In past decades I would occasionally read the name Gene Stratton-Porter, and got the impression she’d written the type of old-fashioned novels that had gone out of style. When I decided to research her life I was surprised to learn she had plenty of “new-fashioned” ideas.
Geneva Grace Stratton was born August 17, 1863 on a farm in Indiana. She was the youngest of twelve children. As a child she developed an interest in nature, especially observing birds in their natural habitats.
When she was twelve years old her family moved to Wabash, Indiana, and when her mother died a few months later Geneva began boarding with various relatives until her marriage.
In 1885 Geneva became engaged to Charles Porter, who was thirteen years her elder. During their courtship she decided to shortened her first name, and when she married in 1886 she chose to keep her family name, so she became Gene Stratton-Porter. In 1887 she gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Jeannette.
Charles Porter became a wealthy businessman, owning numerous farms, businesses and oil wells. He was often away on business trips, and Gene decided she wanted more out of life than to be a stay-at-home wife and mother. Plus, she wanted to earn her own income.
She loved exploring Limberlost Swamp, with its abundance of rare plants that provided both food and shelter for birds and moths. From 1888 to 1910 the 13,000 acre swamp was drained for use as farmland, and Gene began photographing the shrinking wetlands. She was especially interested in obtaining photos of birds, and would sometimes remain motionless for hours until she saw the perfect image to capture on film. She spent so much time in her photographic pursuits that she became known as the Bird Lady.
Gene began selling her photos to newspapers and magazines, and then began writing articles to go with the photos. She was able to earn money while educating the public on the importance of preserving wildlife habitats.
In time she began writing novels about people with an interest in nature, and when her fictional characters saw a moth, or a wildflower, or a bird of prey protecting its nest, she gave a full-blown naturalist’s description of what was seen. Modern readers might find Gene Stratton-Porter’s novels rather slow going, with frequent “nature talk” sections, but in the early 1900s her twelve novels sold by the millions.
Her most famous novels were set in the Limberlost Swamp. Freckles (1904) tells of a plucky orphan who’d had his right hand cut off soon after his birth. He finds work guarding two-thousand acres of leased timberland because the boss couldn’t provide a good answer to his question of: “But why wouldn’t that be the finest job in the world for me?”
A Girl of the Limberlost (1909) tells of Elnora Comstock, who collects and sells rare moths to pay for her high school education. Her life was summed up in the first chapter: “Behind her lay the land on which she had been born to drudgery and a mother who made no pretense of loving her; before her lay the city through whose schools she hoped to find means of escape and the way to reach the things for which she cared.”
Both of the novels had a minor character called the Bird Lady, who was a wealthy nature photographer. Gee, Bird Lady was the nickname given to the wealthy nature photographer author …
Gene Stratton-Porter also published eight nature books which weren’t bestsellers, but earned her a reputation as a first-class naturalist. She became active in several conservation groups and fought to save wetlands, and protect animals in danger of becoming extinct.
By the late 1910s she had become so famous that uninvited fans would come to her Indiana home, which was called Cabin at Wildflower Woods. Some people would trespass onto her land. In 1919 Stratton-Porter moved to southern California – at least in part to regain some privacy. In 1920 her daughter and two grandchildren also moved to California. Mr. Porter remained in Indiana.
Movie producers began making films based on Stratton-Porter’s novels, but the author was unhappy that they strayed so far from her original story. In 1924 she became the first woman to create her own studio and production company. Unfortunately, Gene Stratton-Porter Productions made only two movies during her lifetime.
On December 6, 1924, at the age of 61, she was killed in an automobile accident, and buried at Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery. In 1999 her grandsons made arrangements to move the remains of their grandmother and mother for reburial on the grounds of the Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site, near Rome City, Indiana. (Her husband, Charles Porter, who died in 1929, has always been buried in his hometown of Decatur, Indiana.)
Two of her Indiana homes are now open as house museums. The Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site contains her Cabin at Wildflower Woods, as well as about 150 acres of the former Limberlost Swamp, purchased by the state in several parcels. Much of the land is being restored to wetlands and prairie as a nature preserve. Perhaps Gene Stratton-Porter’s greatest legacy is that many people now share her belief that protecting nature’s flora and fauna has both environmental and economic benefits for the world at large.
If you’d like to read the Gene Stratton-Porter novels which have the Bird Lady as a character you can download (at no charge)
Freckles at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/111
and A Girl of the Limberlost at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/125