Last summer I visited the Cabin at Wildflower Woods, the former home of one of America’s most popular early-twentieth century authors, Gene Stratton-Porter. Now a state historic site, the craftsman-style cottage overlooks Sylvan Lake near Rome City, Indiana.
Nestled amid maples and oaks, and surrounded by a garden bejeweled in the spring with a grand pergola dripping gloriously with wisteria, the two-story chocolate brown cabin features a picture window designed by Stratton-Porter to perfectly frame the lake from the front sitting room. It is a writer’s haven where Stratton-Porter quelled her “fever to write” in a time when women were expected to tend hearth and home and depend upon a husband for financial security.
Stratton-Porter had an inner gnawing for self-expression and independence and found release as a self-taught writer, naturalist and photographer beginning in the late 1800s. The “remedy” for her longing to actualize her talents was found in her plantings—coneflowers, Jack-in-the-pulpits, swamp mosses and the bittersweet she so dearly loved—and then blossomed forth in America’s literary landscape in the prolific number of best-selling books and articles she wrote that included nature as a framework.
When I toured Stratton-Porter’s home, the guide told the author’s story. She designed her cabin and its surrounding terrain with great thought and intention. The common reader understood Stratton-Porter’s scientific writing, and they were led by her books into the great outdoors to love nature firsthand.
Many aspects of Stratton-Porter’s life paralleled mine. My craftsman-style, Indiana home was built in 1900. My writing studio is located in our former second-story “sleeping porch” perched off the back like a treehouse next to the backyard magnolia tree. In the spring as I write at my computer, I look out into a cloud of pink and white blossoms.
In the beginning, publishers did not think Stratton-Porter’s writing would sell. She adhered to the writing adage, “write what you know,” and it worked. She said:
“… my books have proved my publishers wrong in the beginning when they said my stuff never would sell enough to pay for publishing it. . . . My formula for a book was damned by three of our foremost publishers in the beginning, and I never have changed it a particle. . . . What my work proves for me that I have done was to lay out a straight course in the beginning, starting with a nature book and alternating with nature novels . . . keeping to the same location and to people I know and to ideals I cherish.”
Stratton-Porter’s husband owned a drug store—another similarity with my life, for my husband’s family owned Indiana’s oldest drug store in Lafayette. In the late 1800s, her first bold step to self-emancipation was to secure her own post office box in case her work was rejected and returned by publishers. She said, “My husband’s drug store carried books and magazines … few people in our locality read Recreation and Outing. None of them were interested in photography, and very few in Natural Science, so … what I was doing was not known.”
Stratton-Porter felt the tug between home life and her individualism as a writer, a tug I have often felt in my career as I raised two sons. She expressed her feelings in Homing with the Birds: “In those days I was experiencing constant struggle to find an outlet for the tumult in my being . . . During my early days in that Cabin I went through more agony than should fall to the lot of the average seeker after a form of self-expression.”
Stratton-Porter’s daughter, Jeannette, wrote of her mother in her 1928 book, Lady of the Limberlost: “. . . the fever to write had raged within Mother until it became a compelling influence and dominated her whole life, her home, her entertainments, her amusements, and her work. After I was old enough to go to school, Mother spent many secret hours with her pen.”
My sons may say the same about me. I, too, have a fever to write, and over the years they have witnessed my frustrations over lack of time or lack of positive feedback by publishers.
When her first short story was published in 1901 in Metropolitan magazine, Stratton-Porter was immediately discovered by a clerk in her husband’s store. Soon after, she was confidently writing novels and nonfiction. Her first novel Song of the Cardinal, was published in 1903, and a second, Freckles, came out in 1904. In total, Stratton-Porter authored twelve novels, seven nature books, two books of poetry, children’s books and numerous magazine articles.
In 1919, Stratton-Porter moved to Los Angeles, California. With the realization that the only way to accurately translate her work to the screen was to do it herself, she formed Gene Stratton-Porter Productions, a motion picture company. Her first production was Girl of the Limberlost. She planned to build a cabin, much like her Indiana sanctuary, on Catalina Island. But her plans were cut short. She was killed in a car accident on December 6, 1924 at the age of sixty-one.
At the end of my tour of the Cabin at Wildflower Woods, the guide asked for a volunteer to read from a letter Stratton-Porter wrote to a friend the year she died. I raised my hand and began reading, stopping midway to gulp tears, as the words she wrote resonated profoundly with where I was in my life:
“As the years go by I can see myself changing. . . I really am quite a respectable person by this time. Life has moulded (sic) me and hammered me and taught me and punished me and delighted me until I have deepened and broadened so that I would be very much more worth while as a friend than I could possibly have been as the narrow-minded, bigoted creature that you knew. I have tried with all my might to keep sane, to keep sweet, to be true to my friends and just to my enemies.”
Standing in the former kitchen of Gene Stratton-Porter hunched over her printed words, I felt her pat me on the back. I left the kitchen and walked out into her woods, fortified by her eternal self-expression.
“Gene Stratton-Porter.” The Indiana Historian, PDF, Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, September 1996 https://www.in.gov/history/files/genestrattonporter.pdf, 2, February, 2017
“Gene Stratton-Porter.” We Do History. Indiana Historical Society, http://www.indianahistory.org/education/hoosier-facts-fun/famous-hoosiers/gene-stratton-porter#.WLBSkhLyulM. 24, February, 2017.
King, Rollin, Gene Stratton-Porter A Lovely Light (Chicago: Adams Press, 1979)