Crooked River Reflections | Rediscovering Harriet Keeler

writing by Arrye Rosser

As a community, who do we honor in our public spaces? Many organizations, including the National Park Service, have been highlighting women’s contributions this year. On Women’s Equality Day (Aug. 26), the US marked 100 years since the 19th Amendment was ratified. This hard-won change to the Constitution gave voting rights to some, but not all, women. 

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At Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the centennial has been an opportunity to knuckle down to research into our local stories. Personally, it’s been something of a shock. Exhibit A is Harriet Louise Keeler (1846-1921). In Brecksville Reservation, a bronze plaque on an upright boulder identifies her as a “Teacher – Author – Citizen.” I’d always understood this to mean that she was a beloved educator who wrote charming nature books. She was. But this respectable woman in white was also a rock star.

Teacher. In 1912, Keeler, who had been an English teacher and a high school principal for 38 years, came out of retirement to briefly serve as superintendent of Cleveland Public Schools. She was only the second woman in a major U.S. city to hold this post. The National Archives has newspaper articles from the Maui News (Hawaii) and The Day Book (Chicago) covering her appointment.

Author. Keeler was best known during her lifetime as an author of seven nature guides. Her books had a New York publisher, reached a national audience, and were reprinted multiple times. She was a respected botanist who used her mastery of language and literature to engage readers. Her most famous guide, Our Native Trees and How to Identify Them (1900), remains available via Kent State University Press.  

Citizen. Among her many civic activities, Keeler was a long-time advocate for women’s rights. She was the Cuyahoga County president of the Woman’s Suffrage party when it opened an office in Cleveland in 1913. The League of Women Voters of Ohio included Keeler as a pioneer on its 1930 “State Roll of Honor.”

Keeler died in 1921, the year after the 19th Amendment was ratified. (Did she ever get to vote?) Friends and fans rallied shortly afterwards to commemorate her, working with the newly formed Cleveland Metroparks to set aside 300 acres as the Harriet Keeler Memorial Woods. Over time, this included a monument, a nature trail, and a picnic pavilion in her name. The property was some of the first parkland preserved in Cuyahoga Valley. It became the core of what is now Cleveland Metroparks’ largest reservation and some of the best forest within the surrounding national park.

A century later, it is still rare to find monuments to professional women in Northeast Ohio or elsewhere. Had Keeler not been remembered in this way, a certain ranger would never have added her story to the national conversation. It reminds me of how the Summit Suffrage Centennial Committee is trying to erect a Sojourner Truth statue in Akron, near the site of her renowned “Ain’t I A Woman” speech. 

Who we recognize as worthy of public art, plaques, and monuments does matter. These choices reflect our community’s values — who we are and what we care about. Sometimes the traditional stories are not the full stories. For me, the moral of the Harriet Louise Keeler story is that it always pays to do your homework. 

Arrye Rosser is an interpretive and education specialist at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.