I often get asked which Cleveland Metroparks reservation is my favorite. I can honestly say I do not have a favorite because they all have unique ecosystems and stories that draw me to them, time and time again. However, I do find myself encouraging people to take a hike along the Aurora branch of the Chagrin River that leads one to Squaw Rock.
It may be because this was one of the first hikes I took in Cleveland Metroparks when I first began as a naturalist and historical interpreter in 1996. I was drawn to the deep ravines, the soft needles and fresh smell of the northern hemlock trees, and the shale and sandstone river beds that call a hiker to come close and explore its ancient past. Maybe it’s the awesome sense that I am so blessed to have a career with a park system that values conservation and protects such a beautiful riparian habitat. Yet, there is still another reason why I have a fascination for this place. It actually lies within the stone.
The name of the site along the trail is an indicator to what lies ahead on the trail, Squaw Rock. Even though the name “squaw” comes with a lot of derogatory baggage to female Native Americans, the title to the site has become synonymous with the historic landmark for many generations of visitors. As we will see in a few more lines of this article, the artist who created the bas-relief artwork would have agreed that the name attached to this site holds a negative connotation.
To say that Henry Church Jr. was a run-of-the-mill artist would be a mistake. This 6’3” blacksmith, sculptor, painter, musician and spiritualist spent nearly all of his life in Chagrin Falls. Henry Church Jr. (known as “Hank”) was the son of the town blacksmith, whose parents moved to Chagrin Falls in 1834. Two years later, Henry came into this world destined to make his mark in it. His early years started out rather rough as he struggled with health issues, so he was homeschooled and eventually expected to learn the trade of blacksmithing. Although his artistic talents were known at a young age, his father required him to follow a more practical path that served him well.
Henry’s creative versatility reached into the visual and music realm where he played violin, bass viol, horn and harp. It is told that he made his own instruments and was a self-taught artist. A story was shared that he traveled to Cleveland to sit with the famous Archibald Willard, the creator of the “Spirit of 1776” painting. He merely sat and observed the great artist for hours and then returned home to create his own pieces in his studio above the blacksmith shop. His Chagrin Falls property was adorned with his sandstone sculptures, metal works and oil paintings. His most remarkable piece was the tombstone that he fashioned for himself based off of Isaiah 11:6, where the “lion and the lamb will lie together and a little child shall lead them.”
Along the banks of the Aurora branch of the Chagrin River in South Chagrin Reservation is Henry’s most unique work, which is shrouded in mystery. It is told that he would travel the two-mile journey by lantern light upriver to a massive outcropping, where he began to carve a Native American woman with a rattlesnake curled around her, an eagle, an infant in swaddling clothes, a skeleton, a dog, a quiver of arrows and a hatchet. Henry’s initials and the year 1885 are found with other relief forms along the river side of the sandstone block. Even though we call the artwork and site along the river Squaw Rock, his daughter shared with reporters many years ago, he meant it to be a memorial to the Native Indians maltreatment by the white man. He eventually abandoned his work along the river, when people began to follow him and interrupt his sacred time.
Courtesy of Cleveland Public Library
Finally, his belief as a Spiritualist added to his colorful character. His adamant conviction of speaking to the spirits of the Natives led him to preaching in the woods and ultimately carving the images we still see today. So, this is why this particular site in South Chagrin is one of my favorites. It is intriguing both historically and naturally.
This life-long resident of Chagrin Falls left many colorful stories and artwork along the Chagrin River and in many museums throughout the United States. To learn more about this fascinating individual, visit Chagrin Falls Library. Also, you can listen to this song I wrote about Henry Church on the music file below.