“This moment was worth the trip,” I thought to myself as I sat under a canopy of golden leaves, watched swans glide past and tucked into my ham salad sandwich.
The setting for my picnic lunch was the Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site in Rome City, Indiana, a place I’ve been looking forward to visiting.
Around the turn of the 20th century, a nature-loving lady named Gene Stratton-Porter waded through mucky water, climbed trees and tramped through thickets to observe the natural habitat of the Limberlost Swamp near her Geneva, Indiana home. The self-taught photographer captured what she saw on film, then went home to develop her pictures and incorporate her experiences into best-selling books.
But then lumbermen cleared the swamp, removing trees, burning brush, and destroying the habitat that was so appealing to the birds and their intrepid female observer. Gene had to find a new place to observe and photograph wildlife. She chose the shoreline of Sylvan Lake, a retreat near Rome City, Indiana, where she had vacationed as a young woman.
In 1912, Gene purchased 120 acres on one mile of the lake’s shoreline and began developing a sanctuary not only for herself, but also for her beloved birds. She christened it Wildflower Woods. By the spring of 1913, she started designing a cabin that would be her home there.
Modeled after Limberlost, her home in Geneva, the cabin was constructed of Wisconsin white cedar and Indiana fieldstone and limestone. It features two long, two-story porches that face the lake on two sides and have sleeping rooms overhead, so Gene could watch and study wildlife as conveniently as if she had been in the trees themselves.
She placed an “Indian Torch” light at the base of the stair railing, just inside the front door.
The entrance hall and dining room are paneled in local wild cherry wood, while the cabin’s seven bedrooms are trimmed in maple and pine. The floors are made of oak boards, cut at an angle. Curtain rods hang in front of pocket doors to help with added insulation for the cabin, with its forced-air heating system. Built-in cabinets house souvenirs that Gene’s husband, Charles, brought home from his travels.
Since Gene envisioned staying at the cabin for long periods of time, she installed a gas generator in the basement and designed floor-to-ceiling kitchen cabinets equipped with ample flour bins. Her kitchen also featured a six-burner gas stove and an island on wheels with a spice rack, a cutting board and a zinc-covered countertop.
Gene and a stonemason scoured the countryside for pudding stone, a glacier conglomerate stone composed of sand, red and blue jasper, and white quartzite pebbles. They used the pudding stones they found in a pair of gateposts at the road entrance to the cabin, both crowned by statues of owls made from Indiana limestone…
as well as in the fireplace of the cabin’s library.
They also added pudding stones to the living room fireplace, placing them alongside several Toltec stone heads that Charles had collected in Mexico. They fashioned 64 other types of stones collected from 48 states into the shape of a moth above the center of the fireplace. They also formed a shape resembling a Revolutionary War soldier on the right-hand side of the fireplace. Can you make him out?
At her Geneva home, Gene used her bathroom for a darkroom, washing her negatives and prints in the sink and drying them on turkey platters. At Wildflower Woods, there’s a real darkroom with a window made of red-tinted glass from Kokomo, Indiana.
When Gene spent time at the cabin, she wrote her books at a desk with a lakeside view.
To create an attractive habitat where birds and wildlife could make themselves at home, Gene found or bought more than 14,000 trees, vines, bushes and wildflowers, planting 90 percent of them herself. She claimed to have every variety of oak tree known to that region, many of them ranging from 20 to 50 feet tall and producing bushels of acorns in the autumn.
Gene created flower beds, each devoted to one color like red, white, pink, blue, mauve and yellow. Many of the wildflowers that Gene transplanted were rare species that she saved from extinction. Her garden became so famous that people from around the country sent her plants. A Colorado doctor provided pasque flowers, a Maine schoolgirl contributed a bunch of partridge berries for Thanksgiving decorations, a boy in western New York sent a cigar box filled with roots of Monarda didyma, and a Georgia girl offered jasmine. Golden wattle came from South Africa, while wild white strawberries came from the Crawfordsville, Indiana home of General Lew Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur. Gene and her secretary kept a record of everything that had been planted at Wildflower Woods, as well as a record of every bird and animal that made themselves at home there.
In 1919, poor health, a need for privacy, and an interest in producing movies inspired by her books prompted Gene to move to California. After she was killed in an automobile accident in 1924, she was buried in Hollywood. Gene’s descendants brought the remains of her and her daughter, Jeannette, back to Wildflower Woods in 1999 and buried them in a wooded area of the grounds, beside Gene’s favorite Chinkapin oak tree.
To mark Gene’s 150th birthday in 2013, Annie Oakley Perfumery in nearby Ligonier, Indiana created a fragrance called Wisteria. The light floral scent honors Gene’s love of wisteria, which is a prominent feature of the gardens at Wildflower Woods. Bottles of perfume, portable travel sprays and containers of hand cream in the fragrance are available for sale only at the Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site. If your travels take you to Ligonier, you can tour Annie Oakley Perfumery and learn how fragrances are created, blended, bottled and prepared for distribution.
The shop also sells hand-thrown, hand-painted pieces of Strawtown Pottery, made on the banks of the White River in historic Strawtown, Indiana.
To discover 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.