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Gene Straton Porter

The Life and Work of Gene Stratton-Porter

"Nature can be trusted to work her own miracle in the heart of any man
whose daily task keeps him alone among her sights, sounds, and silences."
(from Freckles)

Gene Stratton-Porter, one of Indiana's most well-known female authors, was ahead of her time in the love, appreciation, and realization of the necessity of conservation of nature. She could easily fit in with the "green-earth-concerned" young people of today. This is the reason her books still have universal appeal.

Geneva Grace Stratton was born on August 17, 1863, on "Hopewell" farm near Wabash, Indiana. Her parents, Mark and Mary (Shallenbarger) Stratton, fifty and forty-six years old at the time of her birth, had nine other living children: Catherine, Anastasia, Jerome, Mary Ann, Irvin, Florence, Leander, Ada, and Lemon. (Samira and Louisa died before Gene was born.)Gene was born at the height of the Civil War, during which time her father was helping fugitive slaves escape to the North. Their home served as one of the way stations of the famed Underground Railroad and contained a secret tunnel for hiding the runaways.

Mark Stratton was descended from a long line of ancestors of British origin. His ancestry can be traced back to the first Mark Stratton who lived in New York and first settled on Stratton Island. Through the years, the name Stratton was changed to Staten as the land became more populated.

Mark Stratton clung to the rigid ideals and customs of his family. He believed in god, courtesy, honor, cleanliness, beauty, and education. Education was a must. His very first earnings were spent on a book. While other men rested, he read. All of his life Mark Stratton traveled to preach what he had learned to those less fortunate. He thought that the love of God was best shown in the love of his fellow men. He worshiped beauty and loved bright colors, always carrying a red silk handkerchief in his pocket.

Amid all his tasks of home, church, and public service, Mark Stratton had the time and desire to teach his youngest child. He taught her about birds, their songs, and their nesting habits.
Mary Stratton was the mother of twelve children, all of whom she reared past eight years of age, losing two; Samira and Louisa, through an attack of scarlet fever. Besides keeping track of the children, she managed to have an immaculate house, make most of her own and the children's clothing, and plant a garden unsurpassed by those in the entire county.

Being of Dutch extraction, Mary Stratton, like all Dutch women, loved tulips and other colorful flowers. From her multitudes of flowers she distilled exotic perfumes.

"Hopewell", near Wabash, Indiana, was the Stratton family farm for almost thirty years. The 240 rolling acres was heavily forested with several flowing springs and little streams crossing it in three directions. In 1872, Mark Stratton donated a corner of his land for the Hopewell Church and Cemetery which he helped to build. He was an ordained minister and the pastor of the beautiful, little red brick church for many years. The Hopewell Cemetery now contains the graves of Mark and Mary Stratton along with those of their children, Leander, Ada, Samira, and Louisa.

 

Gene was happy and carefree at "Hopewell." Her parents were avid Nature enthusiasts and always taught Gene to wonder at and to appreciate the beauty of the great outdoors. From her mother Gene learned to love flowers and all growing things. She became so friendly with the birds that she could actually touch them while they brooded. When her mother became a semi-invalid following an attack of typhoid fever, Gene would go out to the fields with her brothers and play happily in the woods while they worked. At that time there were Indians living in the area with whom she became good friends. She was especially fond of the family of Chief Wacacoonah of the Meshingmesas. Gene earned her first money from selling the arrowheads and goose quills given to her by the Indians.

In 1874, when Gene was eleven, her father rented his farm, sold his possessions, and moved his family to Wabash. It was in Wabash that Mark Stratton hoped his wife's health would improve; however, four months after leaving "Hopewell," Mary Stratton died, leaving him to care for Gene. For the next ten years the family lived in various houses which still stand in Wabash, staying the longest in a house at 54 Elm Street.

Gene attended grade school on the site of the old Miami School. At first, school was a torture to the youngster after all the freedom she had been used to on the farm. She was a rebellious student who hated mathematics and other related subjects with a passion. Writing and literature were the only subjects Gene enjoyed. An incident at Wabash High School sent Gene on her way to writing. The story goes that Gene was assigned to do a paper on Mathematical Law. Hating the subject, she instead wrote a book review of Picciola which brought her much praise from her teacher rather than the expected criticism. Gene attended school up to her junior year and then dropped out. In her later years Gene never regretted that she did not have a high school diploma. After quitting school, she studied harder than ever before to learn about birds, insects, animals, and flowers.

Gene was now becoming familiar with Sylvan Lake near Rome City, Indiana; at twenty-one, she had visited it three times. This was where she later wrote many of her books. Gene, always interested in the natural wonder of the rather primitive woodlands of that day, now became interested in fishing and water sports. For the remainder of her life she liked to fish.
Handsome and brilliant were the words to describe Gene Stratton in 1884 when she first met Charles Darwin Porter, at Sylvan Lake. Although thirteen years her senior, Porter fell in love with the fun-loving girl from Wabash and courted her for two years.

On April 21, 1886, the two were married in the home of Gene's sister, Ada Wilson, at 112 Hill Street, Wabash now the site of the Wabash Christian Church.

The first year of their married life was spent in Decatur, Indiana, where the young couple's first and only child, Jeannette, was born. When the child was two years of age, the family moved to Geneva, Indiana, where Charles Porter owned a thriving drugstore and a bank. Together, after a visit to the exposition in 1893, they designed a home of fourteen rooms, designed by Gene and modeled after Forester's Building at the Chicago World's Fair, and landscaped by Gene. This house was situated near the Limberlost swampland and was called the "Limberlost Cabin." It was their home for twenty-six years. This heavily-timbered, marshy land received its name from a legend about "Limber Jim" Corbus, an early frontiersman. Corbus was reputedly lost in the quicksand of the swamps while hunting. When the locals asked where Jim Corbus was, the familiar cry was "Limber's lost!"

It was here at Limberlost, a great reservoir of natural wonders, that Gene's creative urges would grow and develop, but Mrs. Porter, whatever her innermost strivings, gave no serious attention to writing for many years. Her interest in photography, however, developed after her family gave her a small camera for a Christmas present. She became so skilled that one manufacturer of photographic print paper asked her about the methods she employed with his product to attain such excellent results.

Daily she would tramp through the snake-filled marsh, observing and photographing the birds, insects, and flowers. These wanderings so stimulated her that she wrote to several magazines describing her findings. Nature magazines eagerly published articles and photographs.

Gene lived a hermit's life at Limberlost. Keeping to a strict schedule, she found little time to associate with her neighbors. She was happiest clad in hip boots and knickers, exploring the swamps of the Limberlost. In her home she kept innumerable specimens of swamp life. Love birds, canaries, and parrots were likewise her companions. At first she was lured by birds, but flowers and insects soon thrust themselves upon her.

Gene, however, was not totally aloof from the townspeople. When a great fire purged the city of Geneva, she took command of the bucket brigade and directed the townspeople in their efforts to quench the flames. During the fire she was seriously burned, but thereafter was greatly respected by the community.

Mrs. Porter's love for wild creatures influenced her strongly against the ruthless tactics of hunters and plunderers. One winter day, during a trip to the woods to feed the birds, she discovered the broken and frozen body of a cardinal lying in the road, left by the hunter who had slain it in target practice. "Song of the Cardinal", a short story inspired by the incident, was submitted to Century. The editor replied that he liked the story but would urge her to expand it into a full-length novel, which she did in a month of intensive work. Original illustrations depicting the life of the birds portrayed in the story accompanied the book, which met immediate approval when it came off the press in 1905. It also met acceptance in other lands, and during its vogue, was published in seven languages.

"Song of the Cardinal", her first large-scale publishing success, began the controversy over the authenticity of Mrs. Porter's natural history. Some critics disputed the nature facts set forth in the book. Although characters were sometimes composites, all of Mrs. Porter's books and stories were autobiographical and were based upon true incidents. This fidelity to life contributed toward the success of her efforts.

"Freckles", one of her best-known works, had its beginning when Mrs. Porter saw a beautiful black vulture feather fall from the sky. Accompanied by her husband, she traced it to a nearby nest in a hollow log in the swamp and began the very disagreeable task of surveying the scene. However, perseverance and disregard for the presence of the foul-smelling carrion on which the vulture fed, enabled them to observe and photograph the nesting of these creatures through the incubation period to the final emergence of the young from the shell. The book intertwined this episode with the life of a Scotch logger, a great deal of wood lore, and the epochal character of Freckles. It was published amid great acclaim in 1904, and during the next ten years, sold 670,733 copies. Eventually sales reached more than a million copies in America and five hundred thousand in great Britain.
 

"Freckles lifted his hat and faced the sky. The harvest moon looked down, sheeting the swamp in silver glory. The Limberlost sang her night song. The swale softly rustled in the wind. Winged things of night brushed his face; and still Freckles gazed upward, trying to fathom these things that had come to him. There was no help from the sky. It seemed far away, cold, and blue. The earth, where flowers blossomed, angels walked, and love could be found, was better. But to One, above, he must make acknowledgment for these miracles." (from Freckles, 1904)


The popularity of "Freckles" was so great that Mrs. Porter published a sequel to it in 1909, "Girl of the Limberlost". This work, illustrated by one hundred pictures, gave her world fame. Again, nature lore supplements the story in a most unique fashion.

Ladies Home Journal accepted articles on birds in 1904 and 1905, for by this time Mrs. Porter was an accepted writer for the masses. Her novels included a great deal of nature lore. This proved rather unpalatable to some at first, but eventually was accepted as Mrs. Porter's way. This was the period of deep and abiding interest in nature writings stimulated by Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, John Burroughs, Ernest Seton Thompson, and Luther Burbank. Their works together with the new interest in the conservation of natural resources, gave the literature of nature a continuing impetus. Mrs. Porter's writing was a thread in this substantial pattern.

"At the Foot of the Rainbow", issued in 1909, had a balanced ration of nature lore and romance. "Birds of the Bible" also published in 1909, was a very scholarly work and required a great deal of research. It was by no means decisively popular, but was interesting and replete with illustration, some of which were collected abroad with painstaking care.

About this time Gene was employed as a contributor to "International Bible Encyclopedia". For four years, she also served as a specialist in natural history and photography on "Photographic Times Annual."

While making photographs of birds in the spring of 1910, Mrs. Porter became interested in their music, calls, and sounds; the result was "Music of the Wild". She dedicated this book to her husband's brother, Dr. Miles Porter, then a physician in Fort Wayne.

Mrs. Porter also collected moth specimens and eggs and brought them home for study. She sometimes placed eggs on her pillow so that she might be wakened by the sound of the moths breaking from the cocoon. Besides making photographs of their egg-laying and other activities during their short lives, she painted water colors of them. Her easel was made for her by her father when she was a child. ""Moths of the Limberlost" published in 1912, grew from these labors and studies.

Mrs. Porter's public, now a definite segment of the reading population, awaited the coming of each new book with the Gene Stratton-Porter signature. In 1911, she published "Harvester", which became her most popular book. "Laddie" was written about her favorite brother, Leander Elliott Stratton, whom she affectionately called "Laddie". He drowned at the age of nineteen in the Wabash River, but she wrote as though he were still alive, giving him the life she would have wished. In fact, the entire Stratton family became characters in this book. Mrs. Porter called "Laddie" her "true-blue" book. Prominent in "The White Flag", with its setting in Wabash (thinly disguised as "Ashwater") is a character suggested by a mentally-deranged woman the author remembered from her childhood.

By this time, Gene alternated each serious book of nature with a romantic novel liberally sprinkled with nature facts and lore. During her residence at Geneva, she wrote five novels and five nature books and adopted the practice of publishing a book on her birthday.

 

"Yes," said the Bird Woman, " I will buy them, also the big moth caterpillars that are creeping everywhere now, and the cocoons that they will spin just about this time. I have a sneaking impression that the mystery, wonder, and the urge of their pure beauty, are going to force me to picture and paint our moths and put them into a book for all the world tom see and know. We Limberlost people must not be selfish with the wonders God has given to us. We must share with those poor cooped-up city people the best we can. To send them a beautiful book, that is the way, is it not, little new friend of mine?" (from A Girl of the Limberlost , 1909)


In 1913, agricultural interests began dredging the Limberlost region and its virgin beauty was soon transformed into a lush pattern of onions, celery, and sugar beets. Oil wells, frequently traveled roads, and modern fences left no place for birds and moths and temporarily ended Mrs. Porter's research in nature. Her thoughts turned to her childhood at Sylvan Lake, near Rome City, Indiana, so she purchased one hundred and fifty acres of virgin timberland at its edge, named it "Wildflower Woods", and built a cabin named "Limberlost" in memory of the first cabin at Geneva. One of the outstanding features in her new home was a fireplace which contained stones from every state in the Union. The kitchen was regarded as a showplace by the people of the community; large and well-furnished, it was used as a model and an object lesson for groups of women interested in homemaking and home economics.

Her remarkable garden contained more than three thousand varieties of plants. She employed a tree surgeon to repair damage to old and valuable trees and improved the property near Rome City in other ways. She also went to unusual lengths to preserve the bird life against destruction and was particularly interested in perpetuating a colony of horned owls.

During her residence there she cataloged more than twenty-three thousand flowers and plants and published four books: "Michael O'Halloran" 1915, "Morning Face" (1916), "Daughter of the Land" (1918), and "Homing with the Birds" (1919). Because of a paper shortage the publisher asked Mrs. Porter to cut Michael O'Halloran one hundred pages after it was practically completed. This she did, and still met the deadline.

At the outbreak of World War I, Mrs. Porter was engaged in the revision and enlargement of What I Have Done with Birds. Although she attempted to do whatever war work met her hands, she managed to complete the revision, Friends in Feather in 1917.

In 1922 and 1923, Mrs. Porter wrote editorials for McCall's. Although this was a new experience, her work was regarded as very successful.

Her first book of poetry, "Fire Bird", was published in 1922. This was a definite attempt to meet the requirements of the literary critics with a work of top literary quality. Its reception, however, was disappointing; as poetry, it failed to communicate itself to its readers. "Euphorbia", another poem, which ran as a serial in Good Housekeeping, was never published in a book form and immediately passed into the realm of the forgotten.

Throughout her career, Mrs. Porter disciplined herself to a definite amount of time for work each day. From this regimen, she was unwilling to be diverted. Although neighbors and acquaintances sometimes refused to understand, the author persisted in her schedule. At times Mrs. Porter also placed restrictions on invasion of her privacy at Sylvan Lake. She remarked that her property rights were not respected and that as an example, on one occasion, thoughtless fishermen dug angel worms in her carefully cultivated gentia bed.

For reasons of health, Mrs. Porter decided in 1922 to make her home permanently in California, where she had been wintering for several years. Since royalties from the purchases of fifty million readers were pouring into her purse, and she could buy almost anything she wanted, she planned to build two houses in California; one was at Bel-Air, near Los Angeles, and the other was at Avalon. The work on these began in 1923. Here she wrote "Magic Garden" and "Keeper of the Bees".

Turning her attention to the possibility of screening her stories, she organized the Gene Stratton-Porter, Inc., a Delaware corporation, to produce motion pictures of her novels. She was assisted by her daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. James Meehan, and Mr. Meehan became her director. Some attempt was made to deflect these screen stories toward a sensational love interest both untoward and foreign to the original story. Mrs. Porter protested stoutly, so the stories were screened with great fidelity to the original text.

Mrs. Porter's health throughout life was unusually good. However, at one time, she received serious injuries in a fall. Later, she submitted to four severe surgical operations on her jaws and facial bones because of impacted teeth. In 1923, Gene Stratton-Porter, while driving her car in Los Angeles, became involved in a collision with a city streetcar and was killed instantly.

In the past, some of Mrs. Porter's works had been required reading for pupils in the English classes of the Fort Wayne high schools, which as a result had reinforced the demand for these titles. In 1964 the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne Indiana explored the holdings for copies of Gene Stratton-Porter's books. In all, the library had purchased, during the past 50 years, 2,580 of her books. Of these "Freckles" was the most widely read; 353 copies had been worn out and 119 copies were still active. "Girl of the Limberlost" ranked second with 377 worn out and 90 were still available. At the present time, March 2002, Allen County Public Library has in its collection 107 of Mrs. Porter's works.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Mrs. Porter and her books was to induce people to wander in the out-of-doors and investigate nature. Her considerable ability as a story-teller enabled her to hold and influence her readers.

A boulder, known as Elephant Rock, lay in the St. Mary's River a few miles north of Decatur and is probably the largest of its kind in the state. Youths called themselves skaters only when they could reach Elephant Rock and return. Since Mrs. Porter wished such a rock as a monument when she died, the school children of Adams County accordingly placed it across the street from the old Porter homestead.

The State of Indiana has now taken over both the home at Rome City and the one in Geneva as state memorials. The cabin located in Rome City, Indiana was built in 1895 with white cedar logs from Wisconsin. The architectural style is an unusual "Queen Anne Rustic" actually Arts and Crafts style. The interior is more indicative of the late Victorian period. Much of the interior paneling is quarter sawn red oak. The music room's lincrusta is beautifully restored.
The Limberlost Cabin has 14 rooms, many of them restored to their original detail by skilled artisans. Remember that this was a very visual lady. Her home reflects a fantastic attention to detail, yet as is warm and embracing as any you will ever see. There are events presented throughout the year.

The "cabin", in Geneva, was obtained by the Limberlost Conservation Association of Geneva and donated to the state in Indiana in 1947. Some kind people have donated pieces of the original Grand Rapids (Michigan) furniture back to the cabin. Some of the furniture was still in the home when it was donated to the state. Only one family had lived in it after the Porters sold it. The house and property were sold because by 1913, the swamp was drained, and as a result, Mrs. Porter lost her outdoor laboratory and her Geneva area source of inspiration.

Seeking a less developed area, in 1913, the Porters built Wildflower Woods on 150 acres on Sylvan Lake in Rome City. Mrs. Porter was recently re-interred at this site, having been previously buried in California.

The Loblolly Marsh Wetland Preserve was dedicated on June 14, 1997. Loblolly is what the Native Americans called this area. The Europeans called it the Limberlost. Swamp is what the settlers called this area. Marsh is what it really was in those days, according to the terms we use now. Thus Loblolly Marsh equals Limberlost Swamp.

 

The Loblolly Marsh Wetlands Preserve is Open

Over 100 years after drainage of the area was begun, efforts have been underway by Friends of the Limberlost, Jay County Soil and Water Conservation District and ACRES, Inc. to restore a small portion of this valuable resource. After four years of planning, fund-raising, paperwork and generosity with a few near miracles, the Loblolly Marsh opened with a moving dedication on Saturday, June 14, 1997. Over 400 acres are being restored to the original watershed conditions, so far as possible. The dedication, which was recited in unison says: "This preserve is dedicated for the present and future generations to use as a study area, a hiking area, a photography area or as a place to relax with nature just as Gene Stratton-Porter enjoyed this area nearly a century ago." More information about the Loblolly Marsh from Audubon Magazine.

Gene Stratton-Porter was fearless in the swamp. She carried heavy glass plates into every part of it, shot her photos, sketched, made notes, developed her own film, tinted the photographs with watercolors, wrote her books, and in addition to illustrating most of them, she designed and prepared her book covers and did much of the layout work on her publications, and also stood up to the publisher who tried to water down her knowledge. What an amazing woman! She best summarized her personal philosophy when she wrote in the Afterward of "Jesus of the Emerald", "In the economy of nature nothing is ever lost. I cannot believe that the soul of man shall prove the one exception."