To celebrate Women’s History Month, I’m sharing about a woman in literature who has touched my life (and writing) in some way each Friday.
This week, I had to share about Gene Stratton-Porter.
Gene was an Indiana native who became a self-trained American author, nature photographer, and naturalist, and pioneer in the film industry.
Born August 17, 1863 near Lagro in Wabash County, Indiana, Geneva Grace Stratton was the twelfth and last child born to Mary and Mark Stratton at the family’s Hopewell Farm. Mart was a Methodist minister and farmer of English descent. Mary was a homemaker of German-Swiss ancestry.
In 1874, when Gene was 12, she moved with her parents and unmarried siblings to Wabash, Indiana. Initially, they resided with her married sister, Anastasia, and her husband, Alvah Taylor, a layer. Gene’s mother died just a few months after the move to Wabash. After that, Gene boarded with various relatives for the next twelve years.
Her early years had not been conducive to schooling, but she developed a strong interest in nature, especially birds. As a young girl, Gene’s father, and brother Leander (whom she called Laddie) taught her to appreciate nature as she roamed around the family farm, observing animals and caring for pets. After the move to Wabash, Gene regularly attended school and became an avid reader. She also began music lessons in banjo, violin, and piano from her sister, Florence, and receive private art lessons from a local instructor. Gene was failing her classes and quit school in her final term of her senior year, later claiming she’d left school to care for Anastasia, who was terminally ill with cancer.
During a trip to Sylvan Lake, Indiana, in 1884, Gene met Charles Porter, a druggist who was thirteen years older than her. After ten months of regularly exchanging letters, they met at another gathering at Sylvan Lake in 1885. They became engaged and wed in 1886. Gene kept her family surname and added her husband’s name after they wed.
Gene and Charles had one child, a daughter named Jeannette, born in 1887 when the Porters lived in Decatur, Indiana. In 1888, Gene persuaded her husband to move to Geneva, Indiana, where he would be closer to his businesses. He initially purchased a small home within walking distance of his drugstore, but when oil was discovered on his land, they built a larger home. At one time, more than sixty oil wells were drilled on their land. The Limberlost Cabin served as their home from 1895 to 1913. Charles traveled while Gene remained at home. Charles had numerous business interests and became a successful businessman. In addition to owning drugstores, he owned farms, a hotel, and a restaurant. Porter invested in the Bank of Geneva in 1895, and Trenton Oil Company.
Gene took pride in her family and home, but opposed the traditional roles of marriage of her era. She maintained her independence through pursuits of lifelong interests in nature. She began writing about these subjects to earn her own income and eventually became a wealthy novelist, nonfiction writer, and film producer. In the early 1900s, Gene was as popular then as J.K. Rowling is today. She wrote 26 books that included novels, nature studies, poetry collections and children’s books. During the years of 1895-1945, only 55 books sold more than a million copies each. Of those, five belonged to Gene. Nine of her novels were made into films, five by Gene Stratton-Porter Productions, one of the first movie and production companies owned by a woman. Gene also wrote for magazines like Good Housekeeping and McCall’s.
Her books were published during a pivotal time in America. The frontier was rapidly fading away. Small communities were turning into industrial centers connected by railroads. And the wilderness she’d loved during her childhood years was all but disappearing. Gene spent her life capturing the landscape before it was nothing more than a distant memory. In later years, her impact on conservation was later compared to the work down by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Her career really began in 1895 when she sent nature photographs she’d made to Recreation magazine. Her first published article, “A New Experience in Millinery,” appeared in the publication’s February 1900 issue. The article highlighted her concerns about harming birds in order to use feathers as hat trims. At the magazine’s request, Gene wrote a photography column called “Camera Notes.” She began doing similar work for natural history magazine Outing in 1901. Soon, she regularly submitted short stories and nature-related material to magazines. Her first story, “Laddie, the Princess, and the Pie,” was published in Metropolitan magazine in September 1901. To garner a wider audience, Gene decided to include fictional elements in her writing and began penning novels. Bobbs-Merrill published her first, full-length attributed novel, The Song of the Cardinal (1903), about a red bird living along the Wabash River. The story featured how birds lived in the wild and Gene’s photographs were included. Gene’s publisher believed nature stories would not become as popular as romance novels. Her second novel, Freckles (1904), combined nature and romance and become a bestseller.
In 1909, A Girl of the Limberlost, released and became her best-known work. In the story, Elnora Comstock, a lonely, poor girl living on a farm, goes to the Limberlost Swamp to escape from her troubles. She lands on the idea of collecting and selling moth specimens to pay for an education when her mother refuses to help her. Literary critics called the novel a “well written” and “wholesome story.” I call the story a brilliant combination of desperation, hope, struggle, truth, and the unstoppable power of love. This book was one I read when I was an impressionable teen and it made such an impact on my life. Not only was it so beautifully written with a setting that felt so real I could almost smell the loamy fragrance of the swamp or taste the disappointment on Elnora’s tongue. The vivid details not only brought the place to life, but also the characters. What I learned from Gene and this incredible story definitely influences my writing style, challenging me to write characters and settings that feel real and true, and aren’t easily forgotten.
After years of strenuous work outdoors, battling with the Indiana state government to protect the state’s wetlands, concerned over the events of World War I, Gene checked into a sanitarium in New York for a retreat. She recuperated there for a month before returning to her home at Wildflower Woods. In 1919, after recovering from influenza, she decided to move to Los Angeles. From her California home, Gene continued to write. She founded Gene Stratton-Porter Productions, Inc., one of the first female-owned studios, and worked with film director, James Leo Meehan (her son-in-law), to create films based on her novels.