For Cincinnati, Raking Autumn Leaves Was A New-Fangled Fad

Almost nobody raked leaves in Cincinnati before 1900, and some of the earliest reports of people raking leaves do not involve lawns.

Ho, hum! On these great autumn morns

I surely hate to wake up,

Because on the front lawn I know

There’ll be more leaves to rake up.

Do you enjoy raking leaves? Or are you more inclined to agree with Enquirer columnist Sam Hill, who composed the doggerel above on October 18, 1923? Mr. Hill, while bemoaning his annual autumnal chore, must have realized that his forebears did not share in his drudgery. All evidence suggests that almost nobody in Cincinnati raked leaves much before 1900.

For one thing, there were hardly any leaves to rake. Early photographs of Cincinnati depict mostly denuded hillsides. For much of the city’s existence, wood meant heat for Cincinnati households. Consequently, any substantial tree was nothing more than a fuel supply. The earliest records of men being hired to rake leaves appear around 1880 in the budgets of the parks department, and then only in certain parks. Burnet Woods, always fairly wooded, was raked each spring to clear out the flower beds, while Eden Park—mostly open fields until the 1930s—did not require that service.

If only that crop was worth something! Kenneth Knollman, Charles Beall, and Sandra Smithmeyer of Kellywood Avenue in Price Hill, demonstrate teamwork and technique in 1946.

From Cincinnati Post 21 September 1946, image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Some of the earliest reports of people raking leaves do not involve lawns but roofs. Once a homeowner let a tree grow in the yard, the biggest concern was not leaves on the ground, but leaves piled on the roof catching fire. Sweeping the roof, a dangerous task, often fell unfortunately to children. The Enquirer [2 October 1871] relates one such tragedy:

“A little daughter of Mr. William Simrall, residing at the corner of Eleventh and Russell streets, Covington, fell from the roof of a shed on Saturday and fractured her skull. She was sweeping leaves from the roof when the accident occurred. Her recovery is doubtful.”

Leaves were so rare in Cincinnati that railroad excursions were organized to convey city dwellers out to remote areas, such as College Hill, not only to see the autumn colors, but to actually bring some leaves back to town. Yes, Cincinnatians paid railway rates for the privilege of riding out to the burbs so they could gather leaves and haul them homeward. Why? To decorate their houses, of course. According to the Cincinnati Gazette [6 November 1874]:

“The bright tints of autumn leaves are very lovely for ornamenting our parlors, boudoirs, and dining-tables. Brackets and picture frames can also be adorned with them, and they add greatly to the beauty of one’s surroundings.”

The Gazette recommended lightly brushing each leaf with olive oil, then gathering bunches into bouquets tied and supported with wire and accented by acorns.

“Prepare a large number of these sprays mounted on wires, and then arrange them in vases, about picture frames, over mirrors, and as ornaments to lace curtains, and your apartments will present a festive appearance, although the dreary winter weather has browned the face of nature.”

The earliest advertisement I have found for a domestic leaf rake dates from 1930. No sooner had leaf-raking been adopted as an annual duty than it earned a reputation as a useless occupation. By 1930, the United States—and Cincinnati—had fallen into the Great Depression and a lot of men lost their jobs. With public sentiment opposed to “the dole,” government relief programs mandated that welfare recipients had to perform some work to earn their relief payments. The Great Depression closed factories and shuttered businesses, so leaf raking remained among the few make-work options. The newspapers were almost unanimously against it. The Enquirer editorialized [11 May 1933] that welfare recipients should undertake “real” projects like sewer construction:

“The Welfare Department workers will have completed a project of much greater value to the public than the pulling of weeds or the raking of leaves.”

Fred Gedge, public service inspector for the village of Wyoming, Ohio, cobbled together this heavy-duty leaf scooper from parts scavenged from a local junkyard. It made the rounds in the village in the 1940s.

From Cincinnati Post 13 October 1941, image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

An Enquirer columnist [27 December 1934] lambasted welfare projects as either boondoggles or make-work scams:

“The phrase, ‘public works,’ calls up in most minds either some elaborate project which will take years to finish and will cost millions of the taxpayers’ money to operate or else it evokes a picture of men raking dead leaves in the city parks from one side of the path to the other.”

Based on an overseas cable, the Cincinnati Enquirer [24 November 1931] issued a warning for domestic leaf rakers:

“A British earl dropped dead while mowing the lawn—and, fellows, the thing to do now is convince your wife that raking up leaves is even more dangerous than mowing the lawn!!!!”

It was not an idle caveat. Local newspapers reported the sudden deaths of Paul Smith, Mount Auburn (1921); Herman Gilbert, Walnut Hills (1927); Hanna Schott, Avondale (1930); Jesse E. Taylor, Hyde Park (1931); Alma Bickel, Mount Washington (1947); Carl Whittier McNary, Liberty, Indiana (1960); David H. Wharton, Covington (1969) and Frank X. Zerhusen, Lakeside Park (1965); all struck dead while raking leaves.

This roll of casualties does not include Chris Weller, Hyde Park (1944) or Adelaide Nagel, Norwood (1941) who were run over by automobiles while raking leaves. Not to mention Raymond Saunders, injured in 1938 at the city incinerator in Madisonville when a pile of leaves he was raking exploded, apparently because he had raked up a bullet along with the resplendent autumn foliage.

Leaf raking is not for the faint of heart! Be careful out there!

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