This guest blog by Tiffany Parker, Director at the Gene Stratton Potter State Historic Site, celebrates an extraordinary woman, Gene Stratton-Porter, ahead of her 159th birthday! We thank Tiffany for submitting these valuable insights with our readers and visitors.
What is a Chautauqua?
Rome City has been celebrating the Chautauqua movement for over 100 years. From 1876 to 1906, Rome City boasted the second largest operating Chautauqua, second only to the original Chautauqua Institute which still operates to this day in Chautauqua, NY. The celebration and buildings look a bit different now, but the joy of gathering and celebrating is still in every aspect of the event in Rome City. From concerts and religious services to a parade and block party, there is a little bit of something for everyone.
Early History of the Movement & Young Geneva Grace
The Chautauqua Movement started in New York in 1874 as a sort of retreat for Sunday school teachers. While it later developed into a program that was inclusive of all religions, it started with slight Protestantism undertones. Over a few years, the institute gained momentum and word began spreading. President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Chautauqua Institute and after his visit he noted it was “a source of positive strength and refreshment of mind and body to come to meet a typical American gathering like this – a gathering that is typically American in that it is typical of America at its best.” Not only were there religious opportunities provided, but also scientific and educational ones that brought individuals from a variety of backgrounds together to share their knowledge. Known as a celebration for life-long learning, the Chautauqua movement began migrating across the country, making stops in many resort-like communities.
The Island Park assembly in Rome City began in 1876. Thanks to the rail service provided by Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroads, people from across the Midwest would make their way to Rome City for three weeks every July. Kerr Island offered several amenities, including a garden and fountain, auditorium, and a small “refreshment store,” as noted by a visitor in the early 1890s. Unlike other communities, the Island Park Assembly had many permanent structures that would remain in use until 1906. Hotels, restaurants and homes were bustling for those few weeks in July every summer.
During the peak of the assembly, in 1884, a young farm girl named Geneva Grace Stratton visited and fell in love with the beauty and splendor of Rome City. She also caught the attention of Charles Porter. Mr. Porter was able to use his connections as a savvy businessman to send a letter to Ms. Stratton a few weeks later. Their correspondence later bloomed into romance. In April of 1886, Gene and Charles were married. Gene Stratton-Porter raised her only daughter, Jeanette, in the small town of Geneva, IN, on the edge of the Limberlost Swamp. The swamp provided never-ending inspiration for Gene. As a way of sharing her beautiful experiences, she began to write about them. Starting with small articles in Recreation & Outdoor Magazine in the early 1900s, Gene later worked her way to completing her first novel, Song of the Cardinal. Not to be deterred by slow sales, Gene wrote her second novel, Freckles, and so began her ascent to fame. Two more novels came in the following years, but at the time her beloved Limberlost Swamp was being drained, dredged, and logged. Her sanctuary was slowly disappearing and there was nothing she could do.
By 1912, Gene had decided to leave Geneva. She initially planned to return to her home at Hopewell Farm but discovered all the land had been converted to farmland, void of the swamp, fields, and orchards that inspired her love of nature. Her fond first memories of Rome City drew Gene back to Sylvan Lake where she purchased a cabin along the lakeshore and began looking for a quite spot to build a “summer workshop.”
Later that year, Gene acquired a small parcel, 5.5 acres, from the Daniel Sower family and slowly began buying up more land while a new cabin was built. By 1916, she had acquired 120 acres and began restoring native plantings and preserving trees all around the property. Gene’s focus on conservation grew stronger here, at the Cabin in her Wildflower Woods, fueled by witnessing the destruction of the Limberlost.
Visitors to the Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site in Rome City today can still observe many of the species Gene brought here, from the woods & hillside, covered in large-flowered trillium, to the beautiful wisteria arbor stretching the length of her gardens. Various events and activities throughout the year welcome guests to explore and “be like Gene.” Staff & volunteers are always happy to talk about Gene and her work as an author, naturalist, photographer, conservationist, and movie producer. Guests are invited to join the Rome City community as they celebrate Gene through the Chautauqua celebrations every August. Guests may also stop by the historic site on Wednesday, August 17 (2022 marks Gene’s 159th Birthday). Visit from 2-4 PM in 2022 to join the birthday celebration!
Indiana State Museum Blog:
CELEBRATE NATIONAL BOOK LOVERS DAY WITH THESE GENE STRATTON-PORTER BEST-SELLERS
Island Park Assembly:
(The History of Orange Township also has information on the Assembly.)