Friday, December 14, 2012

Preserving the Forest

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.
In the early 1950s a twenty-seven acre plot was purchased for the site of Mentor Headlands Elementary School, but when the school opened in 1955 at what is now 5028 Forest Road in Mentor, only three acres had actually been built on. The rest of the property, a wooded area, was left untouched and was evidently regarded as useless.

Early examination of the forest behind the school.
Arlene realized that the woods behind Headlands Elementary School could serve both educational and conservationist purposes if it were designated as a permanent school forest where students could observe nature firsthand and learn about plants and animals, their growth and seasonal changes.

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.
Finally Arlene took Patterson Bole up on his offer to examine the forest area behind Headlands Elementary School. On March 24, 1959, Bole walked over the land with Arlene and a group of interested people that included Carol Sweet and Mrs. Coupland. Bole determined that the land had been cut only once before, in the 1880s. He pointed out its wealth of features—high ground facing every direction, low marsh areas unique to northeastern Ohio, evidence of forty Erie Indian fire pits and a possible Indian burial ground, the only wooded ravine preserved on Lake Erie’s shores between Cleveland and Painesville, and nearly every variety of tree, wildflower, and animal that was native to northeastern Ohio. Bole judged the site an excellent choice for a school forest.

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.

A meeting of some of the movers and shakers behind the Headlands School Forest. Robert Paton at upper left, Headlands Elementary School Principal Wayne Kihorany at upper right, B. Patterson Bole at lower left, and Arlene Hietanen at lower right. From an unidentified news clipping.

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.
On February 25, 1960, the wooded area behind Headlands Elementary became a true school forest. That day Arlene led Mrs. Speece’s fifth grade class on the first Headlands School Forest walk. Over the next few months more than four hundred fourth, fifth, and sixth graders followed in their footsteps. Arlene’s speech for the class walks began: “This is our outdoor classroom; it is also something else—it’s a home, of wild flowers, birds, trees, animals, and we will enter it as guests—with respect for what we see.” She pointed out varieties of wildflowers—trillium, trout lily, may apple, to name just a few from her lists. She had the students listen to birdsong and taught them about the importance of conservation. One of the features both she and the kids seemed most delighted by was fungus.

Unidentified newspaper clipping. Click to enlarge.
Her notes on Bracket Fungus read in part: “The spore develops by protruding one or more tiny threads or ‘mycelia’ that finally penetrate into the cells of a tree and steal nutrients manufactured for the tree’s own growth. In time the tree will starve.” And, “It has its good points though: it makes a fine absorbent dressing for cuts and other wounds.” And more charmingly, “It has been called the ‘dryad’s saddle’ because long ago when people believed fairies and nymphs peopled the woods they thought these tiny ones used the growth as seats or stools.”

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.”

Class representative Douglas Pohto of Mrs. Speece's class wrote a thank you letter to Arlene Hietanen after the first day of school visits to the Headlands School Forest. Douglas Pohto is Arlene's (and my) relative by marriage. Douglas's great-uncle's daughter Hilja Pohto married Jacob Kauno Hietanen, an uncle of Arlene's husband Everett Hietanen. Used with the permission of Douglas Pohto. Click picture to enlarge.
Formal dedication of the school forest took place on April 29, 1960, proclaimed by Ohio Governor Michael DiSalle as Arbor Day. Invitations had been sent to all the Mentor Elementary Schools, asking that each send representatives to the ceremony. Arlene’s partner in the project, Harriet Forbes, was guest speaker. She recounted the steps taken in planning the school forest and stressed the importance of conservation. Among other features the winning student essays were read aloud and the school chorus sang.

Planting the tree at the school to honor Arlene Hietanen.
The final announcement of the ceremony was a surprise. It had been decided to honor the person who had led the way and contributed so much time and effort into making the school forest a reality. Headlands Elementary School Principal Wayne Kihorany announced that a tree would be planted in front of the school—a tree in honor of Arlene Hietanen. And so it was.

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.
Arlene Hietanen and Martha Keltto were involved with the Headlands School Forest until their deaths, but after they were gone, the school forest languished. In the 1970s Headlands Elementary School teacher Gwen Stephens Meissner was assigned the job of reviving the school forest and was instrumental in bringing it back for a while. But when Meissner moved on, the Headlands School Forest languished once more.

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.”


  1. Mrs. Fais was very active in the wildflower walks in the school forest. She taught us a lot about nature. She loved the forest behind the school and took us on many walks.

  2. I was surprised to see no mention of Mrs. Fais in this essay. She was a vital part of these efforts for many years and left a legacy of nature lovers like myself.

  3. Mrs. Fais was my favorite teacher at Headlands Elementary. I remember being in the woods learning about all the spring flowers and the Jack in the Pulpit which I thought was amazing. Remember her with love every time I see one. <3

    1. So do I Rhonda...I had her as my 5th grade teacher in 1975...always went on the flower and bird walks...she was also my neighbor across the street on Wake Robin Road..oh I loved her..till this day I remember all her short cuts on Math...BEST teacher EVER♥♥

  4. Hi, Senta and Rhonda. Glad you had good experiences with Mrs. Fais. I'm not aware of her and don't know what years she was involved in the school forest. The blog post was primarily a tribute to my grandmother, Arlene Stuuri Hietanen, and the work she did to start the school forest. It's not a history of the school forest, per se, so I didn't delve into all the people ever involved with it. I'm glad to know, however, that others at Headlands Elementary continued the work of my grandmother and carried on her enthusiasm for nature and conservation. Thanks for your comments.

  5. Thank you for this blog post. It was very interesting to learn about the history of the Headlands School Forest. I attended Headlands Elementary from 1989-1994. I was a flower walk guide for several years and had Mrs. Meissner as my teacher. I loved giving flower walks through the forest and playing there in the summer. Thanks again!

  6. Thank you all for your kind words about my mother, Marilyn Fais. Yes, she lead her fifth graders on wildflower walks in the 60's - 90's, had a feeder installed outside of her classroom window and was a wonderful teacher in general. And, at the age of 90, she continues to be an avid birder and lover of nature. She currently resides at the Brookdale East Side in Fayetteville, NY, should any of you want to be in touch. I have printed this article and put it in the mail to her. You will bring joy to her heart!

    1. Your Mother was my most influential teachers. Please thank her for me! Sincerely, Lori Rosborough Stevenson

  7. I was a student at Headlands elementary in the early sixties and learned much about nature in those woods. The Headlands was thriving and had great possibilities at that time. A great community to grow up in. Now I know something about the visionary who contributed so much to so many of us. Thanks for your great writing.