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. She had moved to Los Angeles from her beloved Indiana for health reasons.

Gene Stratton-Porter

Always a trailblazer, Gene Stratton-Porter had formed a movie studio and production company. She wanted to bring to life her characters from books such as Laddie, Freckles and A Girl of the Limberlost. 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.

A black and white photograph of Gene Stratton-Porter. She looks directly at the camera.
Gene Stratton-Porter

An avid reader, photographer, and lifelong scholar on conservation and ecology, with the income that she earned from her writings, Gene Stratton-Porter enjoyed developing native gardens and natural areas on her northeastern Indiana properties—most famously her Cabin in the Wildflower Woods.

A Gift of Strawberries

In one of her last books, Tales You Won’t Believe, published in 1925, Gene related a wonderful little story about the white strawberries sent to her from the garden of General Lew Wallace.  In relating her story, Gene’s great admiration for Lew 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. Gene had visited the home and she knew of Lew’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.”

Gene 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 worshiped Wallace. For many years the strawberries grew and flourished.

A Cold Winter

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. By that time, Lew was dead; Gene 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 her 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. Gene and her staff filled the hole left by the beech, smoothed the soil and moved on to other tasks.

The Strawberries Return

A year later, she was passing through the woods near where the Beech tree had been. She was dumbfounded to discover a big circular bed of wild white strawberries spreading over every inch of ground that the Beech had occupied.

After much pondering, Gene concluded the squirrels were responsible. They 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, Lew’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 Lew’s love of his Beech trees, there was some poetry for Gene in knowing that the loss of her Beech tree gave new life to the strawberries that she so valued.

Sadly, after all the pleasure these little plants brought both the General and Gene 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.
 

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