Of course I visited the historic sites for Gene Stratton-Porter in reverse order. Seems like a normal Amy thing to do.
After visiting the Cabin at Wildflowers Wood last month, I stopped by the Limberlost State Historic Site, which is home to the Limberlost Cabin. Gene Stratton-Porter designed the Limberlost Cabin first and then later the Cabin in Wildflower Woods—or as Gene referred to them in her writings, Limberlost South and Limberlost North.
Gene was an internationally known writer, photographer, naturalist, and film producer. But when she designed Limberlost, she was none of these yet.
Gene grew up in Wabash County, Indiana, the last of 12 (!) children. In 1888, two years after marrying Charles Porter, she moved to Geneva. (Interesting side note: Gene’s full name is Geneva, the same name as the town that she lived in for 24 years.)
Charles was a wealthy man, 13 years her senior. He owned drug stores, the Shamrock hotel and restaurant, and farms (which were farmed by others). During the 1890s oil boom, he profited from oil wells on his farms. In 1895, he co-founded a bank with Andrew Briggs. (The current president is also Andrew Briggs—a fifth generation Briggs.)
While the Cabin at Wildflower Woods was built with her book profits, the Limberlost Cabin was built in 1895 with Charles’s oil money. It was at Limberlost that Gene started writing magazine articles and then books, using the LImberlost Swamp as her natural laboratory. During this time, her daughter gave her a box camera, and she dove into photographing wildlife.
As with the Cabin at Wildlfower Woods, when Gene built Limberlost, it had the latest fixtures: a flush toilet powered by a windmill and gas lights. (Electricity hadn’t replaced gas yet, but it would in Limberlost North.)
Cars were not yet a common mode of transportation. The first structure the docent and I approached was the carriage house and stable, where the gardener John Brenner lived from 1900 until his death in 1921.
The fence around the property, designed by Gene (and a harbinger of her naturalist tendencies and involvement in designing structures), is quite unique. The fence, which uses local limestone, is built to be wildlife friendly. Large gaps between the stones allow wildlife to freely wander. (So what, a rationalist might ask, was the point of the fence?)
Outside of the house, the docent pointed out a hollow sycamore trunk—a unique smokehouse that Gene had moved from an unknown location. Records indicate that it dates from the 1840s. It makes an appearance in one of her books: The Moths of Limberlost.
I learned that Gene didn’t own her homes in succession. She may have moved from Limberlost to Wildflower Woods in 1914, but she continued to own Limberlost until she moved to California in 1920. In fact, she owned a home in Fort Wayne too. Rather than just communing with the outdoors, Gene frequented Fort Wayne for shopping and socializing.
Limberlost Cabin is in many respects similar to the Cabin at Wildflower Woods. I could see where she expanded or developed rooms and design ideas in the later house. The foyer is similar—covered with wooden paneling—but smaller at the first cabin. The front room also has a large window but looks out at downtown rather than over an undeveloped lake. An enlarged bay room to the side of the dining room that houses plants becomes its own room in her later home.
Just like with Limberlost North, I had an outstanding private tour of Limberlost South. The docent clearly enjoys Gene’s works and shared stories as we walked through the house, even reading passages from her books that mention different people or places at Limberlost. Gene herself appeared in her works as the Little Bird Woman, her real-life nickname.
As we moved through house, the docent also showed me enlarged photos of scenes in the house that Gene took. In the front room, he pulled out a photo on poster board of the fireplace that we were standing in front of. The photo was of Gene’s daughter Jeanette lounging on the fur rug in front of the fireplace with the stuffed great blue heron on one side and the golden eagle on the other side. The only modern-day difference was the heron. It was a different stuffed bird. (I’m not sure what happened to him. Perhaps play wore him out.)
(Later in the house, the docent produced another photo that Gene took, revealing the quotidian aspects of her life. This photo was also of the heron and eagle but rather than resting stately on either side of the fireplace, they were involved in a child’s tea party. The eagle was draped with a shawl and the heron in a bonnet with his beak poking out. Utter silliness.)
The front room was Gene’s writing room, inhabited by a writing desk that was not hers but was used by a contemporary writer friend, Booth Tarkington. (Tarkington was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.)
The room is filled with her books. Kurt pointed to The Girl of Limberlost and recounted that in a 1999 interview JK Rowling was asked about her five favorite books as a child. She listed The Girl of Limberlost as one of those five. (And I thought back to how the docent at the Cabin at Wildflower Woods described Gene as the JK Rowling of her time.)
One other curious item in the room: the gas desk lamp. The desk lamp was fed from the room’s gas lamp in the ceiling via a long “extension” tube. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it before.
All seven fireplaces in the house are shallow gas fireplaces. Unlike the fireplaces at the Cabin at Wildflower Woods, these fireplaces have no special names or stories about their construction materials or design.
Behind the front writing room is the music room. The wall are covered with linecrusta, a type of embossed wall covering made with linseed oil. On one side of the room stands a piano (not the original…which is in the Cabin at Wildflower Woods), Jeannette’s banjo, and a violin. Again the docent produced photos showing the room with the same artifacts in it.
Immediately behind the music room is the downstairs bedroom suite: a bedroom, private gazebo porch, and bathroom. The headboard contains carvings of owls. (And prompted my memory about an early morning encounter with an owl. I described what I saw and heard to the docent who proceeded to imitate the calls of great horn owls vs. barred owls. It turns out he got his degree in wildlife something or other.)
The bedroom room holds a huge collection of moths behind glass. (Remember: Gene the naturalist.) Before opening the door leading from the bedroom, the docent teased me with tales of passageways. The door opens to a narrow closet that has another door that opens to a bathroom. (Strangely, in the closet is another door that leads to what was originally a broom closet. Later when the house started using coal, they converted the root cellar to a basement and added stairs to the basement from this broom closet. Interesting note about closets: Before the age of electricity, all closets had windows in them to let in light.)
The bathroom in the suite was also the darkroom. (Gene was given her first camera while living at this house.) Her ruby lamp for use in the darkroom sits on the sink, as if waiting for her. (In the Cabin at Wildflower Woods, she had a dedicated darkroom.)
Next to the bathroom is the kitchen. Well, what was originally the kitchen. Currently it is bare but planned to be renovated. (Until 2013, when the Visitor’s Center was built, the kitchen served as the gift shop.) The icebox, unlike at Limberlost North, is on a porch off of the kitchen.
Last, we visited the dining room, which has what I think of as a bay room (like a bay window but an actual room or extension off of a room) as a conservatory. In Limberlost North, the conservatory where Gene housed her plants was a room of its own. This conservatory has a door that leads to the porch shared with the icebox. Sliding glass pocket doors link it to the dining room. The conservatory is one of many areas of the house that appear in her works.
The upstairs remains unfurnished; it used to house the offices until the Visitor Center was built in 2013. The upstairs originally included the winter living room with fireplace (heat rises) and two bedrooms (only one of which has a fireplace).
By 1912, Limberlost Swamp was disappearing due to agricultural and business encroachments. (It turns out that she, or rather Charles, was responsible for some of this thanks to his numerous oil wells.) In 1914, she completed her new home on Sylvan Lake. In 1920, she sold Limberlost Cabin to a Dr. Price. (I noticed in Charles’ obituary, that a Dr. Price was one of his pallbearers.)
Bothered by hordes of people stopping by to visit the former home of the famous Gene Stratton-Porter (who by this time was a world-renown author with movies made from her books), the Prices moved upstairs and charged for tours downstairs. In 1946, Dr. Price died. His widow sold the house but continued to live upstairs and give tours until she retired in 1958.
The tour of Limberlost Cabin was fascinating and a welcoming rounding out of my knowledge about Gene’s life and influence. The Visitor Center (and tour) also includes lots of information about Charles, including his desk at the bank, the clock and statue that graced it, and the safe from the bank’s vault. (Again, the docent produced a photo showing all of the items along with Charles.)
I saw the safe up close and learned how it works. (Bank employees would literally set a clock inside the safe, which would open the safe at the set time.) I heard the story behind the marks on the safe (hammer marks in an attempt to jar the clock when the safe didn’t open when expected…turns out it was human error. The clock was not set to the correct time.)
As with the Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site in Rome City, the Limberlost Historic Site was well worth it. The docent knew Gene, the place, and its history. He was clearly enthused and willingly shared knowledge. Visiting Limberlost was a sheer delight. Now to read about so-called Little Bird Woman as both the author of and a character in her works.