Wherein Gene Stratton-Porter's #1 Swamp Guide is Revealed
By Terri Gorney, Vice-president, Friends of the Limberlost
Who was the man that Gene Stratton-Porter wrote was helpful in her field work and good at finding bird nests? She referred to him only as Paxson. Gene gave clues as to what he looked like and his clothing as she had taken a couple photos of him that she included in her nature book, "Homing With the Birds." The caption she provided beneath one of these photos said "Paxon, my best Limberlost guide, shinning up a small tree to see what a nest contains." Although Gene spelled his name differently, it was assumed this Paxson was linked to the Paxsons of Jay County, but that could not be proven.
There was a short notation in the Geneva Herald, dated July 5, 1901, that stated Mr. Paxson who worked as an oil pumper on the C.D. Porter farm had burned his hand with fireworks. This was the first time that we knew that a Mr. Paxson had worked for Gene's husband Charles. Could this be Gene's Paxson?
The 1900 Federal Census showed there was a J. W. Paxson living in Hartford Township, which was the same township where the farm was located. His profession was listed as oil pumper. Other information included he was married to Isora, and was born in 1867 in Ohio. This put him in the age range of Gene's Paxson. He had one son, Chester, this was the only Paxson family for 10 miles around.
According to the Geneva Herald in October 1902, Mr. and Mrs. Paxson moved into a flat in T. E. Mann's Building in Geneva.
The 1910, 1920, and 1930 Federal Census were studied. J. W Paxson was James William Paxson. Paxson could be traced through his lifelong profession as an oil pumper through the oil fields of Wichita County, Texas and Carter County, Oklahoma. He died February 6, 1938 in the community of Wilson, Oklahoma.
Fast forward to the present. Limberlost naturalist Curt Burnette portrays Paxson. He has studied Gene's photos to examine his clothing. His hats and his simple garb of a homespun shirt and sturdy pants were typical of common laborers of the early 20th century. Curt purchased clothing of the type Paxson would have worn. Curt then works his own special magic to bring Paxson "to life." "Paxson" has even been the guest speaker at the Pink Tea held at the Barker Mansion in Michigan City, Indiana. Curt has acquired a new family. he has been made an honorary member of the Paxson Family by Marty Paxson Grundy who created the Paxson Family: Sixth Generation hosted by Rootsweb and Ancestry.
Do you want your own tour of the Limberlost Territories? Curt has created the Rent-a-Naturalist Program. A tour of the wetlands with a modern Paxson is as close as you can get to walking with Gene in the Limberlost. Nowadays, in addition to being able to proclaim that the Limberlost lives again, we can also say that Paxson "lives" again.
Writer's Note: This article appeared in the Berne Witness on November 17, 2017. A more detailed account of the research on Paxson was written for the Ohio Genealogical Quarterly in 2017.
Curt Burnette as Paxson with one of our Friends members at an event.
The volunteers and staff of Limberlost