Farmers, Woodland, Conservation Consciousness: The Lower Cuyahoga River Watershed, Ohio, 1865-1885

By: John Henris

In the fall of 1878 John Kemery appropriated a portable steam sawmill to cut wood on the western uplands of the Cuyahoga Valley midway between the growing manufacturing cities of Akron and Cleveland, Ohio. Kemery was not a lumberman but a farmer by occupation who formed a corporation with the Bombgardner brothers, John and Israel, for the cutting of timber. Though farmers traditionally cut woodlots for supplemental income, the work of these three Richfield Township men struck a discordant tone. By 1879 the farm woodlots of large sections of the Cuyahoga Valley were disappearing as the pasturelands of the factory dairy system expanded in equal measure. The woodland they cut on this day was not theirs but consisted of fifty-five acres belonging to a Richfield Township dairy farmer named E.D. Hancock. The contract for the cutting of Hart’s woodlot originated with a third party, Ellis and Mack. Even the agricultural seasons were turned upside down, for farmers usually worked their woodlands during the winter months following fall harvests in September and October. John Kemery, it appeared, appropriated new technologies for the reduction of local woodlands in ways that increasingly distanced him from more traditional perceptions of land stewardship, sustainability, and the natural cadences of rural labor.[1. The Summit County Beacon (Akron), 30 October 1878.]

The experience of John Kemery similarly speaks to discordant themes in the narratives of both the history of conservation and the history of the Western Reserve. Recent environmental histories such as Robert McCullough’s The Landscape of Community and Richard Judd’s Common Lands, Common People place farmers and their rural communities at the forefront of the emergent conservation movement within nineteenth-century New England. Similarly, Robert Wheeler in “The Literature of the Western Reserve” has pointed out that a new generation of scholarship has revealed the complex cultural, political, and economic differences hidden beneath the cultural ties between New Connecticut and New England. Still, for many writers, the pastoral middle ground of the nineteenth-century Western Reserve validates an environmental and cultural homogeneity with New England. The meandering valley of the lower Cuyahoga, for example, was a mosaic of dairy farms, village commons, and patchwork woodlots by which the region might just as easily have been mistaken for the upper reaches of the Connecticut River. This study examines the confluence between agriculture, technology, and timber speculation in the Cuyahoga Valley and elucidates why farmers within the Western Reserve largely abandoned an ethic of woodland stewardship even as the state of Ohio was influential in the forestry movement and as their New England brethren were at the forefront of woodland conservation during the last decades of the nineteenth century.[2. For woodland and conservation consciousness during the nineteenth-century change see, Robert McCullough, The Landscape of Community: A History of Communal Forests in New England, (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1995); Richard Judd, Common Lands, Common People: The Origins of Conservation in Northern New England, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). For forests and the Holland Land Purchase of Western New York see, Charles Brooks, “Overrun With Bushes: Frontier Land Development and the Forest History of the Holland Purchase, 1800-1850,” Forest & Conservation History 39 (January 1995): 17-18, 21-22; Charles Brooks, Frontier Settlement and Market Revolution: The Holland Land Purchase (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 14 -17, 50-53; For woodland in nineteenth-century Ohio see, Michael Williams, Americans and Their Forests: A Historical Geography, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 361-368. For the historiography of the Connecticut Western Reserve see, Robert Wheeler, “The Literature of the Western Reserve,” Ohio History 100 (Summer – Autumn 1991): 101 – 128.] Continue reading Farmers, Woodland, Conservation Consciousness: The Lower Cuyahoga River Watershed, Ohio, 1865-1885