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Last updated: Thu. Jun. 30, 2011 - 02:14 pm EDT

Gene Stratton-Porter sites: A study in nature

Historic locations preserve the beauty that inspired Indiana writer

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Naturalist-guided tours of portions of the Limberlost Swamp are around 1.5 hours. Cost is $10 for up to eight people. Call ahead to schedule. Admission: Adults, $3.50; seniors, $3; ages 6–12, $2; and ages 5 and younger and Indiana State Museum members, free. Call for winter hours and for holiday closings. Website: www.indianamuseum.org/sites

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Summer is a great time for a little excursion into the woods. Just an hour away are two state historic sites that once served as home and inspiration for naturalist and author Gene Stratton-Porter.

South of Berne in Adams County, the town of Geneva has the Limberlost State Historic Site. Put on your bug spray and hike through the preserved and restored swamp area to see the moths, plants and animals that inspired Stratton-Porter's books “Freckles” (1904) and “Girl of the Limberlost” (1909). For a fee, a naturalist will accompany you.

On a hot day last week, Bill Hubbard, a Department of Natural Resources naturalist and wetlands educator, discussed the state's preservation efforts in wetlands near Stratton-Porter's home, called “The Limberlost Cabin.” Tall cattails shot up out of a pool where large bullfrog tadpoles skittishly swam, their legs almost developed. Bees nestled on vibrantly colored flowers while dragonflies zipped through the air.

In Stratton-Porter's time outlaws still lurked in the Limberlost swamp, so her husband, Charles, would have neighbors keep an eye out for his wife as she walked through the wooded areas to make her nature studies, which included taking photos and painting.

Stratton-Porter started her writing career with magazine articles before turning to books. Born in 1863 in Wabash County as the youngest of 12 children, the young Geneva Stratton — whose name has no relation to the Adams County town — had an affinity for nature. Her books are seen as part autobiography as the bird-woman book character likely refers to herself, Hubbard said.

The Geneva home contains original copies of Stratton-Porter's books. She wrote some of her books, including the novel “Freckles” and the nature study “The Song of the Cardinal (1903), there. It was the latter genre that she most wanted to write, according to Hubbard.

“Her publisher wanted novels,” he said. “That was where the money was.” So she struck a deal that would allow her to write her nature studies as well if she delivered novels, he said.

About 5,000-6,000 people tour Stratton-Porter's home there each year, Hubbard said.

The oak-paneled home with stenciled ceilings displays the wealth that Stratton-Porter and Charles, a pharmacist, acquired after they struck oil on their property. They built the home in 1895 for an astronomical sum of $5,000, about 10 times the cost of an average home then, Hubbard said.

Their original home is across the driveway next to where a visitors center is planned. Two years of successful fundraising will make the 4,000-square-foot Limberlost Welcome Center a reality when it's completed in summer 2012. Then the gift shop, now inside the house next to the dining room, and upstairs DNR offices will move there, leaving the top floor available for restoration, Hubbard said.

In the conservatory, where Stratton-Porter had an indoor water source to tend to her plants and would leave the door or windows open for moths and other creatures to come in, Hubbard pointed to the fence outside made from limestone from the Wabash River.

Stratton-Porter designed it with pockets of space. “She left little openings so the critters could come and go, she said,” Hubbard said.

Before moving to California to help turn her books into films, she saw the swamps in Geneva getting drained and thought the area was getting too developed. So she relocated to Sylvan Lake in Rome City in 1913.

There, on the water's edge, she could tend to her plants and flowers. The grounds has the rock-covered Singing Waters, a place to cool down and watch frogs and fish in it while chipmunks and rabbits take cover from visitors under large-leafed hostas. An arbor provides shade while looking at the many flower and plant beds that Stratton-Porter must have once tended. Tours are offered of “The Cabin in Wildflower Woods” with window-lined wall views of Sylvan Lake.

The couple's daughter, Jeannette, divorced and came with her two daughters to live with her mother at Sylvan Lake. Charles stayed behind in Geneva during the week to tend to the hotel and other business ventures he had. He was a co-founder of the Bank of Geneva, Hubbard said.

In 1910, Stratton-Porter was selling 1,700 books a day, he said. She was so successful that, when she went to California for films of her novels, her photo was the largest and she got top billing on the movie posters, some of which hang at Sylvan Lake and Geneva.

Not happy with Paramount's version of “Freckles,” she created her own film company, which produced the next two, “Michael O'Halloran” and “A Girl of the Limberlost,” in 1923 and 1924 respectively. Twenty-five films based on eight of her novels were produced 1917-1993 by a variety of film companies, including Republic, Columbia and 20th Century Fox. Most of the early films eroded and no longer exist, Hubbard said.

After Gene and her daughter went to California, Jeannette married a film producer.

Stratton-Porter was two weeks shy of moving into a Bel-Air mansion when she died after her chauffer drove into the path of a streetcar. She was 61. Charles, who was planning to join his wife in California, eventually moved to Fort Wayne to live with his brother, Hubbard said.

Jeannette and Gene are buried on the property at Sylvan Lake.


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