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Roots Revealed Blog

Our First Naturalist

Posted: 5/7/2013
Posted By: Foster Brown


  A.B. Williams and chickadee
Photograph courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Do you have a favorite naturalist or cultural history interpreter at Cleveland Metroparks who has unlocked the wonders of nature and cultural history for you? To thousands in the 1930s and ‘40s, our first naturalist did just that. Who was it, you ask? It was A.B. Williams, our first three-piece-suit naturalist, researcher and writer who left a solid legacy of outdoor education and nature study in Northeast Ohio.

A.B. Williams was a Yale University graduate who moved to Cleveland to study law in 1905. Within a few years, he entered the real estate business, where he worked until his mid 50s. Two years prior to helping Cleveland Metropolitan Parks, he taught children at the Fairmount Presbyterian Church natural sciences during Sunday School.

As a child, Arthur B. Williams roamed the woods around the Scranton, Pennsylvania area, where he would sneak to during classroom time and explore nature. His passion for forest ecology was no doubt fostered while skipping class. In his early 60s, A.B. Williams’ insatiable interest for the natural sciences led him to earn a doctorate from Western Reserve University in 1935. His doctoral thesis was based on the beech/maple forest found in North Chagrin Reservation, which he had come to love and study in great depth.

For 20 years starting in 1930, A.B. Williams was a contracted naturalist for Cleveland Metropolitan Parks through the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. His research, educational programs, writings in books and weekly newspaper columns, and his association with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History all influenced a multitude of Greater Cleveland residents.

His interest in the land did not surpass his interest in the people he lectured, hiked with and talked to on a daily basis. His drive to inspire people to experience nature for themselves was apparent in the establishment of Trailside Museums throughout Cleveland Metroparks in the 1930s. North Chagrin opened the first Trailside Museum (1931), hosting nature classes; tree, bird, wildflower and geology walks; and a children’s program called the Trailside Explorers. Rocky River (1936) and Brecksville (1939) added their own Trailside Museums, establishing seasonal programs in their unique habitats.

Trailside Museum - Brecksville Reservation - nature program

           Trailside Museum - North Chagrin Reservation - 1931
      Courtesy of Cleveland Pulblic Library - Photography Collection

Each Trailside Museum was strategically placed in a forested area with a trail leading to each. Walking and immersing oneself into the natural environment before reaching the museum (nature center) was part of A.B. Williams’ philosophy. Each Trailside Museum exhibited mounted birds, mammals and reptiles and other specimens prepared by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Live indigenous animals were kept at each site to intrigue and educate visitors. It is thought that these trailside museums were the first in our nation’s history.

Mr. Williams was respected by experts in the fields of outdoor education and ecology. In the 1940s, he was instrumental in the Kirtland Society, a broad-based nature study group that focused on ornithology, geology, nature photography, reptiles, trees and many other subjects. Out of this Society came the Kirtland Bird Club, which is still thriving today.

He served as naturalist and curator of education at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, naturalist for the City of Cleveland, the managing board of Holden Arboretum, and Chairman of Committee of the Moses Cleaveland Trees Sesquicentennial Commission, just to name a few.

He published several studies and reports entitled, “Birds of the Cleveland Region,” “The Native Forests of Cuyahoga County, Ohio,” and “Geology for the Cleveland Region.” His weekly nature column for the Cleveland Press brought nature education into Clevelanders’ homes from 1943 to 1950.

In North Chagrin Reservation, a granite stone and plaque are placed amidst his beloved beech/maple woods, protected in his name – the A.B. Williams Memorial Woods.

This remarkable man built a firm outdoor education/nature study foundation for Cleveland Metroparks. Today, Cleveland Metroparks naturalists and cultural history interpreters still build upon the legacies of naturalists like A.B. Williams. We too want to unlock the wonders of nature and cultural history to our patrons, like Our First Naturalist.

 A.B. Williams with a lesson on skunk cabbage - 1945
Courtesy of Cleveland State University - Cleveland Press Collection


Foster Brown
Cleveland Metroparks
Historical Interpreter/naturalist


1/24/2014 2:32:20 AM by Georgene Moizuk Bramlage
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