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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Gene Stratton-Porter and the end of Limberlost Swamp

Smithsonian's Collections Search Center turns up intriguing results for Gene Stratton-Porter– images from the Art Inventories Catalog of Smithsonian's American Art Museum, a natural history text, and a book on travel through the "Hoosier state" from Smithsonian Libraries.  These only hint at her fascinating life.  I first learned about Stratton-Porter when Smithsonian Libraries digitized one of her natural history texts, contributed to Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).  Looking at her books on BHL, one finds texts that describe birds, bugs, and her birthplace—the state of Indiana.

Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924) expressed a deep connection with her home state in the form of nature photography and illustration, writing, and environmental activism.  In each of these endeavors, she studied, documented, referenced, or advocated for the places in Indiana she knew personally.

Title page of Stratton-Porter’s best known novel, A Girl of the Limberlost. Source: Wikipedia.
She is best known for her twelve novels, which gained her national and international fame during her lifetime. At her peak of popularity in the 1910’s, Stratton-Porter had an estimated 50 million readers.  One of her best-known novels, A Girl of the Limberlost, takes place in Limberlost swamp, located near her home “Limberlost Cabin” in Geneva, Indiana.  Limberlost swamp was also where she spent most of her time and effort documenting natural history.

Stratton-Porter’s accomplishments are impressive, especially when one remembers she was born in the midst of the American Civil War.  There is an appealing boldness to how she lived her life.  In a time when women did not consider home and career, she dared to not only pursue writing, but to also believe she could balance it with her home life. Her daughter later quoted her mother’s thoughts on career, family, and the tension that resulted. 

Then I took a bold step, the first in my self-emancipation. Money was beginning to come in, and I had some in my purse of my very own that I had earned when no one knew I was working. I argued that if I kept my family so comfortable that they missed nothing from my usual routine, I had a right to do what I could toward furthering my personal ambitions . . . until I could earn money enough to hire capable people to take my place. 
It speaks not only to her belief that there could be balance in home and work, but to her confidence in her capacity to earn substantial income from a career she learned on her own.

She pursued her natural history fieldwork with the same boldness.  In Tales You Won’t Believe, Stratton-Porter described how she collected and transported specimens in her car: 

There were long boxes for each of the running boards and frequently I threw coffee sacking over the engine hood and loaded it with swamp mosses and bulbous plants, with pitcher plant and rosemary, as high as I could stack it and allow space for the driver to see over. 
When one of her books was adapted into a movie and she disliked the resulting film, Stratton-Parker started her own movie company and became one of the first women movie producers in Hollywood. She wrote to a correspondent, “every dollar of money that went into this picture I earned myself, most of it in the fields and woods and in the swamps.”

Page 11, Moths of the Limberlost, with water color and photographic illustrations from life. Source Biodiversity Heritage Library (Smithsonian Libraries contribution)
When reading about her life, I was particularly interested in a reference to her conservation work for Limberlost swamp.  Too many Hollywood endings made me assume that her writing and natural history documentation might have saved it from development.

Reading more in-depth, I learned this was not the case. In 1910, the swamp that inspired her natural history study and popular writing was drained and developed for agricultural use. After the loss of Limberlost swamp, Stratton-Baker became active in the conservation movement. She fought for the Indiana state government to repeal legislation that would drain wetland in additional counties. The law was repealed; unfortunately, the swamps were still eventually drained. Indiana’s drive to drain wetlands went well beyond Limberlost and neighboring counties; from the time of the state was settled by pioneers, Indiana lost an estimated 4.85 million acres of wetland. According to Indiana in Transition (1968) by 1919, “Indiana had the largest percentage of farms under drainage in the nation.” Stratton-Porter bought another property in 1912, selling the home in Geneva in 1923. 

There is a poignancy to Gene Stratton-Porter’s life, when one considers how her strong connection to Indiana influenced her writing and its popularity. Stratton-Porter moved from Geneva to Sylvan Lake in Indiana, partly because of the property’s resemblance to Limberlost swamp. By 1919, her popularity grew significantly, and the family started having issues with fans trespassing. The increasing lack of privacy was one of the reasons Stratton-Parker moved from Indiana to California in 1919.

Poster from a 1938 movie adaptation of “A Girl of Limberlost”. The book was also adapted in 1924, 1934, 1945, and 1990. Source: Wikipedia
Despite lacking the happy conclusion I envisioned for Limberlost swamp, her natural history legacy endures. Stratton-Porter’s natural history writing documents the lost Indiana wetland of Limberlost, now available on Biodiversity Heritage Library.  Stratton-Porter’s writing eventually inspired the state of Indiana to turn her two homes into state historic sites that support environmental education -- Limberlost Cabin and Cabin at Wildflower Woods.

Lesley Parilla, Cataloging and Bibliographic Access Librarian
Smithsonian Libraries

To learn more about Gene Stratton-Porter:

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