I had considered myself to be at least somewhat well read. That is until I stumbled on to the amazing Limberlost State Historic Site and the story of Gene Stratton-Porter. She was a naturalist and photographer. Gene’s cabin is located in Geneva, Indiana in Jay County.
Our guide Jeannie Akins told us that author J.K. Rowling listed her book, Girl of Limberlost” as one of her favorite books. This totally impressed my grand daughter Lilly!
Geneva “Gene” Stratton-Porter became an author, studying the wonders of the Limberlost swamp that was then located in this area of the world. A woman ahead of her time, she studied the woods and animals. The former cabin and visitor’s center is now part of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites system. During this visit I learned about her books that have sold millions and the woman behind the stories.
The Tour – the swamp
Jeannie shared that the swamp, at the time that Gene Statton Porter came to Geneva Indiana, was 20 square miles. “The rail road was downing the trees and then later the oil boom would destroy it.”
While it was there Gene used the woods as a place to study nature. In the 1990’s, Jeannie said that Ken Brunswick, a local dairy farmer discovered where the original swamp was located. Ken learned that he lived on the edge of the former swamp. He helped reclaim some of this land that is now the Loblolly Marsh.
Geneva Grace Stratton was born August 17, 1863 in Largo, Wabash County on a farm. Jeannie said, “Her mother had typhoid fever so she went out on the farm with her dad. He taught her how to approach birds. She really was a bird whisperer. He taught her what clothes to wear so she didn’t scare them.”
She was able to get so close to the birds that she could actually hold them at times according to the guide. She was one of 12 children.
Meeting Charles Porter
Charles Porter was the town druggist. “He met Gene in 1875 at a Chautauqua in Rome City,” our guide Jeannie said. “He was 13 years older and he was smitten. There were no mutual friends to introduce them so he wrote her a letter.”
This was totally unprecedented, but Gene was not a unusual type of woman.
After corresponding and courting, they married in April of 1875 and moved to Decatur, Indiana. In 1887 their only child Jeannette was born. Charles was going back and forth from Geneva. He had moved into banking. Gene was not happy living far from him so Jeannie said, “She wants to be in Geneva so they come.”
At first they live in a small yellow house. Soon Charles learns that Gene is going most days to the swamp to study nature. He says she can’t go and tries to compromise by taking her fishing. Gene doesn’t slow down at all. She starts drawing and is soon taking pictures.
The pictures began after she a camera given to her as a Christmas present by her daughter. I thought it quite clever that she used her bathroom as a darkroom and turkey platters for the photographs!
By the early 1900’s she is one of the foremost national nature photographers.
Discovering oil and the new cabin
Soon Charles discovered oil. This changed them from comfortable to quite well off. “Charles treated Gene to the World’s Fair in Chicago and told her she could design her dream cabin.”
The house was framed with white cedar logs added to the frame. Surrounding the cabin was an orchard, barn and tennis court. The tennis court is no longer there, nor is the barn, but you can still see the carriage house where she used to keep her favorite horse Patience. There is also a replica carriage. We heard stories of how Patience used to bring Gene back from the swamp after she sometimes would pass out from the heat. Gene wore layers of clothes to protect her from the bugs and rattle snakes while collecting her samples in the swamp area.
There is a limestone block fence surrounding the cabin. A sycamore tree that had been used to smoke meat was converted to a tool shed it dates to at least 1840.
The “Surround Porch” was an idea fro the World’s Fair. She designed a beautiful 14 room cabin.
There is a conservatory in the dining room where she kept her birds and moths! She had a parrot named Major that had his own chair at the dining room table.
Jeannie said Gene knew she was considered different than most women in town. While others entertained in the afternoon, she entertained in the evenings. She was known to run off if she saw a moth she had never seen to try to catch it.
Oil recession prompts writing
In the 1890’s the oil business went into a recession. This was the catalyst for Gene to start writing. “She wanted her own money. She got the idea to write nature articles,” Jeannie our guide said. “
Obtaining her own P.O. Box soon they magazines wanted short stories and novels. Gene was around 40 when she started writing and soon she was nationally and then internationally known.
The rest of the story of Gene’s life
With the swamp gone, Gene bought 160 acres of land in Rome City. She built a cabin there. (This is on my list of places to visit next!) According to the website the description is “Author, photographer, naturalist and entrepreneur – Gene Stratton-Porter was a woman ahead of her time. Her Cabin at Wildflower Woods is nestled on the shores of Sylvan Lake amongst 148 acres of fields, woods and beautiful formal gardens. The gravesites of Gene Stratton-Porter and her daughter Jeannette are located on the site.”
Jeannette married and divorced and moved in with her two children. During WWI she contracted the Spanish Flu. Needing a warmer climate traveled to California. “She falls in love with California buys land and is building a mansion.”
Charles commutes and is getting ready to retire. Gene starts the Gene Stratton Movie Production. Jeannette is the screen writer and and she meets and marries the producer.”
Just as everything was coming together in California, she was killed in a tragic car accident in 1924. “Charles never made it to California and Jeannette inherited the estate. Memorials for her were held all over the US. She was a household name. Over two million copies of her book Freckles and Girl From Limberlost were sold,” Jeannie added.
This cabin is so lovely. If you get a chance take the time to stop and look through this cabin and hear the Gene Stratton-Porter story. She is a true American hero and a woman for daughters to hold up as a model. For anyone interested in architecture, the cabin is just plain lovely!
If you enjoyed the story of this author, you may also enjoy stopping at Lane Place in Crawfordsville and learning about the author of Ben Hurr!