By Emily Speight | On October 17, 2019 | Updated September 2, 2022 | Comments (0)
Gene Stratton-Porter (born Geneva Grace Stratton, August 17, 1863 – December 6, 1924) was an American author, photographer, naturalist, artist, and filmmaker. Among her best known books are Freckles, A Girl of the Limberlost, and The Harvester.
Many of her novels are ostensibly aimed at younger readers, but they can be enjoyed by “children of all ages,” much in the way that the Anne of Green Gables books (which were published in the same era) can be.
Born in Lagro, Indiana, into a family with eleven other siblings, Geneva, who was later referred to as Gene, spent most of her time roaming the fields and forests of her family’s farm, catching butterflies and moths, and observing birds and small animals.
Her outdoor exploration was encouraged by her parents, and both her father and mother taught her how to glean all she could from her surroundings. All of her time spent outdoors would lay the foundation of her career as a naturalist, photographer, and writer.
An early affinity with the natural world
Disliking school for most of her high school days, Gene quietly quit her senior year, frustrated with its rigidity. She recalled how teachers never “made the slightest effort to discover what I cared for personally, what I had been born to do.”
She was tired of spending time on mathematics and geometry when she longed to be in the wilds of the forest, learning through real-life experiences and doing what she loved most.
After a year spent recovering from an injury, Gene accepted a friend’s invitation to Sylvan Lake, in Rome City, Indiana. She spent a portion of her time attending a Chautauqua show — bird watching, row-boating, and fishing. She also observed how young women her age were not in touch with nature, and were even afraid of it.
The domestic life that called to these young women did not entice Gene. She found her outdoor world to be more life-giving than embroidery, painting and other domesticities of the era.
She hoped that one day she might entice these women to broaden their minds with the natural world around them: “I came in time to believe there might be a lifework for one woman in leading these other women back to the forest.”
Marriage and children
Eventually, Gene did catch the eye of a man, Charles Porter, an entrepreneur and drug store owner. He began to court her via handwritten letters, which continued for over a year. Gene was candid about her lack of domestic skills.
“I made some cookies and they were not fit to eat!,” and “I don’t like housekeeping by any means, but if I have to do it I mean to march it through.” As marriage began to come up in conversation, Gene wrote in a letter to Charles, dated September 1885:
“…How can any woman be bright and cheerful when a husband would lay on a girl’s shoulders the management and planning of a house, then have her cook, wash, bake, iron, scrub, make up beds, sweep, and dust.”
Her frankness did not deter Charles, and a month later the two were engaged. The Porters began married life in Decatur, Indiana, where Charles’ second drug store was located. After the couple had their first and only child, Jeannette, Gene pressed Charles to move to Geneva, Indiana. She longed to be near nature again after a busy, crowded city life.
One might think that Gene became rather domesticated in her home in Geneva. She spent her days with little Jeannette, taking care of her birds, perfecting her musical interests, painting china, taking classes in embroidery, and organizing a ladies’ literary club.
After experiencing the Columbian World’s Fair in Chicago with Charles, Gene desired a real home of their own, a house inspired by the architecture she had seen displayed at the Fair.
In 1894, Gene worked with an architect to design the new Porter homestead. A lovely cedar home was constructed, with redwood shingles, a colonnaded porch, white oak flooring and mahogany furniture throughout. Finally, Gene felt her empire had been created.
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A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter
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Discovering the Limberlost
It wasn’t long before Gene began to explore her surroundings and discovered what the local Genevans called “The Limberlost Swamp.”
The Limberlost, only one mile from her home, would become Gene’s haven, the place she’d longed to find, which opened her up to a world of nature study, photography, and writing. A trip to this deep forest was, as Gene wrote later:
“ … not be joked about. It had not been shorn, branded, and tamed. There were most excellent reasons why I should not go there … In its physical aspect, it was a treacherous swamp and quagmire filled with every plant, animal, and human danger known … in the Central States.”
The trees and brush were thick, nearly impassable in places. In the summer, mosquitoes swarmed, poisonous snakes lurked, and oozing mud made hiking a slow and arduous trek.
Gene saw birds she had never dreamed of before: scarlet tanagers, cedar waxwings, yellowhammers, goldfinches, red-winged blackbirds and blue herons. Butterflies, moths, and wildflowers also drew Gene to this magnificent cathedral of color.
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An observer and recorder of birds
Observing, photographing, and sketching birds, Gene learned the differences between species — how some birds like the baby grosbeaks and finches, had to be convinced by their parents to fly, while warblers and thrushes didn’t need coaxing, and robins and larks had to be taught how to forage for food.
Gene gave her full attention and time to observing and waiting for the right moment to take a picture. She explained:
“I have reproduced birds in moments of fear, anger, in full tide of song, while dressing their plumage, taking a sunbath, courting, feeding their young. The recipe for such studies is: Go slow, know the birds and understand them, and remain in the woods until … they will be perfectly natural in your presence.”
Gene’s photographs even drew the attention of a manufacturer of photographic print paper at one point, who sent a representative to her home to observe how she achieved her results.
She told the representative that the chemicals in the Indiana water probably contributed to her success, sheepishly leaving out the fact that she processed her own film in her bathroom. Gene eventually came to believe her photographs were superior to John James Audubon’s famous sketches.
Gene’s home was an oddity, for at any given time butterflies, birds, insects, and small animals roamed freely indoors. Her lush conservatory served as a perching place for birds, while curtains and furniture were home to cocoons and butterflies.
This was her observatory, her venue for learning when she could not be found in the swamp. She and her family coexisted with these curious creatures and they abided as willing guests.
Stepping into a writing career
Gene Stratton-Porter first made writing waves in an outdoor magazine, Outdoor Recreation, during the late 1890s, in response to a popular fad among women: the wearing of stuffed birds on their hats.
She was so opposed to this idea that once, while trying to find a hat without a bird, she visited four different shops before she finally purchased a hat containing birds, which she promptly cut off with the storekeeper’s scissors.
She encouraged women to choose hats made with peacock feathers and ostrich plumes, both of which could be collected without harming the birds. From that point on, Gene was published in various magazines and newspapers across the country, including the Metropolitan (New York City).
A short story sent to the editor of Century Magazine was so well received that he encouraged Gene to expand the story into a novel.
The Song of the Cardinal (1903) was her first published novel, with her own illustrations. The story was inspired by a personal experience of hers, which involved giving a proper burial to a redbird that she assumed had been killed for target practice.
She hoped to spread the word about the evils of senseless killing of cardinals and birds in general. Though the book received warm reviews and readers enjoyed its contents, sales were slow and limited in circulation.
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A prolific author and filmmaker
Gene knew she would need to write more, and faster, if she was to gain a following and educate others about preserving and cherishing nature.
Her next novel, Freckles (1904), blended romance with the love of the outdoors as a way to capture a wider range of readers. The 1986 University of Indiana Press edition described the book as follows:
“Freckles was Gene Stratton-Porter’s first success, gaining even greater popularity after the publication of its sequel, Girl of the Limberlost. In Freckles, a homeless orphan finds his deliverance in the primeval Limberlost swamp.
Maimed and abandoned as an infant, Freckles seeks a chance to prove his worth in the world. He is given the opportunity to do just that as the guardian of the precious timber of the Limberlost.
In his stewardship of the woods, he finds happiness in the companionship of birds and other wild creatures, and in the love of the beautiful Swamp Angel. This moving story of courage and virtue will warm the hearts of young and old.”
Upon receiving a favorable reaction to Freckles, Gene continued to write similar stories, combining all that she loved about nature with human interest.
Through the coming years, Gene wrote numerous novels, nature books, and volumes of poetry. Of these, her most famous, The Harvester (1911), rose to number one on the bestseller list.
Also among her writing credits were numerous articles in The Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and McCall’s, as well as several lesser-known publications. After the success of her 1915 novel Michael O’Halloran, her books weren’t as successful nor as critically acclaimed, but that didn’t deter her.
Gene squeezed all she could out of life and nature in Indiana, though eventually, a change of scenery was desired.
Having visited California, Gene felt an undeniable pull to move to Los Angeles. She wrote a friend, “I sorter like this glorious sunshine, the pergola of Cherokee roses, the orange trees and blood-red poinsettias, and the mocking birds tame as robins back at home.”
Following her daughter’s divorce, Gene took Jeannette, who now had two daughters of her own, and moved to Los Angeles. Charles Porter remained in Indiana, tending to his business pursuits. It was in California that Gene did much of her writing, especially poetry, and where she enjoyed the fruits of her labor.
Quite a few of her novels were even turned into films, some multiple times. She founded her own production company, Gene Stratton-Porter Productions, to produce silent films based on her novels, and even directing some of them.
There was a long hiatus from her books being filmed in the 1920s, with just a scattering across the decades after. The most recent was a new adaptation of A Girl of the Limberlost in 1990.
Death and legacy
Sadly, in 1924, Gene was killed in a car accident in Los Angeles. She was sixty-one years old. The reverend leading her funeral said of her, “Hers was ever an original way. She did nothing after a prescribed fashion.”
Most of Gene Stratton-Porter’s novels became best sellers, and were wildly popular in the first quarter of the twentieth century. She published twenty-six books, which included twelve novels, eight nature studies, plus collections of stories, children’s books, and poetry volumes.
She’s a much admired figure in her home state of Indiana, where there are numerous tributes to her in many forms, including a historic site in the state’s Rome City. A one-woman play titled “A Song in the Wilderness” was staged in 2017 as part of the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival
The life this amazing woman led, and the boldness she demonstrated in making it her own, paved the way for so many other women to pursue their dreams.
As she was sometimes called, the “swamp angel” or the “bird lady,” gave so much to the world in her intricate, detailed, and passionate writing about the natural world. Her hope was that in doing so, she would ignite the same fervor and love she felt for even the tiniest of creatures, spurring others to help preserve and value them for all time.
Contributed by Emily Speight, who says, “Much like Gene Stratton-Porter, I love nature and the lessons learned from its tales. I am the wife to an amazing and supportive husband, and a stay-at-home mother, teacher to and expert of my two sweet boys. In my spare time I enjoy nature walks, painting and swing dancing. ”
More about Gene Stratton-Porter
Novels, children’s books, and essay collections
- The Song of the Cardinal (1903)
- Freckles (1904)
- At the Foot of the Rainbow (1907)
- A Girl of the Limberlost (1909)
- After the Flood (1911)
- The Harvester (1911)
- Laddie (1913)
- Birds of the Limberlost (1914)
- Michael O’Halloran (1915)
- Morning Face (1916)
- A Daughter of the Land (1918)
- Her Father’s Daughter (1921)
- The White Flag (1923)
- The Keeper of the Bees (1925)
- The Magic Garden (1927)
- What I Have Done with Birds, 1907 (Retitled Friends in Feathers , 1917)
- Birds of the Bible (1909)
- Music of the Wild (1910)
- Moths of the Limberlost (1912)
- Homing with the Birds (1919)
- Wings (1923)
- Tales You Won’t Believe (1925)
Read and listen online
More information and sources
- Reader discussion of Gene Stratton-Porter’s books on Goodreads
- Gene Stratton-Porter archives
- Indiana History
- Friends of the Limberlost