At the Harriet Keeler Memorial in Brecksville Reservation, the bronze plaque reads: “Teacher – Author – Citizen: She liveth in the continuing generation of the woods she loved.” Following her death in 1921, mourners worked together to preserve over 300 acres of parkland in her honor. It remains a remarkable testament to a remarkable life. Even today, public monuments to a professional woman are rare. Keeler was a Cleveland educator, botanist, author, suffragist, and lover of nature. Each aspect of her self-made career brought her a measure of celebrity far beyond northeast Ohio.
Keeler was born into a prosperous farm family in New York state in 1846. After leaving school at age 14, she began teaching in Cherry Hill. This was one of the few careers available to women at the time. She went on to a college preparatory school that taught mostly men and then to Oberlin College. Earning a bachelor of arts degree distinguished her from other female job seekers. (Keeler returned to get a master of arts degree in 1900.)
After she graduated in 1870, she began a 38-year career with the Cleveland Public Schools. She was described as brilliant and inspiring. At first she taught English, becoming a favorite teacher for many. Later she became the principal of Central High School, retiring in 1908.
From January to September 1912, “Miss Harriet Keeler” was called back to service and appointed superintendent of schools. The story was picked up nationally. Under the heading “Concerning Women,” The Maui News (Hawaii) reported how hers was one of “six important positions filled by a woman in a city which two years ago had but one woman in a public office...” The others were a female tenement inspector, an assistant librarian, a woman in charge of “outdoor relief,” and two school board members.
On January 10, The Day Book (Chicago) ran a short article with a photo. The text reads:
“Miss Harriet Keeler, aged 65, is the second woman to be made superintendent of schools of a large city. To settle factional rows, Cleveland has elected her to that position, following the example of Chicago, where Mrs. Ella Flagg Young is head of the scholls [sic]. Miss Keeler gets $6,000 a year. Miss Keeler is a woman of high literary attainments. She has written several valuable textbooks. She is younger than her years indicate and is vigorous and active.”
Despite her long career in education, Keeler was best known during her lifetime as an author. Although she published various English textbooks and a biography, she is most remembered for her seven nature guides. They reached a national audience and were reprinted multiple times. The first was The Wildflowers of Early Spring (1894). The most famous, Our Native Trees and How to Identify Them (1900), was printed by Charles Scribner’s Sons and remains available via The Kent State University Press. According to Oberlin College, Keeler traveled across the United States and abroad to study nature.
In an online profile of Keeler, Richard Raponi noted that botany was a socially acceptable field of study for women starting in the early 1800s. “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.” There was a division between “scientific” and “recreational” study of plants, the latter being the domain of women and writers. Keeler followed in this tradition.
Keeler’s work was part of the Nature Study Movement which began in the 1890s. As America industrialized, it became popular for people to escape urban pollution and crowding by exploring the countryside. In contrast to city life, nature was often romanticized and associated with virtue. Guides, cameras, and collecting jars became the tools of wanderers. Keeler’s writing blended her technical mastery of botany with her knowledge of literature and writing. She spiced up her science with references to Longfellow, Thoreau, Emerson, Whittier, and other prominent authors. Progressive educators such as Keeler wanted to foster an appreciation for the natural world through outdoor experiences.
In addition to her professional accomplishments, Keeler was active in the civic life of northern Ohio. She was a respected voice in the Progressive Era women’s club movement. In a profile, Case Western Reserve University lists her activities as “president of the Cuyahoga County Suffrage Association, founding member of the College Club, charter member of the Fortnightly Club, Oberlin College trustee, and memberships in the Woman’s Club, Women’s City Club, and Garden Club.” In 1888 the president of what was then Western Reserve University invited Keeler to serve on the newly created Mather Advisory Council. These first 12 women helped guide the university in establishing a college for women. She was a member until her death, serving both as vice-president and president. In 1913 Western Reserve University awarded her an honorary degree.
Keeler passionately advocated for women’s voting rights. As a young woman, she was inspired by Oberlin alumna, abolitionist, and suffragist Betsey M. Cowles to pursue high education. Later Keeler brought her scholarship to this cause. About 1885, she wrote a remarkable pamphlet called “The Question of Woman Suffrage as it Seems to Me.” In it, Keeler talked about the “world-wide revolt of woman against what she deems the intolerable conditions of her life.” She reviewed the concerns of women in China, Russia, and Islamic countries as voiced at an international convention in Budapest. She described suffrage in the context of societal changes caused by the industrial revolution. “By the development of machinery, by the application of steam and electricity, through the organization made possible by the telegraph and the telephone, all the varied industries which were once the occupation of women, which were carried on under the family roof-tree, have been swept out of the home into the factories—and women have followed their work.”
Keeler continued “. . . water, light, pure air, prevention of disease, have passed away from the control of the individual. It is urged that women should stay at home, but the home-maker is helpless to care for and protect her children unless she can dominate the collective authority which controls smoke, noxious gases, ventilation of buildings, laws for garbage, areas of school spaces, etc. Can a mother give her child wholesome food? Not without control of the food supply . . .” She added that “. . . men habitually think in terms of the dollar; women habitually in the terms of welfare . . .”
On June 7, 1912, The Pensacola Journal (Florida) ran a story called “Women Educators Want the Ballot.” Keeler is quoted as favoring woman suffrage: “The work has gone as far as man can take it alone . . . If it progresses much farther it will have to be with the help of women.”
In 1913, with the Ohio campaign heating up, the Woman Suffrage party opened its headquarters in Cleveland. Keeler served as its president that year, but stepped away early due to health issues. Cuyahoga County had 4,000 members at the time. The League of Women Voters of Ohio included Keeler as a pioneer on its 1930 “State Roll of Honor.” This was part of the national organization’s 10-year celebration. (League of Women Voters formed upon passage of the 19th amendment.) Keeler was also a member of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association.
Keeler’s Legacy in Cuyahoga Valley
There are two places in Cuyahoga Valley National Park where we can reflect on Harriet Keeler’s legacy. The first is in the Brecksville Reservation. Here, shortly after Keeler’s death in 1921, some of the first parkland preserved in the valley was set aside in her honor. Harriet Keeler Memorial Woods became the core of what is now the largest property of Cleveland Metroparks. During this period, Raponi described “the blossoming of a nationwide crusade to create idealized, rural-esque park spaces for city dwellers.” This woods was one of the seeds planted during the period when the National Park Service, Cleveland Metroparks, and Summit Metro Parks were born.
The other site is Blossom Music Center. Going back to the list of Keeler’s activities, the Fortnightly Musical Club laid the groundwork for the Cleveland Orchestra. Today the orchestra’s summer home, Blossom Music Center, is in the national park.
As you visit these places, consider the scope of Harriet Keeler’s accomplishments. What do you want your legacy to be?