Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, John Burroughs. To this list of famous American naturalists, add the name Gene Stratton-Porter of Indiana.
Decades before the modern environmental movement began, Stratton-Porter warned against human activities that could lead to climate change. A best-selling fiction author too, she brought the beauty of the earth to the masses through her nature books, photographs, essays and poems.
Barbara Olenyik Morrow, in her biography “Nature’s Storyteller,” observed that Stratton-Porter took readers “to a place where many had never been or where they wanted to return — to flowering meadows and clean-smelling woods and marshes alive with birdsong.”
Stratton-Porter was a native Hoosier, born in 1863 and raised in Wabash County by parents who loved the outdoors and all God’s creatures.
As a child, Geneva Grace spent hours watching birds on the 240-acre family farm called Hopewell. As an adult, she intensely studied birds, moths and flowers, photographing and drawing them, writing about them and working for their preservation.
She was supported in her pursuits by her husband, whom she wed in 1886 and who called her Gene. Charles D. Porter was an Adams County businessman 13 years her senior. At first the couple lived in his hometown of Decatur, but the neighborhood did not suit his wife.
After the birth of their daughter Jeannette, the family moved to Geneva, where Stratton-Porter worked with architects to design a grand two-story “cabin” with Wisconsin cedar exterior and a colonnaded porch. The home was dubbed Limberlost after the nearby Limberlost Swamp blanketed with wildflowers and swarming with wildlife.
It was an ideal laboratory for her nature studies, and it was from here that Stratton-Porter launched her writing career at age 36.
Her first published piece in 1900 was an article in Recreation magazine lamenting a fashion trend of the day: women’s hats trimmed with bird feathers. Her first novel, “A Song of the Cardinal,” was the story of a lovesick bird that found his mate.
It was her fourth novel, published in 1909, that brought Stratton-Porter international fame. “A Girl of the Limberlost” tells of a poor but determined girl who sold moths and caterpillars to pay for her schooling. When the story opens, the girl is at cross-purposes with her widowed mother; by book’s end, the relationship is restored and the girl has found romance and happiness.
Although some critics panned Stratton-Porter’s works as saccharin, readers loved them. From 1910 to 1921, five of her novels made the top 10 bestseller list for fiction. The author was so wealthy that, when she decided to change scenery again in 1914, she bought land in her own name and paid for the construction of a house herself.
The draining of the Limberlost Swamp for commercial purposes had destroyed much of the habitat she used as inspiration. Her new home, the Cabin at Wildflower Woods on Sylvan Lake, offered 120 acres of fields, woods and gardens for an outdoor workshop. Today both Limberlost and Wildflower Woods are operated by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources as historic sites open to the public.
In 1919, Stratton-Porter went to California to pursue movie production opportunities and never returned full time to her husband or Indiana. She died in a car accident in 1924. Some years after her death her descendants arranged to have her body moved back to be buried amidst the flora and fauna of Wildflower Woods.
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Direction to Limberlost: The Limberlost State Historic Site connects with U.S. 27 in east-central Indiana. The address is 200 E. Sixth St., Geneva.
Directions to Wildflower Woods. The Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site at is 1205 Pleasant Point, Rome City, on the southwest side of Sylvan Lake.
This is part a series of essays about Hoosier history that will lead up to the celebration of the state’s bicentennial in December 2016. Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to [email protected].