Research traces Fort Wayne ties of naturalist, author Gene Stratton-Porter

New research suggests noted northeast Indiana author and naturalist Gene Stratton-Porter also spent a lot of time in Fort Wayne visiting family, shopping and attending events. (News-Sentinel archive photo)
New research suggests noted northeast Indiana author and naturalist Gene Stratton-Porter also spent a lot of time in Fort Wayne visiting family, shopping and attending events. (News-Sentinel archive photo)

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) — Many people think of Gene Stratton-Porter as an avid naturalist and talented author who spent much of her time in the outdoors. But a new review of official records and newspaper reports of the day provides a fuller — and sometimes conflicting — picture of one of Indiana’s most famous women.

Stratton-Porter, for example, spent a lot of time in Fort Wayne, often taking the train here to go shopping, visit family or attend social events and lectures, researcher Terri Gorney of Fort Wayne told The News-Sentinel.

While lamenting the draining of the Limberlost Swamp near Geneva, Gorney also found Stratton-Porter and her husband, Charles, had 30 or more oil wells on their 239-acre farm 3 miles west of town, which required draining the swamp to install the wells.

“It’s fun, because I never know where it’s going to lead me,” Gorney, 53, said of her search for information.

The News-Sentinel recently wrote about Gorney’s research on early conservationists in northeast Indiana, which she started in 2007.

She began researching Stratton-Porter in 2009 at the suggestion of Randy Lehman, site manager for the Limberlost State Historic Site, the Porters’ large log home in Geneva. Gorney had become active with the Friends of the Limberlost, a nonprofit group that supports the state historic site and efforts to restore wetlands once part of the Limberlost Swamp.

She didn’t think she would find much new about Stratton-Porter. But when she really starting digging in 2011, she was surprised.

“I’m still finding things,” she said.

Gorney reads day by day through newspapers of the late 1800s and early 1900s in Fort Wayne, Geneva and Decatur. She also sifts through official land and other records, as well as archives containing letters Stratton-Porter wrote to other people.

She is pleased what she learns helps the Limberlost site and its historical interpretation of Stratton-Porter.

Here are some of her discoveries:

Early years

Stratton-Porter spent a lot of time in Fort Wayne, beginning with when she and Charles began dating in 1884.

She had grown up near and then in Wabash, and he in Decatur. They met during Chautauqua Days in Rome City — a gathering where people came to relax and learn from speakers.

Charles was considered one of Fort Wayne’s most prominent bachelors, and their courtship was followed closely in newspaper society pages. A successful businessman, his holdings included a pharmacy and bank in Geneva and a now-gone pharmacy in the 100 block of Fairfield Avenue and other property in Fort Wayne.

“From going through the society pages, they did a lot of dating here,” Gorney said.

After they married in April 1886, Gene and Charles settled in Geneva but visited Fort Wayne regularly, using the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad to travel back and forth.

“She was always popping up to Fort Wayne to shop, to visit family,” Gorney said.

Stratton-Porter also came to town many times to hear lectures presented at the Allen County Courthouse.

The Porters’ daughter, Jeannette, was born in 1887. When she was old enough, Gene brought her to Fort Wayne frequently. Gorney also found a mention of Charles bringing Jeannette here to see a circus.

Family connections

Both Gene and Charles had family in Fort Wayne, and they normally stayed with them while in the city.

Gene initially had two brothers living here, Jerome and Irwin Stratton, both of whom were attorneys. Both moved to Kansas not long after Gene married Charles.

Two of Gene’s sisters, Ada Stratton Wilson and Florence Compton, both of whom were widowed, lived near each other in the 400 block of Arcadia Court and 700 block of Packard Avenue, respectively.

Charles’ brother, Dr. Miles Porter, was a prominent local doctor, and Miles’ sons, Dr. Miles Porter Jr. and Dr. Charles D. Porter, also practiced here.

During the early years of their marriage, Gene often stayed at Charles’ brother’s home when she came to Fort Wayne to shop, visit or attend events.

In 1916, however, Gene bought a house in the 900 block of West Wildwood Avenue for Jeannette, her husband and their two young daughters. Gene was well-established by that time as a popular author of books and magazine articles.

The home had been built by and lived in by pioneering Fort Wayne woman architect Joel Roberts Ninde and her husband, Lee, who developed the Wildwood Park neighborhood. Joel died unexpectedly in March 1916, and Stratton-Porter bought the home from Lee Ninde a few months later.

Gorney believes Stratton-Porter probably knew Joel Ninde because they attended many of the same society events, but she’s still looking for proof.

Stratton-Porter kept the house in her name, possibly because she was worried about the future of Jeannette’s marriage with dentist Dr. G. Blaine Monroe, Gorney said. Monroe was arrested once for passing a bad check, and later for intoxication and drug use, records show.

Jeannette filed for divorce, which was was finalized in 1921.

Stratton-Porter sold the home in November 1921after she decided to move to California year-round, bringing Jeannette and the girls with her. Charles stayed in Indiana to attend to his businesses.

Cost of popularity

Gene and Charles moved into their Limberlost Cabin in Geneva in 1895. Her first book, “The Song of the Cardinal,” was published in June 1903. “Freckles,” in 1904, and other books soon followed.

By 1909 and 1910, book fans started showing up on their doorstep uninvited. People also were draining the Limberlost Swamp for farmland.
Gene and Charles decided to build a new cabin on Sylvan Lake near Rome City, and they moved in during February 1914. Known as Wildflower Woods, the home now is preserved as the Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site.

“When they moved to Rome City, I think Gene wanted another oasis,” Gorney said. After a couple of years, however, people started showing up there, too.

“When she was at Wildflower Woods,” Gorney said, “it seemed like she was entertaining a lot.”

Stratton-Porter continued to spend a lot of time in Fort Wayne, especially during the winter. One newspaper even described her as living in Fort Wayne and summering in Rome City.

She moved to California in 1922, but came back to spend part of the summer at Wildflower Woods in 1922 and 1923.

Stratton-Porter died at age 61 in a traffic accident in December 1924 in Los Angeles.

At the time, she was just gaining national prominence on concerns about hunting and draining of the Mississippi River, Gorney said. Gorney also found a letter from Stratton-Porter to her publisher in which she said she likely hadn’t written her best book yet.

“It’s been interesting,” Gorney said of her research. “And I thought it wouldn’t lead anywhere.”

Information from: The News-Sentinel, http://www.news-sentinel.com/ns

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