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Roots Revealed Blog

Parks of the Past

Posted: 4/2/2014
Posted By: Judith MacKeigan

Outside the windows of the building where my office is located I can see the beauty of the Rocky River valley.  I can also glimpse the greens of Big Met Golf Course, and watch people jogging along the All Purpose Trail or driving or biking along the road that winds through the valley.  If I left my office and joined the traffic along the road I would come upon picnic shelters and swing sets.  If I parked my car and headed toward the river on foot, I could head deeper into the woods and enjoy natural beauty that my ancestors, unfamiliar with cars and golf clubs, would recognize.  Repeating this exercise throughout Cleveland Metroparks would result in different specifics, but I think you get the idea.

The point of the above musings is to illustrate that people have different ideas of what a park should look like and what function it should serve.  The idea of what a park should be has also changed through the years.  The walls of my cubicle are covered with early postcards and photos of the places that are now part of Cleveland Metroparks.  (NOTE: I am always happy to receive any old photos or postcards!) 

One of my office walls. Artistic? Maybe. Thought provoking? Definitely.

Images of old Cleveland city parks, like Garfield, Brookside and Edgewater, show the late 19th century practice of “improving” nature by adding stone walls, wooden bridges and curved walkways for visitors dressed in their Sunday best to stroll on as they admired the views. 

The man-made lake at Brookside Park, circa 1905. This is now Waterfowl Lake at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

As bathing (we would call it swimming) became socially acceptable, respectable park areas along Lake Erie began to provide bath houses, complete with water slides and rented bathing suits.  Strolling along the sand in your Sunday best, however, was still appropriate.  After a day of bathing in the lake, or strolling along the paths you could spend the evening enjoying a concert or dancing in a band pavilion.

City bathhouse and "bathers" at Edgwater, circa 1920

Euclid Beach dancing pavilion, one of the largest in the country, circa 1905.
Image courtesy CSU Cleveland Memory Project

While the manicured parks, man-made structures, and beaches were very popular, people also headed out into the countryside in search of nature.  Newspaper articles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries extolled the “sylvan beauties” of the “primeval forests” and “crystal streams” found along the rivers and streams surrounding the “hot, smoky city with its long rows of inartistic blocks.”

View in Bedford Glens, circa 1907 (Somehow the black and white photos fail to capture the true beauty of the area, but were popular anyway in this era before color film was available)

The quotes above come from a 1901 article describing the author’s trips along the Chagrin River, but I could include many others that describe the other locations now found in our Emerald Necklace of reservations.  Several articles I found were aimed specifically at bicycle trips in the late 1890s, something current biking enthusiasts can appreciate, especially knowing these early bikes did not have multiple gears!

Plain Dealer, August 1901

Plain Dealer, 17 April 1898


Most people were drawn to the countryside to escape city life and appreciate nature as “pure art.”  Conservation of these areas was just a glimmer of an idea at the time.  Few individuals considered how people fit into the larger ecology of our world and the need for wildlife protection.  But the enjoyment of nature and recognition of its value was a step in the right direction.

Mr. Shakespeare once wrote, “What’s past is prologue.” So it is with Cleveland Metroparks.  These early ideas of parks and nature eventually led to the wonderful park system we enjoy today.  Our ancestors might not recognize nature centers or golf courses, but they would be amazed by our fast cars, blush at our bathing suits, and understand and applaud our efforts to conserve and enjoy the natural beauty that surrounds us.

Transportation may change, but enjoyment of the parks remains.

P.S. Speaking of William Shakespeare he has a birthday on the 23rd of this month.  Happy 450th Birthday, Will!


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