Gene Stratton-Porter: Living Near the Edge of the Great Black Swamp

Swamp that no longer exists

(Feature photo: Wildflower Woods, Rome City, Indiana)

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Map: Environment and Climate Change Canada

By Karen Rodriguez

The Great Black Swamp exists no more. Before it was drained, farmed and built upon, it covered an estimated 1,500 square miles (4,000 km2) from Toledo to Sandusky along the Lake Erie shoreline inland to Ft. Wayne in Indiana where three rivers meet: the St. Joseph, Maumee and St. Marys. The shallow western basin of Lake Erie was essentially a wetland, a primary spawning habitat for many Great Lakes fish species. Extending inland for a hundred miles, the Maumee River, its tributaries and the Swamp supplied the lake with sediments drained from thick—nearly impenetrable—wilderness filled with a rich variety of plants and animals. Early explorers and settlers circumvented the Swamp as much as possible, avoiding wolves, mosquitoes, harsh weather and muck.

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National Museum of the Great Lakes, Toledo, Ohio

The eastern edge of Great Black Swamp, the city of Toledo on Lake Erie, is home to the National Museum of the Great Lakes. The exhibits cover a wide range of topics including life aboard Great Lakes and Maumee River vessels as well as the geology and biology of the region. Coastal wetlands from Toledo to Sandusky, still important as Lake Erie fish spawning areas, are diminished in size and species from pre-development times. Traveling up the Maumee River, farmland predominates. A complex system of underground ceramic tiles drained the Great Black Swamp into channelized tributaries. By the end of the 19th century and in less than 50 years the Swamp was transformed into productive farmland.

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Cabin and garden at Wildflower Woods, Rome City, Indiana

Gene Stratton-Porter, early 20th century naturalist, photographer and writer, witnessed landscape changes near the westernmost edge of the Swamp from her “cabin” Wildflower Woods in Rome City, Indiana and from Limberlost, her home in Geneva, Indiana. Wildflower Woods, on the shore of Sylvan Lake, is part flower garden comprised of species from all over the country and part an ecological restoration of a wetland area.

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Bison sculpture at the wetland restoration, Wildflower Woods, Rome City, IN

Limberlost is in the Wabash River watershed (Ohio River basin) not the Great Lakes basin. The Limberlost home was named after the nearby Limberlost Swamp south of Geneva, several miles from what was the Great Black Swamp.

Stratton-Porter’s photographs of birds, moths and butterflies are exquisite. Her interest in nature began as a child. The youngest of 12 children, she was given the responsibility by her father of “taking care of” all the birds on their farm. But it was her husband, Charles Dorwin Porter, and her daughter Genevieve who gave her the gift of a camera. Eventually she owned several expensive cameras and learned to develop her own prints. Thought odd by the local townspeople, she was known to haul her cumbersome equipment into the swamp to photograph critters everyone else avoided or ignored. Generally her husband accompanied her because he was afraid for her life. The swamp was filled with snakes and shady characters. The photos added to her writings. A prolific writer, she wrote 12 novels, 7 nature study books, 3 books of poetry, many children’s books and numerous articles for journals and magazines such as McCall’s. Her books and articles documented the landscape changes in the region while telling endearing stories about people, often fictionalized accounts of people from her childhood.

Stratton-Porter mourned the disappearance of the Limberlost Swamp and similar places even as she attempted to encourage a better understanding of nature: “Stratton-Porter wrote to attempt to recreate in words the restorative powers of a life in the natural world…She believed that the rhythms and ways of the natural world contained lessons for our lives.”* As she documented the moths, butterflies and birds of the region, Stratton-Porter’s written words, widely read from the turn of the century through the 1920s, condemned destruction of nature as well as encouraged a change in human behavior.

“We, as a nation, have already, in the most wanton and reckless waste the world has ever known, changed our climatic conditions and wasted a good part of our splendid heritage. The question now facing us is whether we shall do all that lies in our power to save comfortable living conditions for ourselves and the spots of natural beauty that remain for our children.”*

Gene Stratton-Porter’s warning about climate change was largely ignored. However, throughout the geographic area formerly known as the Great Black Swamp, sites such as the 5,000-acre Oak Openings of Toledo Metro Parks, the 1,000-acre Kitty Todd Nature Preserve of Ohio Department of Natural Resources (managed by The Nature Conservancy), and Lake Erie coastal wetlands such as Metzger Marsh and Magee Marsh Wildlife Areas are bringing acres of wetlands, oak savannas and prairies back to a natural condition she would have recognized.

Stratton-Porter died in 1924 in an auto accident in Los Angeles while working on the movies of her books. Both Wildflower Woods and Limberlost are State of Indiana historic sites.

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Kitty Todd Nature Preserve, Ohio

*Coming through the Swamp p.  xiv

*Coming through the Swamp p. 108. From an essay called “Shall We Save Natural Beauty?” published in Let Us Highly Resolve (Doubleday, Page & Company, 1927). The book is a compilation of essays previously published in McCall’s as “Gene Stratton Porter’s Page”.

The books:

Long, Judith Reick. Gene Stratton-Porter, Novelist and Naturalist. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Historical Society. 1990. Long’s sensitive book about the life of Stratton-Porter portrays a woman who was creative, observant, artistic and unconventional. The sense is that Stratton-Porter never stopped photographing, writing, observing nature, caring for her family.

Mollenkopf, Jim. The Great Black Swamp, historical tales of 19th century northwest ohio.  Toledo, OH: Lake of the Cat Publishing. 1999. All three of Mollenkopf’s books contain stories about the Great Black Swamp researched from letters and notes long buried in library archives. Thankfully we now have a smattering of observations of what the Swamp was like and how it came to be altered forever.

———— The Great Black Swamp II, MORE historical tales of northwestern ohio. Toledo, OH: Lake of the Cat Publishing. 2000.

­­­­————-The Great Black Swamp III, further historical tales of northwest ohio. Toledo, OH: Lake of the Cat Publishing. 2008.

*Plum, Sydney Landon, Editor. Coming through the Swamp, the Nature Writings of Gene Stratton Porter. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press. 1996. Plum sifts through prolific writer Stratton-Porter’s books and articles to collect nature stories. Thoughtfully arranged and interpreted, Plum shows the depth of feeling and understanding of birds, moths and butterflies in particular. Stratton-Porter’s insight into landscape-level changes is boldly stated. Plum credits an author mostly forgotten in today’s world.

Books by Gene Stratton Porter include: A Girl of the Limberlost, Laddie, Song of the Cardinal, Freckles, Michael O’Halloran, and The Fire Bird. A fairly complete list of books is at Wikipedia or Goodreads.com.

The places:

The Great Black Swamp extended from Toledo to Sandusky, Ohio inland to Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

National Museum of the Great Lakes, Toledo, Ohio

Rome City, IN—Wildflower Woods (State of IN Historical Site)

Geneva, IN—Limberlost Swamp and home of Gene Stratton-Porter (State of IN Historical Site)

Oak Openings (Toledo MetroParks) and Kitty Todd Preserve (Ohio Department of Natural Resources managed by The Nature Conservancy): a collection of prairie/oak savanna sites in the Toledo area originally surrounded by the Great Black Swamp

Great Lakes coastal wetlands Metzger Marsh and Magee Marsh (Ohio Department of Natural Resources)

Content and photographs copyright 2017 Karen Rodriguez except: bison photograph copyright 2017 Justin Holland Jr.

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