Christine Freitag, curator of Botany at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and native of Akron talks about her work with Ohio's conservation effort, focusing primarily on the the impact on the natural landscape, wildlife, and environment in the region.


Media is loading


Freitag, Christine (interviewee)


Yaxley, Rhonda (interviewer); Culley, Joe (participant)


Rivers Roads and Rails 2008



Document Type

Oral History


49 minutes


Transcription sponsored by Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Rhonda Yaxley [00:00:01] Okay, I would... I already introduced myself as Rhonda Yaxley, and this is Joe Culley, and I'd like you to, for the record, you know, state your name.

Christine Freitag [00:00:10] I'm Christine Dietrich Freitag.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:00:13] Alright. And we also would like your birthday. [crosstalk] I know it's not one of the things we like to do.

Christine Freitag [00:00:16] I was... I was born here in Akron in 1934.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:00:21] And the month?

Christine Freitag [00:00:22] May [...]

Rhonda Yaxley [00:00:24] We have something in common. I'm a May person too. How long have you lived in the area?

Christine Freitag [00:00:30] I have lived here all of my life.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:00:32] Never any?

Christine Freitag [00:00:34] We... There was a brief time when Bob and I lived in Pittsburgh when we were first married. He worked for the Bettis Atomic Energy Plant and but that was just a year and a half, a couple of years.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:00:49] Okay. Nowadays, I don't like to make assumptions, but I'm assuming Bob is your...

Christine Freitag [00:00:51] Husband.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:00:52] Your husband.

Christine Freitag [00:00:52] Exactly.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:00:55] Okay. So, lived in the area all along. So you consider, of course, this area your home.

Christine Freitag [00:00:59] I do.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:01:00] Anything in particular about this area that... Memories? Things that you enjoy about?

Christine Freitag [00:01:08] Well, I was fortunate enough to grow up in the country in Ghent, Ohio, which is between Akron and Cleveland.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:01:17] Okay.

Christine Freitag [00:01:17] So I was very familiar with the Cuyahoga Valley and used to ride my horse through the park up Portage Path to a friend's then wonderful estate, which is now a complex of condominiums. But it was at that time the old B. A. [sic] Seiberling mansion. And we'd, his granddaughter and I would ride our horses and spend the night and ride home again.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:01:45] Wonderful memories.

Christine Freitag [00:01:45] You could ride a horse right into Akron.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:01:49] Alright. So as your, your childhood, your, a little bit about your educational background. Where did you go to school as a child?

Christine Freitag [00:01:56] I went to school. I, my parents briefly when we were, when I was first born, lived at on Turkeyfoot Island out at the Portage Lakes. And our mothers were determining that we were not being well educated in that school system. So from there, my parents moved to Ghent and I went to Bath School until I was in high school and then I went to Old Trail. And from Old Trail, I went to Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Virginia, which is now Randolph College.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:02:29] Okay.

Christine Freitag [00:02:29] They've changed the name and they are coeducation[al].

Rhonda Yaxley [00:02:31] And what were your field study?

Christine Freitag [00:02:34] I was a English major and Fine Arts minor.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:02:39] And what have you I mean, professionally, what kind of situations or jobs?

Christine Freitag [00:02:45] I have been a volunteer all of my life, except I have worked for my husband had a company, his own company, and I did some work for him, just kind of office manager and in charge of hazardous waste management for the company. So but most of my time has been spent... Even when I was doing that, I was doing volunteer work.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:03:09] What is your current role with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association?

Christine Freitag [00:03:13] I have no role at all. I just recently was part of the long-range planning committee. I did that from September to March this year.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:03:27] Okay, can you explain a little bit about what [inaudible]?

Christine Freitag [00:03:29] Well, it was an interesting experience. And I was, I was fascinated that I was asked to do it because I was really not connected with the park. However, I do play a small volunteer role in the park in that I have been in charge or coordinator of a lot of invasive pulls in two parks in the Ledges and in Stumpy Basin. And I take a group of volunteers out to deal with the invasive plants in those. So I have a knowledge of the park in that respect. Plus early history. When the park was formed, I was involved with the Cuyahoga National Park Association, so I was really rather surprised, except I've been very vocal. I am very much of an advocate and I feel they could do a much better job with advocacy. And they have a huge problem in the national park with stormwater management. And I have felt for a long time that Kevin Skerl, who is their sort of the person with the park in charge of this situation, would fare a lot better if he could take residents, the community to his trustee meetings where he discusses this problem hoping to have better development and better water management happen. I think a park employee would always do better with a someone who knows those trustees and can talk with them, so I was very vocal about this with John Debo and I think maybe that's how I got put on the long-range planning committee, which now has a little category for advocacy, which it didn't have before. So.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:05:15] Okay, so share a little bit more, too, about how you feel, you know, this role... They saw the need for you.

Christine Freitag [00:05:23] I think they saw the need anyway. And they have... They've had an advisory committee that board, the [Cuyahoga Valley Park Association] board. By the way, we also talked about a simpler name, which I don't think is maybe going to happen, but because it basically is a friends group of the park. And I don't think the name necessarily tells you that, so it's sort of nice if they think about maybe calling themselves Friends of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. But anyway, they had an advocacy committee, but it was very much controlled by the board of trustees who didn't want to make a wave. So it never really went any place. And Tom Jenkins, who was their chairman, passed away in, I think... Not sure, I think in '05, but anyway the committee just sort of disappeared after that, and those of us, and I'm sure there are people who you'll be interviewing Bob Hunker and others who served on that committee that were kind of surprised. We've never been asked to do anything. [laughs] So as far as I'm concerned, we're not involved now as an advocacy committee.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:06:31] Okay. Well, what would you like then to see happen?

Christine Freitag [00:06:35] Well, I mean, I would love to see an advocacy committee created that would indeed look at this tremendous list of members that they have and particularly those members who have given a great deal of money, who I think have a great deal of influence in the community, who live in those communities where there's a great deal of development going on and there could be better management of stormwater and so on.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:07:01] Do you have a vision of what would be the solution or what to do?

Christine Freitag [00:07:07] Well, I do. And I think that it's pretty clear that they just need to get more people involved. And the advocacy could be very effective. And I think it can be, and in many ways, I think it could be much more of a positive thing than they're sort of afraid of making a wave. But I think people like to know they belong to an organization that is taking action and is doing something. So.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:07:32] Do you live in the area?

Christine Freitag [00:07:34] Yes, well, actually, I live in Akron.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:07:37] Okay.

Christine Freitag [00:07:38] In Ward 1, which is I live about ten minutes from here, so.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:07:44] Okay. Alright. What has motivated you to stay involved, even though you said there was a period of time when?

Christine Freitag [00:07:54] Well, you know, it's interesting. When the park became a park in '74, I looked at my bio. I had to look this up because I just don't remember what I was doing in '73 and '74. But I was, I was conservation chairman of the League of Women Voters. And during that period, I was also conservation chairman for the Junior League. And we were just very much aware of what was happening in our community. And I think we all just adored John Seiberling And while I didn't know Ralph Regula, I think, you know, John was a real inspiration to all of us. Actually, he was on that advocacy committee, too, that I mentioned earlier. And I'm sure he wonders whatever happened. But it was just, I mean, this park was just very important. And so we all were very actively encouraging the support. Wrote to our legislators. And I wasn't part of the original group way, way back when. But from '73 on, I was pretty much involved.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:08:59] And you stayed involved?

Christine Freitag [00:09:01] Yes. Yes. In fact, when I was president of the friends group, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association friends group, from... I was president from '90 to '92, I hired Peg Bobel. We really wanted to become more professional and actually attract a membership for the park, and that's how it... George Klein was the first chairman and then I was the second of that organization.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:09:30] Okay. What changes do you think occurred because of that?

Christine Freitag [00:09:35] Well, I think it just made people more aware that we had the park and I think at times when, when you look at how that park is grown and I give John Debo just huge credit for looking beyond the boundaries of the park and creating the Towpath that's going to go all the way from downtown Cleveland to Zoar. I mean, I think it took an interested citizenry to talk to their local planning departments to make sure that that was a priority with them. And so I think the friends group has had a huge, huge impact on helping with the trail development, that sort of thing.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:10:15] When you look at all the things that you've been involved in—your own personal milestones or claims to achievement, or like, you know, somebody comes up, what's the most important thing that you've done?—you think you could? I mean, it doesn't happen one or several.

Christine Freitag [00:10:33] Well, I've just been very involved with Planned Parenthood and with Old Trail School and Art Museum. I was president of the Garden Club of America, and that came through conservation, my conservation interests. I went up sort of through the ranks because of that. In fact, that was the only organization that I belong to that I, that was an all-woman organization, but most of my involvement have been with men on boards. And I will tell you, it was a long two years, really long. It was like being in a room with a bunch of female CEOs, you know, it was just... Getting anything done was really a challenge.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:11:22] That's interesting.

Christine Freitag [00:11:22] Yeah.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:11:22] The difference.

Christine Freitag [00:11:22] So, yeah. So that was probably the biggest job. I also started an organization that is called Scenic Ohio, which is Columbus-based now pretty much, dealing with an Ohio Department of Transportation. That's our sole target, ugly sound walls and digital billboards, that kind of thing.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:11:47] Okay, and it's interesting that you were saying that. So do you mind expanding a little bit more on that with what you're trying to do there?

Christine Freitag [00:11:56] Well, we're quite excited. Akron has the first vegetative sound wall. And if you think of driving from the inner belt, interchange, central interchange towards 59 on 77, it's on the right. And it's kind of a wonderful hillside of trees and black-eyed Susans, which may be blooming now. I'm not sure. And it has proven to be hugely successful at curbing the noise rather than those concrete things where the noise blocks the people who are right behind it. But then it shoots the noise to the people who live back here. So quite effective anyway, that was funded through funds that were not that were not, that were not sound wall funds. It was just enhancement funding that came through. And we're trying to, at this point in time, talking to ODOT Director Baisley trying to convince him that this is a great way and a much more handsome way of sound attenuation. And so we're trying to get him to and, and he's very interested in this. And I think it's going to happen to declare that indeed this is a sound wall, even though it's not concrete. And that then opens the door for other communities. Cincinnati, for instance, wants to do this. They are a very hilly community and could easily take some of those hills and do what we've done here. So it's interesting.

Joe Culley [00:13:35] So, what is it composed of? I'm sorry.

Christine Freitag [00:13:37] You have to have about four inches of good mulch and you just do extensive planting into that and it absorbs the sound. The sound doesn't bounce. In fact, in Akron, they've done sound tests, decibel testing on the other side of the street, and they have found that it even absorbs enough sound that their side, that side is has also had sound reduction. It's really fascinating. So that's what we're working on right now. One of the things I'm involved with right now.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:14:11] You'd mentioned that conservation is a big thing and, and going in and doing invasive plant

Christine Freitag [00:14:19] invasive plants are a huge problem. Yeah.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:14:22] So, expound on that a little bit.

Christine Freitag [00:14:23] Well, what's interesting, about five years ago, the park hired a gentleman by the name of Eddie Dengg, D-E-N-G-G-, I think. Anyway, Eddie was a plant biologist. He is now working for the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. But he... I had talked to him. I had talked to the park about the fact that it seemed to me a shame that these invasive plants were invading and into the park and there was no attempt to remove them. So Eddie and the Akron Garden Club did, which I belong to, did... Actually with the help of Shaker Lakes Garden Club and I think some members from Garden Club of Cleveland, and I even got someone to come from the Garden Club of Dayton and Columbus. We did an inventory of all the invasive plants in two locations, in Stumpy Basin and the Ledges, and those are the two parks that we have since adopted and we've been removing the invasives that we found. So that's we've been working on. And garlic mustard has taken over the world. Let me tell you, I don't know if you know what that is, but that's a real problem for us right now.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:15:45] What have you found that and I know polls are one of the things, but... [crosstalk]

Christine Freitag [00:15:48] Listen, I had to go...

Rhonda Yaxley [00:15:50] Things that you've done.

Christine Freitag [00:15:50] Well, what you have to know is that in order to do this, because I am, because the park is so cautious about how they use their volunteers, I actually went to the Department of Agriculture and I am a commercial... I have a commercial license to spray and we're talking Roundup, we're not talking any deadly, really awful stuff. But so that's how we've been able to keep this program going, because I can go out there with my Roundup and my volunteers.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:16:20] Okay, but that's one thing too, for people listening to this too is, you know, being a park, you do have to have those licenses.

Christine Freitag [00:16:27] You do. You have to have and I have accused the park. I mean, it's a wonderful cultural landscape. And I think the farming program they're doing there now is so exciting. And if you haven't been to the market on Saturday morning in Peninsula, you really ought to do it. My daughter, who is a park commissioner in New York City, said that it beats Union Square. So, you know, it's got to be a pretty good farmer's market for Amy to say that. [laughs] So. But they are what I started to say is that I think they've been weak on natural resources. I think they could have been stronger. And I have been told that a plant biologist is coming and will be a permanent fixture there. And I hope so because we need that kind of leadership.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:17:18] To encourage other people to get involved... [crosstalk]

Christine Freitag [00:17:20] Well, yes, I think so, yeah.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:17:22] What are some things that you could say or feel...

Christine Freitag [00:17:27] Well.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:17:28] In your experiences?

Christine Freitag [00:17:28] My experience has been and I've seen this, so is our Metro Parks. I don't know if you talk to anybody about our Metropolitan Parks, but this Mike Johnson, who's now head or chief, who was chief of natural resources. He has convinced, for instance, the people that mow that you've got to be really careful about how you clean your equipment because you could be spreading this garlic mustard and these other things. We just haven't, don't, we have not achieved that greatness in our national park. And I think it's just because there is very little thought. The people who mow don't really care about the fact that we may have left a whole bunch of bags full of garlic mustard there, that we go back four weeks later and the bags are still there. I mean, they just don't... One division doesn't work with the other division. It's a very difficult situation because I don't think there's anybody in-house that's really kind of screaming about this. Me screaming is not doing much good, but I think once we get a plant manager in there, it's going to make a big difference.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:18:34] I feel that you've just given some advice for something that really needs to be done.

Christine Freitag [00:18:39] Well and they know it. They know it. It's just that it's the, they're so inflexible. Is that the word? They just. They do something the same way year after year. And unlike our Metro Parks that have the ability to in-house make changes, it's very hard for the national park to do that.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:19:01] Why do you think it's hard for them?

Christine Freitag [00:19:05] I think it, I think that they have, I think they have poor leadership probably in Washington that allows them to make changes. I think it's very inflexible up there and so it comes down to being rather inflexible.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:19:20] I was just thinking the same thing so that's funny.

Christine Freitag [00:19:24] Starts at the top, I guess.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:19:27] I, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I'm sure is a very special place for you.

Christine Freitag [00:19:31] Absolutely.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:19:32] So, we're looking for some special memories, some special things that have happened, maybe a special place, a moment in time that you'd like to share about the park, something that's happened while you've been there.

Christine Freitag [00:19:46] I think one of the things that pleased me very much was the little park that they created for John Seiberling that's by the covered bridge. Have you seen that? I don't know. Just sometimes just park in that on Everett Road and walk back there. It's really quite lovely. And I think it was important that John have something that was his. And that certainly is, is a very special place. And we just adored John. We're so sorry that he's not better.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:20:19] Would you recommend I mean, that would be a place. Is there any place else that if you, you know, like today, if you have the opportunity where would you head?

Christine Freitag [00:20:29] You know, I'm quite excited about the partnership between Old Trail School and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association. And they have now purchased the property next to Old Trail, which is called the Gould Farm or something like that. They're going to have a program to teach gardening to children. And I think that's going to be just fabulous. And I'm really anxious to see that happen soon.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:20:58] Do you think you're going to get involved in that?

Christine Freitag [00:21:00] Well, I don't know that I'll get involved in it, but I will sure see. I'm a master gardener and I will certainly see that they have some part of it. You know, some participate in some way as far as the education part of it. I think it'll be very good.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:21:18] I was going to say the reflection of the Old Trail School. I had a friend that had her son that went there and I just remembered they used one of the requirements was to have a sled at school for the winter time, so they could sleigh ride.

Christine Freitag [00:21:27] Yes, yep. [laughs]

Rhonda Yaxley [00:21:29] So and to hear that, you know, you were gardening.

Christine Freitag [00:21:30] I was. Yeah. I tell you that school has, is just, is a. When I was involved with Old Trail, in fact, I graduated from there, but it was, the school was in Fairlawn. And then a group of trustees raised the money and moved the school into the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. And my children went to school there. And I might, in fact, my daughter Amy, the one now in living in New Jersey and working in the city in New York, was in the last graduating class because we determined that it could not make it as it could not compete with Western Reserve and it could not attract the quality of students that they needed to be a successful high school, so we closed it. And it's now a preschool through eighth grade. And it's a fabulous school, it's what it should have been. And I think it's taken those trustees who had to make that decision a long time to realize how really good the decision was. But I think they all agree now. But I see a lot of potential for Old Trail because it is in the national park and can it's a very special place. It really is.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:22:44] In realizing talking about your daughter back in our background information, they really didn't discuss too much about your family. So give a little background about.

Christine Freitag [00:22:52] I told you, Tina, my daughter Tina, is in the... She graduated from CIA and then got a master's from Case. Also has a master's in Art Therapy. When they don't pass the next levy and she doesn't have a job, she's going to be an art therapist. So she's in Cleveland on the west side. And then my daughter Amy, who started as a Theater major... I just think it's so interesting the way the kids develop it. I used to take her to Williamsburg because I am very fascinated with gardening and with history and so on. And she'd say, Mom, you've seen one, you've seen them all. And she ended up going back to graduate school and getting a degree in historic preservation and landscape architecture. So it's interesting how you drag your kids places and you don't know if you're going to have an impact or not, but I guess you do. So.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:23:42] Historic preservation...

Christine Freitag [00:23:42] Mhm.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:23:43] In New York City?

Christine Freitag [00:23:45] Yeah, she works for the city. She is a deputy commissioner for capital development projects. She builds tennis courts and repairs little community gardens and all that kind of thing.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:24:01] Yeah, well this slight connection, I have a son that lives in Brooklyn.

Christine Freitag [00:24:04] Oh, do you? I love Brooklyn.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:24:06] A theater major, so.

Christine Freitag [00:24:07] Oh, really? Well, look what he could become if that doesn't work out.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:24:14] Okay. You mentioned the special garden. Is there any other place that you would say would be your favorite place in the parks?

Christine Freitag [00:24:21] Well, of course, I have to say I love the two areas. That, we were given the Ledges and Stumpy Basin to work on because they are the two parks that have more really valuable rare plants. And the feeling was that it shouldn't just be turned over to a group of Boy Scouts to tromp through. I mean, it should be somebody who's stepping carefully. So I think that's why the Akron Garden Club was given those two sites.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:24:46] Do you see any other site that probably needs, I mean, there's... [crosstalk]

Christine Freitag [00:24:50] Oh, it's everywhere. Yeah, it's everywhere.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:24:53] What do you think should be a next focus that you'd like to see?

Christine Freitag [00:24:59] I just look along the roadside, even in our Metro Parks. There's just so much garlic mustard and so many invasives. I can't tell you which would be another spot that we should... That's why we need the plant biologist to come in and really look at it and figure it out

Rhonda Yaxley [00:25:19] During your life, what factor do you think had the biggest impact on who you are today and what you're doing?

Christine Freitag [00:25:28] I would say that's a hard one. I would say probably my dad, because he was a great gardener and he was very interested. A great fisherman really liked the outdoors and really valued the way it was and I think would probably turn over in his grave if he could see how it is now. So.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:25:52] You shared the fact that you lived on the farm and...

Christine Freitag [00:25:55] Yep.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:25:58] A little bit more...

Christine Freitag [00:25:59] Oh, I mean, this was World War II. We had a victory garden that you wouldn't believe. I mean, we had just a ton of fresh... My, my grandmother, I can still smell that awful smell of pulling the, pulling the feathers off the chicken. God, what a smell. [laughs] It's awful. I can remember. I mean, we had a pond across from our house and we used to go out and catch pollywogs and bring them home. And they'd turn into frogs jumping all over our laundry room. You know, great memories as a kid being outside.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:26:35] You spent a lot of time doing those.

Christine Freitag [00:26:37] Yep.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:26:39] Oh. Brothers or sisters?

Christine Freitag [00:26:40] Yep. I have a, I have a brother who is a physician in Vermont who's a great outdoorsman. And then a brother who lives here in Akron who loves to fish and that sort of thing. So Daddy had a big influence on all of us.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:27:01] We've spent a lot of time with the conservation and, and landscapes, and the ways that protecting and benefiting the region. Any expectations that are different, or then the results have been different than you expected?

Christine Freitag [00:27:20] No, I, actually, you know, I have to say, I also served on the Akron City Planning Commission for twelve years. So I have a pretty keen knowledge of local land-use planning and that sort of thing. And I am, I'm very impressed with what's happening in Akron. I really think that we are going, you know. As, as much as I value open space, I do think that the city has very carefully planned how they've managed empty buildings and so on. I think Akron is really I think our mayor is doing a very good job. And I think, I think I'm very, I feel very positive about Akron.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:28:06] What are some things that you think we need to do to inspire others to get involved like you've been definitely an advocate?

Christine Freitag [00:28:15] Well, I think one of the things we're doing in Metro Parks is just figuring out how to get more people outside. And I think the more people that have an opportunity to visit Metro Parks or visit the national park, just everybody's going to benefit from that because they're going to realize what value, how valuable it is and how worth protecting saving it. And I think as the Towpath moves through Akron, that's going to be a huge incentive for people to get out and ride their bikes and walk and that sort of thing. Got to be careful on weekends though. You can get run over by little children on bicycles. It's quite busy on the weekends, so we do a lot of our hiking during the week.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:29:02] Okay. Is there something... I know you know you brought a notebook along... [crosstalk]

Christine Freitag [00:29:04] I just brought this along. I didn't know. I just didn't... I didn't... I wrote down that members of the advocacy committee. I didn't know if you wanted to know who we were back in 2004.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:29:16] Sure, go ahead. Give us those names.

Christine Freitag [00:29:16] Tom Jenkins was the chairman. Peter Henderson, Robert Hunker, Sandra Smith, Kathy VanDevere, and John Seiberling, and myself.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:29:30] You mentioned, I don't even know if it was before we started recording too, that you're part of the Friends of the Metro Parks Association in Summit. Do you want to?

Christine Freitag [00:29:39] We have a friends group that started in 1991. And basically, our initial job was to help pass the levy, the park levy every four years. And we've since grown into more of an advocacy kind of thing. And we write to our legislators. In fact, on our web, you should look at our website. It's friendsofmetroparks.org. And we keep a current list of legislators, Summit County legislators and so on. So the public can refer to that if they are interested in writing

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.