Wednesday, April 24, 2013

People Lew Knew: Gene Stratton-Porter

One of the great Hoosier authors of the early 20th century was Gene Stratton-Porter. Her literary career began its ascent at the turn of the century and continued until her death in 1924 when her limousine was hit by a streetcar in Los Angeles. Always a trailblazer, she had moved to Los Angeles from her beloved Indiana for health reasons and because she had become so popular that she had formed a movie studio and production company to bring her characters from books such as Laddie, Freckles and A Girl of the Limberlost to life on film. At the peak of her popularity it is estimated that she had more than 50 million readers enjoying her romantic novels, magazine articles, and her studies of nature and wildlife.

An avid reader, photographer, and lifelong scholar on conservation and ecology, with the income that she earned from her writings, Mrs. Stratton-Porter enjoyed developing native gardens and natural areas on her northeastern Indiana properties—most famously her Cabin in the Wildflower Woods. In one of her last books, Tales You Won’t Believe, published in 1925, Mrs. Stratton-Porter related a wonderful little story about the white strawberries sent to her from the garden of General Lew Wallace.  

In relating her story, Mrs. Stratton-Porter’s great admiration for Wallace is evident. As her books and her interests in wild flower gardening became known, people from all over the country and, in fact, the world sent her clippings, cuttings, seeds, and plants for her gardens. She wrote: “...perhaps the greatest thrill of the entire collection came when I received a packet containing half a dozen wild strawberries, guaranteed to bear white wild strawberries from the home grounds of General Lew Wallace.”  These plants held special meaning for her as she knew Wallace was a great flower lover and he himself had found them in the woods near his home. Mrs. Stratton-Porter had visited the home and she knew of Wallace’s magnificent trees—especially the Beeches “...which grew for the General in the most elaborate manner, truly lordly Beeches with wide-spreading arms of gray moleskin, great velvet trunks and branches almost sweeping the ground.”

Mrs. Stratton-Porter took great care in personally planting these special gifts—searching her property for just the right soil, light, moisture and shade. She had read and practically memorized The Fair God and Ben-Hur and fairly worshipped Wallace. For many years the strawberries grew and flourished. Then in 1914, a very long and cold winter severely damaged her garden. Among the plants that did not return in the spring of 1914 were the beloved white strawberries. General Wallace had died by 1914 and Mrs. Stratton-Porter considered approaching Wallace’s son for one more plant—hoping that the cold winter had not destroyed the original beds. But time got away from Mrs. Stratton-Porter and fate intervened.

One of her large Beech trees that she had been trying to save also died in the cold winter of 1914 and had to be taken down. After cutting the tree it was discovered that even the roots were rotted and hollow. Squirrels had been using them to hide their winter stores. Mrs. Stratton-Porter and her staff filled the hole left by the beech, smoothed the soil and moved on to other tasks. A year later, Mrs. Stratton-Porter was passing through the woods near where the Beech tree had been and was dumbfounded when she discovered a big circular bed of wild white strawberries spreading over every inch of ground that the Beech had occupied.

After much pondering Mrs. Stratton-Porter came to the conclusion that the squirrels must have been feeding on the white strawberries and sowed the seeds throughout the roots and soil of the old Beech tree. When the tree was gone, the soil smoothed, and sun and rain reached the ground, Wallace’s white strawberries returned with a vigor she had never seen in her original beds. As she recorded, “Nature returned to me my lost gift from the wildings of the great general.” Given Wallace’s love of his Beech trees, there was some poetry for Mrs. Stratton-Porter in knowing that the loss of her Beech tree gave new life to the General’s strawberries that she so valued. Sadly, after all the pleasure these little plants brought both the General and Mrs. Stratton-Porter, the white wild strawberries seem to have disappeared from both the grounds of the Wallace Study and from the Cabin in the Wildflower Woods—but as any gardener knows, hope springs eternal and we will be keeping an eye out for these tasty treasures for seasons to come.

*Information in this post is from an article by Joann Spragg.


Anonymous said...

What a delightful story! (Though I was hoping it would end with the strawberries still being found on the grounds.) :) Still, fun to read.

Karen Lemieux said...

I have a special connection to this story. The GSP memorial still has the descendants of these famous strawberries on their grounds. My mother was give some plants when the historic site thinned them out one spring and they flourished beautifully!