No Wonder Birds Flock to Gene Stratton-Porter’s Limberlost Cabin

The songs of Petey the canary must have been the perfect background music for Mrs. Warren G. Harding as she read The Harvester and Her Father’s Daughter.

The former First Lady owned both of these books by Gene Stratton-Porter, the self-taught photographer and best-selling author who shared her love of birds and nature with millions of readers during the early years of the 20th century. I paged these volumes from the Ohio History Connection’s Archives/Library vault recently, in preparation for my long-awaited pilgrimage to Gene’s northeastern Indiana home.

Her Father's Daughter, Gene Stratton-Porter (Doubleday, Page, 1921), Ohio History Connection

Geneva Grace “Gene” Stratton was born on August 17, 1863 on a farm near Wabash, Indiana, where her lifelong love of nature began by caring for birds and their nests. In 1886, she married Charles Porter, a druggist and banker, and moved to Geneva, Indiana. The following year, the Porters’ only child, Jeannette, was born.

Gene Stratton-Porter

In 1893, the Porters went to the Chicago World’s Fair, where Gene fell for the Forestry Building, a rustic structure with a wraparound porch supported by 25-feet-high tree trunks. The next year, Charles built Gene a similar home with a colonnaded porch on the extra lot next to their modest yellow cottage. Their magnificent new home — which Gene designed — was constructed from Wisconsin red cedar logs, with redwood shingles on the upper story and the roof. The Porters called it the Limberlost Cabin in honor of the swamp that was just steps away.

Limberlost Cabin

The Limberlost Swamp was a treacherous 13,000-acre wooded quagmire that was named after “Limber Jim,” a man who wandered into the swamp and never returned. Gene was fascinated by it. Wearing a panama hat covered with mosquito netting, a brown or green blouse or sweater paired with a khaki skirt or trousers, and lace-up leather hiking boots, Gene waded through the mucky water, climbed trees and tramped through thickets to observe the natural habitat. She carried a revolver for protection in case she came across poisonous rattlesnakes or vagabonds. Some of the specimens that Gene collected during her forays into the swamp are still on display at the Limberlost Cabin, such as a display of over 80 moths that Gene collected between 1906 and 1912.

The Indiana State Museum’s Limberlost State Historic Site was definitely worth my six-year wait to see it.

Gene drove her wagon around the surrounding countryside and picked up pieces of Wabash limestone to fashion a fence of her own design. She left openings in the fence so that small animals could come in and make themselves at home among the garden where hollyhocks, sunflowers, buttercups, pinks and lilies grew. Mulberry bushes, wild honeysuckle and goldenrod continue to attract swarms of birds and insects.

Limberlost Cabin

Outside, there’s a wishing well,Limberlost Cabin

a smokehouse fashioned from a hollowed-out sycamore log…

Limberlost Cabin

and a turreted porch with a door underneath that led to Jeannette’s playhouse.

Limberlost Cabin

Inside, the entrance hall, library and dining room are paneled in quarter-sawn golden oak that was harvested near Kokomo, Indiana. Ceilings are bordered by striking stenciled designs. A stuffed golden eagle that Jeannette used to dress up for tea parties still stands beside the library’s fireplace. Gene wrote half of her books before the library’s front windows.Limberlost Cabin

The home’s showplace is the music room, with original Lincrusta wallcovering and hand-painted frescoes. Gene’s paintbox and her painting of irises, some of her favorite flowers, are displayed in the corner of the room.

Limberlost Cabin

Gene’s fondness for birds is evident on the bedstead in the first-floor guest room, which features hand-carved owls.Limberlost Cabin

Gene took every opportunity to invite birds into her home. She hid beneath her open kitchen windows at night, hoping to lure owls in with treats she put on the windowsill. Wild birds came and went through the open windows of Gene’s lovely conservatory. 

Limberlost Cabin

In fact, one resident bird was responsible for beginning Gene’s work as a nature photographer and writer.  Jeannette’s pet parrot, Major, didn’t care for his cage, so he flew through the house and perched on the dining room chairs. Gene’s stories of Major’s antics prompted Charles to give her a box camera for Christmas in 1895 so she could capture them for him to see. Soon, Gene began using her camera to record her encounters with wildlife. She lugged 40 pounds of glass plates, lenses, a tripod, ropes, a ladder and other equipment through the Limberlost, rigging her camouflaged camera from trees in order to get close shots of birds. By capturing birds’ behavior, like nesting, feeding and caring for their young, Gene became a pioneer in nature photography.

Gene produced such quality photographs that a Kodak representative wanted to know how she did it. She declined to tell him that her darkroom was her home’s bathroom. She washed her negatives and prints in the sink and dried them on turkey platters.

Limberlost Cabin

Photography was a perfect complement to Gene’s growing interest in writing. After submitting an anonymous entry to a writing contest, she began to write natural history articles for Recreation and Outing magazines, illustrating her work with her own photographs. Her first novel, The Song of the Cardinal, was published in 1903. By the time A Girl of the Limberlost was published in 1909, “The Bird Lady” had become an established author.Limberlost Cabin

Thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt, Americans had become more interested in the outdoors, and Gene’s readers clamored for more. In 24 years, she published 12 novels, 12 nonfiction works, three collections of verse and hundreds of articles for magazines, including The Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s and The Saturday Evening Post. Eight of her novels were produced as motion pictures.

During the 18 years that Gene lived beside the Limberlost, changes started taking place at the swamp. It was drained by a steam-powered dredge so that it could be tilled and farmed. Loggers cleared the timber and sold it to furniture factories, shipbuilders and barrel-makers. Wells were drilled for oil and gas that had been discovered in the Limberlost.  As the streams dried up, the swamp and the natural habitat it provided for animals and insects vanished. In the early 1990s, a project began to reclaim a portion of the original Limberlost Swamp, raising money to buy land from farmers who were tired of contending with flooded fields. Today, over 1,500 acres have been purchased by the Limberlost Swamp Remembered Project and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, through the Indiana Heritage Trust. The 467-acre Loblolly Marsh Wetland Preserve, located a few miles southwest of Geneva, is part of the wetland complex that Gene described in her writings. To mark the occasion of its dedication in the spring of 1997, a sycamore tree was planted in honor of the giant sycamoreLimberlost Cabin featured in Song of the Cardinal. Hiking trails at the preserve are open daily from dawn to dusk; guided tours can be arranged through the Limberlost State Historic Site ahead of time.

Geneva is a pleasant two-hour drive from Columbus. Gene would be pleased to know that the Indiana Audubon Society has designated it a Bird Town, in recognition of the community’s active and ongoing commitment to the protection and conservation of bird habitats and populations. You can see why in a special birdwatching area of the Limberlost State Historic Site’s visitor center.

On your way to the Limberlost State Historic Site and the Loblolly Marsh Wetland Preserve, you might pass the Red Gold manufacturing plant that’s located just outside Geneva. Red Gold, a fourth-generation family-owned business headquartered in Orestes, Indiana, was founded in 1942 to produce fresh-tasting canned tomato products during World War II.  Family farms in Indiana, northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan grow a certain type of Roma tomato for Red Gold that has been bred and selected especially for the region, with different maturity times for harvesting. Thousands of semi-loads of tomatoes are efficiently processed into more than 100 kinds of tomato products with colorful yellow-and-red labels, including whole peeled, diced and stewed tomatoes, tomato juice, tomato sauce, ketchup and salsa.

To dHeroine of the Limberlostiscover more about Gene Stratton-Porter, read Gene Stratton-Porter: Novelist and Naturalist, by Judith Reick Long; Life and Letters of Gene Stratton-Porter, by Jeannette Porter-Meehan; Coming Through the Swamp: The Nature Writing of Gene Stratton-Porter, edited by Sydney Landon Plum; and “A Writer’s Crusade to Portray Spirit of the Limberlost,” by Deborah Dahlke-Scott and Michael Prewitt, on pages 64 through 69 of the April 1976 issue of Smithsonian.  Heroine of the Limberlost: A Paper Doll Biography of Gene Stratton-Porter, by Norma Lu Meehan, is a collection of over 20 costumes replicated from photographs of Gene and her family.  It’s out of print, but I was lucky to find a copy, and I treasure it.

This entry was posted in Architecture, Birds, Books, Indiana, Nature/Outdoors. Bookmark the permalink.

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