In 1956 a few interested citizens of Mentor Headlands became aware that the obliteration of natural areas was progressing parallel with the growth of the community.So begins an essay by my maternal grandmother, Arlene Wilhelmina Stuuri Hietanen (1917-1971), on the development of a school forest—a sort of outdoor classroom—at Headlands Elementary School in Mentor, Lake County, Ohio.
What the essay fails to mention is how vital my grandmother was to the project. Although many people were involved in making the school forest a reality, it was Arlene’s initial idea and her work at the forefront of every step that turned a leftover area of real estate into a community asset.
|Diagram of Headlands Elementary School property, showing the area of the proposed school forest. This diagram may have been drawn by Martha Keltto. Click to enlarge.|
|Early examination of the forest behind the school.|
On September 18, 1956, Arlene wrote a letter to Warren H. Corning of the Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, Ohio, asking for advice on starting a school forest on the unused land. Corning forwarded her letter to Benjamin Patterson Bole, Jr., an assistant professor and naturalist at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Patterson Bole was on the executive board of Mentor’s Holden Arboretum and lived in nearby Kirtland Hills. Bole’s reply to Arlene’s letter gave specific advice on preparing a school forest—“There must be at least 75% of the actual ground surface that is free from the danger of running, romping children”—and he offered to visit the forest area to judge its potential.
Progress was slow for many months, but occasional signs of encouragement popped up. At one point Arlene communicated her tentative plans for a school forest to Mr. Coupland and Mr. Shadle of the Mentor School Board. The reply was, “Go ahead.” In spring of 1958, Carol Sweet of the Horticultural Committee of Mentor’s Garden Club encouraged Arlene to proceed with her plans.
|Flowers in the school forest, photo probably by Alice Sinko.|
On May 15, 1959, at the invitation of the Mentor School Board, Arlene and her partners presented a short proposal for a school forest at a school board meeting. The board reacted positively to the forest’s clear educational potential. Additional advantages were that the land was unused, it was adjacent to the school, and best of all, the school already owned it. The board authorized Arlene and her committee to proceed with their plans, requesting a more detailed presentation at the July 15th school board meeting.
Arlene wrote to Robert R. Paton, Forester with the Ohio Forestry Association, Inc., requesting copies of the association’s booklet “Planning School Forests.” Using this booklet as a guide, Arlene, Carol Sweet, Harriet Forbes, Martha Keltto and others formed a committee within the Mentor Headlands Garden Club to spearhead the school forest project.
At the July 15 Mentor School Board meeting the board listened to a full presentation from Arlene and her group on the proposed school forest. The school board enthusiastically approved the plan.
Arlene and Harriet Forbes invited Arlene’s Ohio Forestry Association correspondent, Robert Paton, to tour the forest area on October 22, 1959. Also in attendance were Superintendent of Schools W. W. Zinser, Headlands Elementary School Principal Wayne L. Kihorany, teachers from Headlands Elementary School, members of the Garden Club, and other interested parties. Arlene served luncheon at her home to Robert Paton and the Garden Club committee, then they met the rest of the group for the forest tour. Afterward Paton declared that the forest had the potential to become one of the finest school forests in the state.
Planning sped onward. In January 1960, Robert Paton mentioned several experts from Columbus who were interested in the Mentor Headlands school forest project. After viewing the forest on February 2, 1960, one of the experts, Robert Finley, Supervisor of Conservation Education of the State Department of Education, said he’d seen nothing in Ohio to compare with it. Carl Johnson, professor of Conservation at Ohio State University and Chairman of the Ohio Forestry Association’s School Forest Committee, observed that the proposed school forest was “the cheapest classroom you have.” The experts proclaimed it an excellent teaching tool for not only Headlands Elementary but for all the schools in the area, as well as for scouting organizations and other groups interested in conservation. Arlene and her co-workers made sure that local reporters attended this meeting.
Press coverage increased as a School Forest Board was appointed by the Garden Club Committee and school officials. The board included all the interested parties, plus representatives from the town and school. Maps were drawn, trails marked, identification markers both permanent and seasonal were prepared, and class projects were planned. A school essay contest on the theme “Our School Forest” and a drawing contest pertaining to “a trip to the woods” were announced.
|An early student tour of the Headlands School Forest. Arlene Hietanen stands at right, face partly obscured by leaves.|
|Unidentified newspaper clipping. Click to enlarge.|
One letter of appreciation from Mrs. Speece’s student John Ryerson reads, “We found out about . . . wooden mushrooms . . . puffballs, fungus . . . We liked the old Indian village and the dried up Grand River. The Indian pits were very interesting.”
|Planting the tree at the school to honor Arlene Hietanen.|
The plan had never been to limit the Headlands School Forest only to school groups, so Boy Scout groups and special science classes also toured it. The Mentor Garden Club led forest tours for any interested parties. Arlene enlisted her sister Alice Lillian Stuuri Sinko (1915– 2002), my great-aunt, to photograph wildflowers in the school forest for use in talks to schools, scouts, and others. Arlene spoke to various organizations about the school forest, how it came to be and the importance of teaching conservation. The October 1967 issue of American Home magazine published an article by Dorothy B. Warnick on the Headlands School Forest. Arlene continued to take an active interest in the preservation of natural features of her community, especially in the fate of Mentor Marsh, which was finally declared a Living Museum under the custodianship of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in 1971.
|The Mentor Marsh portion of the Headlands School Forest. This photo was probably taken by Arlene's sister, my great-aunt Alice Stuuri Sinko.|
I never toured the Headlands School Forest with my grandmother Arlene. She died young while I was still a child. But I remember her interest in nature and conservation. One summer she had my sister and me catch caterpillars and keep them in old cigar boxes where they built cocoons. It was quite a surprise one morning to open one of the boxes and find a large moth inside, seemingly from nowhere. On another visit she took us walking through Mentor Marsh where I remember her pointing out Queen Anne’s Lace and the sassafras tree’s three distinct leaves, which we picked and chewed.
My grandmother was proud of her accomplishments. But nothing lasts forever—not Headlands Elementary School (it closed in 2011 due to declining enrollment, it’s now the Dr. Jacqueline A. Hoynes School housing the Cardinal Autism Resource Education School), not the school forest (it languished after Meissner’s revival), not the pine tree planted in my grandmother’s honor on Arbor Day 1960 (it was gone in the 1990s), and not my grandmother. She died in 1971.
Arlene knew that change was part of life and believed in the importance of understanding life’s cycle. As she said to the children she led through the Headlands School Forest, “As we talk here now, it is changing—there are things being born out of the ground, there are things dying and returning to the ground. . . . You can see it happening. Some are weak, some are strong, some help others, some hurt others. We can learn all this if we look, listen, and think. . . . This is the way we are citizens of our country. This is a little piece of this great country.”