(And – Cincinnati Parks has a librarian!)
My latest forays into Eden Park yielded the discovery of the Author’s Grove. When I first encountered the grove, articulated on a plaque near the park’s water tower, I was ecstatic, and could hardly wait to find the actual monument.
But upon further investigation, I found the Author’s Grove was no longer. It now existed as half of a curved brick wall with a concrete statuette of an open book placed atop the caved in portion of the wall. The book looked out of place. Author names were missing.
“Of course,” I said to my husband, Mark, at the time. “Of course they would let this fall down.”
They being caretakers of the park, citizens of Cincinnati, any writer who once cared, including myself. All were either oblivious to the Author’s Grove and / or its current condition. Or were not in a position to undertake the upkeep.
My mind immediately jumped to the phrase above the Symmes Township library door, where once upon a time, I took a few wee ones. Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. – Henry David Thoreau
Fit inheritance. That phrase always stayed with me, as I taught my son to read. As my mother had taught me, and how she still held a book in her hands, feeble mind, and could still parse sentences into meaningful words. Books, literacy should have been codified in the Constitution as a right. A right to read, a right to be literate. A clear right, spelled out in no uncertain terms, would have ensured today, we would not still be spending millions of dollars on literacy alone.
A second run back weeks later through Eden Park jogged my memory about the Author’s Grove. What was it really? I couldn’t complain about a monument that had disintegrated, if I knew nothing about it.
I returned home to research. Luckily, I now live five blocks from a very large library that contains the collected works of local writers and I hope, long after my death, will still retain a copy of mine. I discovered Thoughts and Experiences In and Out of School by John B. Peaslee, a former superintendent, one of the youngest, of Cincinnati Public Schools. He arrived in Cincinnati in October of 1864. Prior to that, he had given a commencement oration, whereby he was congratulated by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
He initiated many reforms within public education, in particular, the “devotion of fifteen minutes a day to the systemic teaching of Gems of Literature…and prepared a course of study for lower grades of entire pieces, and of such as are calculated to develop their emotional nature (..), and to give them correct rules of action; those for the higher grades containing grander and enobling thoughts, clothed in beautiful language, calculated to inspire them with higher aspirations in life, to lead them into pure fields of English Literature and to teach them to revere great and good authors.”
Thus, he introduced children to a love books and introduced great and good books to children. His “Peaslee Gems,” selections of prose and verse, not only provided stimulation but became an innovative means by which to celebrate authors and the written word.
His schools went on to celebrate the likes of Whittier, Emerson, Longfellow. In 1882, an “Author’s Grove” was planted on six acres in Eden Park, as part of a larger movement to enlighten the citizenry about the forestry movement. A vast number of trees were planted, each dedicated to some distinguished writer. Afterwards, granite tablets, with the names of authors, were placed near the trees.
A year later, the event blossomed into what become known as Arbor-day, where pupils were led to the park and recited various compositions they wrote about forestry, which had been part of the superintendent’s plan to educate and inspire. They read or reread letters from living local authors, or those who had passed away. Each pupil took turns tossing soil into trees planted in the honor of the author, dedicating a tree by reciting the full name of the person being honored.
The collection of trees became the first memorial tree grove ever planted in America by “loving hands and appropriate ceremonies,” and basis for modern-day Arbor Day celebrations.
In 1882, those whose lives and works had been celebrated by the planting of a tree were given their due, their trees and names marked by granite, with the name of the author and the school planting the tree. The markers were eight inches square and stood about four inches above ground. One such example was:
died the very day these trees were
planted in his honor
Hughes High School.
Fifty names were honored, including Whittier, Horace Mann, Prescott, and F. S. Key. Mrs. Emma Hardacre described the first ceremony as “a dense mass of gayly-dressed children in active motion over the surface of about six acres, and whose voices wafted across the deep hollow to the western ridge, sounded like the chattering from a grove full of happy birds.”
In 1883, 12 names were added, including Alcott, Fuller, William W. Fosdick, (recognized as the City Laureate), and General Lytle, a Cincinnati poet. Presumably twelve autographed manuscripts from the same authors were gifted from Mrs. Annie Fields of Boston to the schools.
The celebrations and the list of those who were honored continued for several years. – Hale, Mrs Sarah J., “ is known all over the land for her efforts to promote the intellectual elevation of her sex.” Underwood, Francis H. Underwood, author of a work of English and one on American biographies, Mrs. Sarah C. Coolidge, another favorite author for little folks, as Superintendent Peaslee had noted during the first year too many authors were identifiable only by adults and not children. All works at the time were made available through the public library.
In 1884, Mr. Peaslee’s book listed seventy names, most authors dedicated to the craft of the written word for the younger grades. He also equally recognized male and female authors.
In a presentation Mr. Peaslee later gave, he declared, “Let there be an author’s grove in which school children shall honor, by living monuments, the great men and women in literature so that while they learn a love of trees, they will become interested in the writings.”
By 1885, the celebration was relegated to the schoolroom once more.
I could find no more information on when the celebrations stopped or when or how the memorial fell in disrepair. I placed a few phone calls and emails to our Cincinnati Parks Department, and learned this from Jim Burkhardt, Superintendent of Operations:
Several years ago the majority of the Author’s Grove monument was removed at the request of the people living around Eden Park and, as part of a renovation of the area. A small section of the monument was left as a representation of the original monument. Because of the design of the original monument, it became a haven for undesirable/criminal activity.
Many of the plaques had been damaged over time. We saved what plaques that we could.
I was also pleased to learn, the department has their own librarian/historian, Vicky Newell. She wrote back:
According to one document I found, there were thirty-five (thirty-six according to another document) authors honored in the 1882 planting. I found a map from 1895 that shows the locations of the markers that were placed in that first go-round. It looks like by that time, some markers had been added.
“According to Park Director Fred Payne’s remarks made at the 1980 rededication of the Authors Memorial Grove, forty-five of the original stones were found and placed in the memorial wall created at that time.
I found a 1939 letter to Park Superintendent J.W. Tait requesting that a tree be planted in honor of Mrs. Frances Willard. His response was favorable so it’s likely that was carried out, but I find no other information, so far, about how long the practice was continued or if it was ever officially stopped.
Part of the mystery had been solved.
But I returned to the concept of fit inheritance over and again. How many more authors we could have honored today, with a diversity of thought and culture? How many more trees would have been gifted to Eden Park? How many more children would have been literate, their parents too?
It was right and fitting that my mother’s first task, after feeding, changing and napping, was to ensure my ability to read, to retain, to ensure that what I read was relevant or inspiring.
Take a trek up to Eden Park again. Seek out the Author’s Grove. Ask yourself, who was your favorite author. Memorize a piece of their work, go seek it at the library, or stalk them via the Internet to let them know.
Perhaps, a more heroic course of action would be to become a tutor, volunteer at the public library or donate to organizations such as the Literacy Network.
Finally, according to Mr. Burkhardt, there are no plans to revive the actual monument. Write to the Parks Department and ask them to reconstruct or reimagine the memorial. It is Cincinnati’s fit inheritance.
Thoughts and Experiences In and Out of School, by John B. Peaslee, 1900, pp 115-125.