The First Oyster Festival in Kingsbury County

“Now that Christmas is over,” a South Dakota newspaper recently stated, “it’s time to start thinking about celebrations to welcome the New Year. And what to serve at any parties you’re hosting. Why not do as the pioneers did and include oysters?”

Ancient Greeks served them as an incentive to drink. Romans imported and fattened them. American Indians on both coasts considered them a staple in their diet. Abraham Lincoln also served them to guests at parties at his Illinois home. And, while oysters may have declined in popularity since Wilder’s time, when she was a young girl, these bivalves were considered a delicious addition to any special meal—even making an appearance at a gathering of early Dakota Territory settlers on New Year’s Day in 1880.

This small gathering near De Smet included Charles and Caroline Ingalls, their daughters Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace, as well as their fellow homesteaders, friends, and hosts, Robert and Ella Boast. As a biography of Charles Ingalls later declared, it was “the first oyster festival in Kingsbury county.”

Oysters Ad

The Overland Oyster Express Company advertisement, n.d. The Library of Congress

At the Boasts’ small home, the party “was all the more fun because their one room was so small, that with the table set, we had to go in the outside door and around to our place at the table one by one and leaving the table we must reverse the order and go out the door following the scripture that, ‘The first shall be last and the last first,’” Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. She even described the meal: “There were oysters and honey and sauce [from] home dried fruit the Boasts had brought with them. We told stories and joked and had a happy New Year’s day.”

As the Pioneer Girl Project researchers learned, the Ingallses and Boasts probably dined on canned oysters. Fresh or canned, oysters had soared in popularity in the nineteenth century, and packed in hermetically sealed cans, they “traveled the breadth of the wide trans-Missouri region almost as soon as Americans ventured there,” according to historian Paul Hedren. Due to the railroads, oysters were almost everywhere by 1880.

The Oyster Bay in Deadwood, South Dakota, n.d. The South Dakota State Historical Society

The Oyster Bay in Deadwood, South Dakota, n.d. The South Dakota State Historical Society

However, oysters were not what made New Year’s Day 1880 special. Instead, as readers of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography can tell from the loving way Wilder described this time with the Boasts, the day was worth remembering because it was shared with friends and was full of joy and song.

As the New Year 2015 begins, we hope your celebrations are just as sweet.

—Dorinda Daniel and Jennifer McIntyre on behalf of the Pioneer Girl Project staff

The Universal Appeal of Pioneer Girl

Readers who have followed this blog will not be surprised by the groundswell of enthusiasm that Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography has generated around the world. But every once in a while, the phenomenon expresses itself in a way that surprises even the staff here at the Pioneer Girl Project. For example:

Strolling into the office on Monday morning, we found tear sheets from two publications, both of which featured Pioneer Girl. Were they:

A. The Los Angeles Times and The Guardian
B. The Columbus Dispatch and Entertainment Weekly
C. The Christian Science Monitor and Foreword Reviews
D. The Wall Street Journal and The National Enquirer

The answer is D. That’s right, folks, D. We read them on the same day. Strange bedfellows, no? In fact, we had already known that a write-up in the Journal was coming, but the Enquirer made us grin with amusement. Wilder’s book appears on a page with Barbara Walters, Nicolas Cage, and Carrie Underwood. That’s pretty A-list company for an author who has been dead for nearly sixty years.

strange bedfellows

The fact is, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s appeal, both as a fiction writer and a historical figure, is broad and long-lasting. Indeed, all of the news outlets listed above have featured Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography in the last six months, along with leading online and broadcast media like NPR, BBC, Slate, and a fantastic review by Wendy McClure, author of The Wilder Life, on Refinery 29.

So keep your eyes open – you never know when Pioneer Girl may receive notice in a publication near you.

RGH

Pioneer Girl Still Available

UPDATE 12/09/2014
Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is now TEMPORARILY OUT OF STOCK. Orders will still be accepted, but shipping will not resume until mid-January, 2015. Individual orders placed after 5 p.m. CST, January 9, will be shipped in March.

On November 17, the South Dakota Historical Society Press began shipping Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. Since that time, enthusiastic reviews in places such as Foreword Reviews, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Los Angeles Times have helped to make the book highly in demand. Already we are near the end of our stock from the first printing.

If you would like to buy a copy of Pioneer Girl, we encourage you to order as soon as possible, and while we cannot guarantee pre-Christmas delivery using our normal media mail rate, you can call us at (605) 773-6009 to arrange first-class shipping. Our office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST, Monday through Friday.

In addition, we would like to announce that a second printing is in the works.  We promise that Pioneer Girl will be in print as long as readers want to explore the legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Thank you for supporting the mission of the South Dakota Historical Society Press and the Pioneer Girl Project.

“Most important work of its kind,” Foreword Reviews Magazine takes a look at Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography

Foreword coverWilder’s memoir is a fascinating piece of American history, but it’s the annotations that set Pioneer Girl apart as the most important work of its kind.

Generations have grown up with Laura Ingalls Wilder through the Little House on the Prairie books and television show, reminders of the courageous families that braved the wild frontier. More than eighty years after it was first written, the memoir that started it all, handwritten in pencil on lined tablets, will finally be published. Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, is clearly the definitive work on Wilder. It thrills with new insights and mature content, educates with historical facts and documentation, and enlightens with cultural perspective and commentary, all while maintaining the spirit of adventure and integrity that is the backbone of the Little House world and Wilder herself.

Pioneer Girl, a first-person, nonfiction account completed by Wilder in 1930 when she was in her sixties, chronicles the Ingalls family’s journey as they made their way back and forth across the land, beginning in Kansas, 1869, when Wilder was just two years old, through 1888 in Dakota Territory, when Wilder was a young married woman of twenty-one. The manuscript appears in its entirety, complete with misspellings, musings, and notes from Wilder for her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who acted as her mother’s editor and literary advisor.

In and of itself, Pioneer Girl is a fascinating slice of Americana, but it is Hill’s annotations, based on years of research and the efforts of the Pioneer Girl Project contributors, that set Pioneer Girl apart as the most important and relevant work of its kind.

The annotations range from informative to speculative, but each shows respect for the subject as well as impressive knowledge of the entire Little House series and other versions of the memoir, which Wilder and Lane had hoped to publish for an adult audience. The details are astonishing. For example, when Wilder mentions casually that, “the wild roses bloomed,” Hill identifies the “prairie rose” or “rosa arkansana.” A detailed description follows, and Little House on the Prairie is referenced, where a passage in Wilder’s distinct voice notes, “The roses scented the wind, and along the road fresh blossoms, with their new petals and golden centers, looked up like little faces.” In this way, many notes link the information in Pioneer Girl to its counterpart, whether juvenile fiction or serials credited to Wilder, or in some cases “borrowed” by Lane for fictionalization.Foreword review

Great attention is paid to accuracy, and Hill notes when and where Wilder’s recollections stray from historical records, as well as intentional changes made to improve the narrative. Every detail, from the weather and geography to likely romantic trysts and scandals, songs sung, books read, and food eaten, was verified for authenticity. Photographs, maps, and other original treasures like these are sprinkled throughout. Four appendices offer additional insights and are followed by an extensive bibliography and index.

With Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, Hill has ensured that not only will Laura Ingalls Wilder continue to inspire, but that her audience will grow and expand for generations to come.—Pallas Gates McCorquodale, Foreword Reviews

Find more reviews of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography here.

Pioneer Girl is out!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThank you to everyone who pre-ordered Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography from the South Dakota Historical Society Press. We are glad to say that the books will be arriving on your doorsteps in the next few days.

On Friday, November 14, the long-awaited Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography made it safely to our warehouse. As pallets of boxes were brought off the semitrailer, sod-house-like structures began to form and Press staffers Lisa Nold and Rodger Hartley quickly lost their sense of time and place.

However, they soon gathered themselves in preparation for the big sendoff beginning DSCF0259November 17.  That Monday, as if jolly ol’ Saint Nick himself were looking over our shoulders, box upon box was packed with care to be sent off across North America. The project of packing pallets to be shipped to our national and international distributors and bookstores had also begun. Boxes were hauled from one storage area to the next as our muscles protested the change from desk-work to dock-work. Yet, we can report that DSCF0257the work is done and the books are on their way to bookstores around the world.

Thousands of readers will soon discover what advance reviewers have already found:

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The pre-orders are stacked and ready to go.

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography . . . is clearly the definitive work on Wilder. It thrills with new insights and mature content, educates with historical facts and documentation, and enlightens with cultural perspective and commentary, all while maintaining the spirit of adventure and integrity that is the backbone of the Little House world and Wilder herself.”—Foreword Reviews

With Judy Thompson’s beautiful cover art, maps, photographs, and annotations all enhancing Wilder’s Pioneer Girl, we think the result is astounding.  We hope you agree.

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Everyone helped load boxes for the De Smet Memorial Society.

—JMc

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography can still be ordered from the South Dakota Historical Society press for $39.95, plus shipping and tax.

The Long Shot Hits Home

“One blizzard came just before time for school to close. . . .

At a country school eight miles north of De Smet, the teacher [had] brought his children to school in a sleigh. . . . [Going home,] the teacher, with his load, was lost on the prairie.

When he knew that he couldn’t find his way, he . . . turned the sleigh bottom up over them. Then he crawled underneath the sleigh himself and there they huddled together while the snow blew and drifted over the sled keeping out the wind. . . . No one was frozen except the teacher whose hands and feet were frozen, but not badly.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, p. 315

There were a lot of long shots in the research for Pioneer Girl. We look at Wilder’s life through a double pane of frosted glass, trying to overcome both the shortfalls of her memory and our own distance from the subject. Not all of our long shots hit the target. But today, to tide you over until the book arrives, I’d like to tell you about one long shot—perhaps the longest one of all—that did.

Wilder places the story of the schoolteacher and his improvised igloo in the winter of 1884–1885, but the setup is strongly reminiscent of the “children’s blizzard,” a storm that struck without warning on a warm day in January 1888 and killed more than a hundred schoolchildren as they struggled to get home. Wilder did not always remember events in their true chronological order, and it seemed likely that she misplaced this one. But she does not give the teacher’s name, and the Kingsbury County newspapers that could complete the story have been lost, so there, it appeared, the matter would rest.

The scene: it’s about 10:30 one morning and a deadline looms. Enter Pioneer Girl Project director Nancy Tystad Koupal with a grin on her face and a book in her hand.

“Rodge. See if you can find that schoolteacher in here.”

“Wait, are you kidding me? We don’t even have a name.”

“We have a hunch. We follow it.”

“It’s not like I can look him up in the index. This could take all day.”

“It’s a good book. Humor me. I sign your paychecks.”

It is a good book. It’s The Children’s Blizzard, by David Laskin, and it is a fantastic and heart-stopping book. I read most of it that day, too quickly, like a man tearing through a haystack looking for a glint of metal, and this is all the glint I found:

“Mr. Stearns, a Dakota schoolteacher, had taken his three children to the school he taught near De Smet the day before and still had not returned home” (Laskin, Children’s Blizzard, p. 218).

Unfortunately, there’s no footnote and no follow-up. We still had laughably little information to work with. What were the odds? Still, the circumstances were tantalizing: here was a schoolteacher, near De Smet, whose own children were among his students. And critically, he had a name. It was federal records time.

Census first. Ready? No Stearns in the area in 1880. 1885 territorial census for the county is lost. 1890 federal census is melting the ice caps. 1895 state records are lost. 1900 federal census—stop!—there’s one.

Orion E. Stearns. Spirit Lake Township, Kingsbury County. Farmer. Born Vermont, August 1847. He and his wife have had five kids, of whom three survive; two are still in the household.

Now we’re cookin’ with Crisco. We have his name and his year and state of nativity, and we can follow this man, whether he’s Wilder’s man or not, wherever we want to. Orion’s daughter Bessie is a schoolteacher; does it run in the family?

Back to 1880.

No.

Back to 1870.

Yes.

Orion Stearns is teaching school in 1870 in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin. It doesn’t prove that he taught in 1888. But let’s say you’re a homesteader and you have teaching experience. What would you do in the winter to earn a little extra money to help prove up your claim?

Maybe this wasn’t a fool’s errand after all. I look at the clock. Between this and other tasks, it’s now 6:30, and I am not going home until this is settled.

But have I gotten ahead of myself? We still don’t know if Orion Stearns was even in Dakota Territory in 1888. But the U.S. General Land Office might.

Guess what: it does. On August 16, 1889, Orion E. Stearns was issued a patent under the Homestead Act for a quarter section seven miles northeast of De Smet. At this point my heart finally says: this is the guy. But that’s not enough. It’s a pretty safe bet that he was there in 1888, but I can’t be absolutely sure unless I order the paper land-entry records, which will take a month to arrive.

Wait. I have other evidence right under my nose. Remember his two kids living with him in 1900? The census shows that his son Sumner was born in Dakota Territory in 1885. Again, I can’t be certain they were in Kingsbury County, but we’re building a strong preponderance of evidence. This is the guy. While we’re at it, what other evidence can we glean from the kids’ census entries?

Little Sumner would have been too young to go to school in January 1888. Orion’s four other kids appear in the 1880 census: Lewis, Guy, Nellie, and Bessie. And then I remember that by 1900, only one of the three eldest kids was still alive. That’s when I start checking grave records.

Ten minutes later I’m in the State Archives library. This started with a book; let it end with a book.

Ten minutes after that, it’s over.

Beyond a doubt, Mr. Stearns was the man Wilder remembered, and I know exactly what happened to him and his kids on January 13–14, 1888. The long shot slams right into the bullseye.

And all I can think is, No. That isn’t how the story is supposed to end.

 

The story ends with annotations 90–91 on pp. 315–16 of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. It’s a book full of long shots, gunshots, schottisches, and everything else from the world of Wilder, and it finally ships out next week. Thanks for your patience, thanks for reading our blog, and stay tuned for more.

RGH

From our warehouse to your house, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is coming soon

Laura Ingalls Wilder: Pioneer Girl coverThe long wait for Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is almost over.

The official word from our printer is that books will arrive at the South Dakota Historical Society Press warehouse on Friday, November 14.

On Monday, November 17, the first books to leave the warehouse will be shipped to individuals who pre-ordered directly from the South Dakota Historical Society Press. Pre-orders can still be made through Thursday, November 13, at www.pioneergirlproject.org/order/, www.sdhspress.com, or by calling (605) 773-6009.

On November 20, staff will begin to fill orders for Press distributors and retailers.

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography should arrive on store shelves and be available through Amazon.com by Wednesday, November 26.  The date may vary slightly, depending on factors outside of the Press’s control.

All orders will be filled in the order in which they were received. Orders made during the week of the November 17 may not be filled until the following week. If you have any questions, please email info@sdshspress.com.

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography will continue to be available through the Press at www.pioneergirlproject.org/order/, www.sdhspress.com, by calling (605) 773-6009, or emailing orders@sdshspress.com.

Thank you for your patience as we bring you the first-ever comprehensive, annotated volume of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl.

Dates in November to remember:

  •  13th—Last day to pre-order
  •  14th—Books arrive at the Press warehouse
  •  17th—South Dakota Historical Society Press pre-orders begin to be processed and shipped
  •  20th—Distributor and retail orders begin to be processed and shipped
  •  21st—Distributor and retail orders completed

—JMc