At the time of her death in 1924, Indiana’s Gene Stratton-Porter was one of America’s most popular novelists. Her publishers estimated she had more than 50 million readers in the United States and many more internationally. During the last 17 years of her life, her fiction and nonfiction books sold at a rate of 1,700 copies a day.
Stratton-Porter was a natural storyteller, a gift she inherited from her father who had “the ringing delivery of a born-again evangelist” and could tell tales that were part fact, part fiction. His colorful repertoire profoundly affected his youngest daughter.
Born and raised a northern Indiana farm girl, Stratton’s love of nature and the outdoors served as the backdrop of all her early 20th-century novels. She wrote about what she knew and created characters in her books who shared that love and respect for nature. Literary critics panned her novels as too virtuous and unrealistic, but she bristled at that criticism.
Twelve Makes a Dozen
Geneva Grace Stratton was quite the surprise to her 50 year-old father Mark and 47 year-old mother Mary. Born Aug. 17, 1863 and later nicknamed Gene, the youngest of the Strattons’ 12 children spent considerable time outdoors as a preschooler amusing herself roaming the farm while her parents and siblings were busy doing chores. As long as she appeared on time for family meals, she was permitted to explore her surroundings. That began her fascination with birds, flowers and plants.
One day, her father winged a chicken hawk and was preparing to club it with his rifle when Gene begged him to spare it. With her mother’s help in treating the bird’s injured wing, within a month the hawk was eating from Gene’s fingers and following her around like a puppy. Soon she had a personal zoo of birds she cared for and studied.
Gene’s passion for ornithology didn’t apply to schoolwork or making friends. With her parents aging and her mother seriously ill, the Strattons made the decision to leave the farm and move to town. Four months later, her mother died and 12 year-old Gene struggled even more adjusting to city life. It wasn’t until her sophomore year at Wabash High School, where she presented a book review at a school assembly, that she discovered her descriptive talent with words and characterization.
From Farmer’s Daughter to Bird Woman
In 1886, Gene married Charles Porter, a successful businessman who owned three drugstores, among other interests, and later co-founded a bank in Geneva, Indiana. Gene kept her family surname and added her husband’s name once married. Porter’s different business interests required much of his attention and required him to travel often, leaving Gene with much time on her hands.
An ambitious woman, Stratton-Porter occupied herself for a time with music lessons, painting, and a course in fine needlework, but soon grew restless and passed her time exploring a 13,000-acre wetland area named Limberlost Swamp. She spent hours birdwatching, making sketches, and photographing local wildlife.
The unusual sight of an unaccompanied, khaki-clad woman tromping across the countryside and taking pictures of birds created a buzz among locals, especially since Charles had built a beautiful two-story, 14-room cedar log home after oil was discovered on one of his properties.
The locals were right when describing “The Bird Woman” as unusual, but what they didn’t know is like a mother bird building her nest, Stratton-Porter was gathering twigs of tales, leaves of literary imagination, and spider silk of storylines for several novels and illustrations for nonfiction nature books.
A Book Bonanza and Movie Success
Eight of Stratton-Porter’s books were made into films, and as with all things she undertook, the energetic and ambitious author applied her literary eagle eye to that new venture. Under her arrangement with filmmaker Thomas Ince, Gene oversaw filming and personally assisted directing. Three years later, in 1924, she incorporated a film production company of her own.
The Unconventional Traditionalist
In many ways, the country girl who became a bestselling author and film producer was a walking contradiction. She preferred nature over people, but wrote bestselling books adored by millions.
She contracted with McCall’s magazine to write editorials championing housewives, but rebelled against that role for herself and worked tirelessly to be financially independent.