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Allen County Public Library and the Gene Stratton-Porter Site
Fort Wayne and Rome City, Indiana
Friday, May 18, 2012

By Nelson Price

During a captivating Spring Pilgrimage that involved exploring a secluded, historic cabin and tranquil gardens developed by one of the Hoosier state’s most renowned authors/naturalists – as well as visiting an acclaimed center for genealogy research and the oldest restaurant in the northern third of Indiana – the Society of Indiana Pioneers traveled to sites in the state’s far-northeastern corner on May 18, a Friday.

The Pioneers, their guests, and other travelers on the motor coach, which was filled to capacity, were blessed with sunny, warm weather for the journey. It included a tour of scenic Wildflower Woods on Sylvan Lake and was, by consensus, one of the most thoroughly enjoyable pilgrimages in recent years.

Embarking from pickup sites in Indianapolis, the Pioneers had Fort Wayne, the state’s second-largest city, as their first destination. The group was welcomed by board member Terri Gorney, a Fort Wayne resident who put together the day’s itinerary. She greeted the Pioneers at the Allen County Public Library, nationally known for its extensive genealogy division.

Part of the vast Geneology Collection at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne.

Although the library carved out a top reputation in genealogy beginning in the 1950s, it has reaped even greater renown since a spectacular renovation and expansion in recent years. Curt Witscher, the head genealogist on the Allen County Public Library’s staff and a national speaker on family roots tracing, led the Pioneers on a tour of the division.

He shared insights and tips about uncovering family histories. Mr. Witscher also shared an assortment of anecdotes, reporting that the Allen County Public Library has the largest collection of city directories in the country, surpassing even the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. The Allen County Public Library also has one of the world’s largest collections of Canadian genealogy material.

The Pioneers marveled at the wealth of resources and reference material in the library’s spacious Family Room. According to Mr. Witscher, about 10 percent of the library’s genealogy resource collection is digitized.

After the tour, the Pioneers traveled north to Noble County to the town of Avilla. The group’s destination was a luncheon at the St. James Restaurant, which dates to 1878. Located in what was once a hotel, the St. James bills itself as the oldest restaurant in the northern third of Indiana. The restaurant’s current owners, the Freeman family, bought the St. James in the late 1940s.

The Pioneers enjoyed a Hoosier-style lunch that included fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and apple pie.

After the luncheon, the Pioneers traveled to the Mid-American Windmill Museum near Kendallville. More than 100 years ago, far-northeastern Indiana was a national hub for windmill-making. One of only two museums of this type in the country (the other is located in Lubbock, Texas), the Windmill Museum’s outdoor exhibits include windmills from across the nation.

Windmills at the Mid-American Windmill Museum near Kendallville.

Among them is a windmill used on the family farm of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has visited the museum. Between 1860 and 1920, more than 90 windmill companies were located within an 80-mile radius of Kendallville.

The next destination was a highlight of the pilgrimage. The Pioneers traveled to tranquil Wildflower Woods (sometimes known as Limberlost II or Limberlost North), a State Historic Site. Wildflower Woods is located near Rome City on 125 acres purchased in 1912 by internationally famous author, photographer and naturalist Gene Stratton-Porter, whose bestsellers included “The Girl of the Limberlost”, “Freckles” and “The Song of the Cardinal.”

The burial site of Gene Stratton-Porter and her daughter Jeannette is near Rome City.

Mrs. Stratton-Porter (1863-1924) died in southern California, where she had moved partly to oversee the production of silent movies inspired by her books. But in 1999, per her wishes, descendants arranged for her, along with her daughter Jeannette, to be reburied at Wildflower Woods. The monuments on their gravesites are among the first sites visitors notice, along with towering trees (some said to be more than 200 years old) on the densely wooded, secluded property on the shores of Sylvan Lake.

Sylvan Lake from the shoreline at Wildflower Woods.

The Pioneers were divided into small groups for guided tours of the gardens and landscaping, which have been significantly restored and enhanced by dozens of Fort Wayne-area naturalists in recent years. Site manager Dave Fox, staff, and volunteers led tours through Mrs. Stratton-Porter’s gardens. As in her era, the gardens feature poppies, peonies, iris, and lilies, all in bloom during the Pioneers’ visit.

Gardens at Wildflower Woods

Also at Wildflower Woods, Mrs. Stratton-Porter is credited with having cultivated most of the 42 varieties of orchids native to Indiana. Her scenic gardens include an arbor covered in Wisteria and Tara vines.

She purchased the Rome City property after developers began encroaching on the swamps and marshlands near her initial home, the original Limberlost Cabin near Geneva. (Note: The Society of Pioneers plans to tour that cabin, which also is a State Historic Site, on the Fall Pilgrimage in 2013.)

Cabin at Wildflower Woods, sometimes known as “Limberlost II.”

Following strolls through the gardens and woods, the Pioneers enjoyed guided tours of Mrs. Stratton-Porter’s two-story cabin, built in 1914. She continued to enjoy her beloved home as a summer retreat even after moving to California, including a spacious, sunlit music room with a vast window that overlooks Sylvan Lake.

The cabin also has several fireplaces constructed partly or fully using her favorite stone. Called “puddingstone,” it is only found in far-northeastern Indiana, Michigan, and a few other regions. One of the fireplaces is called “Fireplace of Friendship.”

Puddingstone fireplace in the Limberlost II cabin.

Several walls in the cabin are decorated with Mrs. Stratton-Porter’s original photos, including pictures of birds, moths, and orchids on her Wildflower Woods property. Family photos depicting Gene Stratton-Porter, her parents, her husband Charles, and her daughter Jeannette adorn walls and tables. Dave Fox displayed family letters and books for the Pioneers’ visit, some more than 160 years old.

Pioneers enjoying English tea in the Limberlost II cabin at Wildflower Woods.

The group’s visit to Wildflower Woods concluded in the late afternoon with English tea on the second floor of the cabin. The repast included scones, strawberries, grapes, and chocolates. Following the afternoon tea, the Pioneers re-boarded the motor coach to return to Indianapolis.