout the summer. During the fall and winter, the clubs were hosted at the downtown Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
Brecksville Trailside Museum, 1939 The Brecksville Trailside Museum, now known as the Brecksville Nature Center, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in August of 1992. The skilled, intricate handiwork of work relief laborers can still be observed in the nature center's sturdy American chestnut frame, stone work, wrought iron chandeliers, ornamental wood carvings, windows and benches. Constructed of native materials and designed to sit in visual harmony with the natural surroundings, the building is reflective of Natural Park Service rustic architecture. This style influenced the character of many rustic lodges, shelter houses and cabins built by Works Project Administration. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
North Chagrin Nature Trail The establishment of Trailside Museums grew from a previous informal collaboration between the Metropolitan Park Board and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. In the summer of 1928, a coterie of brush-clearing Boy Scouts taking direction from the head of the museum's educational department, Edmund V. Cooke, blazed the park system's first instructional nature trail. Located seventeen miles from Public Square in the wilderness of Cleveland Metroparks North Chagrin Reservation, the pathway was three quarters of a mile long and situated between two main trails. Lined with signs and placards, the walk was designed to tell the stories of local flora and geological strata. The museum's experiment in "teaching nature painlessly" quickly found favor with park-goers, and three additional pathways were developed in the Cleveland Metroparks South Chagrin, Brecksville and Rocky River Reservations. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
Inspecting the Aquarium at North Chagrin Trailside Museum The development of Trailside Museums as cultural centers was founded on three principles set by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Each Trailside Museum should interpret the territory surrounding it. All things associated with the museum, including programming and exhibits, should be founded on scientific fact. The museums should act as an outdoor laboratory, and display as many living specimens of life as possible. These standards guided the transformation of Trailside Museums into symbols of the educational and cultural value of the Cleveland Metroparks. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
Harold Madison at the North Chagrin Trailside Museum Founded in 1920, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History was built upon the "new museum idea" that came to fruition during the Progressive Era: museums should not be closed-off bastions of scientific knowledge that simply house collections for professionals, but places of public education and cultural enrichment. During its first decade, the museum pursued a diverse program of collecting and analyzing specimens, publishing academic and popular publication, and interpreting its findings in exhibitions and public programming. Appointed director of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in 1931, Harold Madison was quickly faced with the difficulties of fulfilling these lofty aims during an economic depression. With staff cut from 43 to 29 persons, the museum's volunteer staff of over 150 persons was used to man the Trailside Museums for events such as wildflower walks. Many of the volunteer staff that aided in the operation of the Trailside Museums were drawn from bird or gardening clubs. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
North Chagrin Trailside Museum The North Chagrin Trailside Museum and self-guided footpath were modeled by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History after educational nature trails and museums developed during the 1920s through a collaboration between the American Museum of Natural History and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission at Bear Mountain State Park in New York. The nation's first educational nature trails and trailside museums at Bear Mountain State Park attracted the praise and attendance of the public, and the model was emulated in both state and national parks across the country. With the opening of the North Chagrin Trailside Museum during the summer of 1931, the Cleveland laid claim to being the first city or regional public park system to draw from this blueprint. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Department
Please Do Not Pick the Wild Flowers! With the Metropolitan Park Board's plans in place by to make Cleveland's park grounds accessible, the challenges of promoting the conservation of park resources to the public fell on the Park Police and museum staff. Educational programming offered by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History attempted to convey meaning and a sense of value to the public grounds. In this pursuit, the Park Naturalist regularly gave illustrated lectures at schools, churches and nature clubs throughout the 1930s. One point regularly impressed upon audiences was that the park grounds were a preserve for all visitors to enjoy, and that wild flowers, trees and rocks should not be removed from the parks or defaced. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
Rocky River Wildflower Trail The first wildflower trail was introduced in the spring of 1933 at the North Chagrin Reservation, and was received with considerable public interest. Over 150 labels located along several footpaths inside a quarter acre tract near the Trailside Museum were consistently maintained to keep up with changes in vegetation by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The following year, more than 11,000 visitors were reported to have passed along the informational nature trail. A similar wildflower trail was opened near the Rocky River Trailside Museum in 1937. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
Hands-On Education at the Rocky River Trailside Museum The Trailside Museums in the Cleveland Metroparks were popular for their animal exhibits. Living displays, out-of-doors programs, and a "hands-on" approach to education were increasingly employed by natural history museums in the United States throughout the interwar years. In 1940, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History received praise and recognition from both the National Park Service and American Association of Museums for the unique quality of its outdoor programs. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
Baby Owls at the Rocky River Trailside Museum, 1939 Animals displayed at the Trailside Museums were generally captured by the resident naturalists or donated by visitors at the beginning of each museum season. Most were released back to the wild with the closing of the museums in the fall. Inhabitants that had been tamed as babies, or would otherwise be unable to survive the winter, were either kept at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History or placed in the care of kindred educational organizations. The baby owls pictured above were donated to the Trailside Museum after their parents destroyed a nearby dovecote in search of food; the owl nest was hunted down, and the youngsters placed in the custody of Harold Wallin at the Rocky River Trailside Museum. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
Arthur B. Williams Each Trailside Museum was designed with a small outdoor lecture space. Equipped with chestnut log seats and a tree stump rostrum, the grounds were used for weekly informal talks. Pictured above, Arthur B. Williams teaches a college course as part of a collaboration between the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and Western Reserve University. Until 1950, Willams was the public face of the Trailside Museum experiment. Through his work as the Park Naturalist, he helped guide and popularize the work performed by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in the public parks. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks

Location

Metadata

Richard Raponi, “Trailside Museums,” Cleveland Historical, accessed October 3, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/673.