A Day Trip to De Smet

The staff of the Pioneer Girl Project is about evenly divided between the two great classes of humanity. There are the morning people—upstanding folks who wouldn’t mind getting up early with Charles Ingalls to shovel snow off their families—and then there are those who would prefer to chat with the Boasts until the moon rises in the wee small hours. I am one of these latter types; it was with a dull eye that I piled into the car early on a Wednesday morning in May with project director Nancy Tystad Koupal (another like me) and Jennifer McIntyre (not one of us). Soon we were off toward the rising sun on a research pilgrimage to a certain little town on the prairie.

As we traveled along U.S. Highway 14, we stayed generally in sight of the old Chicago & North Western Railway line, which raced across Dakota Territory to the Missouri River in 1879–1880. Charles Ingalls moved west with the railroad, taking a bookkeeping job for a contractor working on this very line.

In the car, we contemplated our goals. Specifically, we had two objectives:

First, we wanted to look at records pertaining to a murder in the Bouchie family.

Second, and more importantly, we wanted to look at various records to see what light they might shed on Laura’s school days as both student and teacher.

And if we had any time left over, perhaps we could twist some hay.

I was fully awake by the time we arrived at De Smet’s high school, where we pored over old school-board minutes. They didn’t extend as far back as we had hoped, and we broke for lunch without having achieved much.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe reconvened at the Kingsbury County Courthouse, a lovely Italianate-influenced structure built in two segments (1889 and 1898) for a fast-growing county. Charles Ingalls worked there at times in various roles, such as justice of the peace and bailiff of the court. Here we hoped to find the records of the county superintendent of schools. Our first stop was the auditor’s office, and from there we were led down to “the vault,” a room I can only describe as the perfect place to read “The Cask of Amontillado” by flashlight. Rusty, musty, and cramped, this is where records go when they are too old to be of any practical use to a county, and there are a lot of them. The room was lined—up, down, and across the middle—with shelves full of often dank and discolored tomes. And in this haystack, we had to find the pin. Never mind; it was game time. Off with the jackets, on with the dust masks, and in we went to divide and conquer.

The ebullient mood of optimism didn’t last long. It turned to strained choruses of “I am as happy as a big sun flower,” &c., &c., and finally to grim resolve, as it became clear that our quarry wasn’t where it should be. Was it possible that the superintendent’s records had been kept in a book that was labeled as something else? We continued to work down the shelves until—

There it was! It had fallen behind a row of completely unrelated record books. We recognized our luck in finding a source were it ought never to have been, but we still had no idea if it would tell us what we wanted to know. Nevertheless, with a jaunty step we took the book into the hallway, donned our cotton gloves, and with Nancy reading the text, Jenny taking notes, and me standing by with a camera, we dived in. I am happy to say that it went a long way to answering many of our questions.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe took the book back up to the auditor’s office (“This is a treasure—don’t lose it!”), then continued up the stairs to the clerk of courts, where we were ensconced in the judge’s chambers with the documents we needed.

I wonder what one of the Bouchie women would have written to explain her family’s troubles. Readers will remember Oliv Bouchie as Mrs. Brewster, the woman who got a little too expressive with a butcher knife in the claim shanty where Wilder spent a miserable winter while teaching her first school. But it was not this Bouchie who ended up on trial in 1887 for manslaughter; instead, Oliv’s stepmother-in-law, the mother of Wilder’s students, was one of the defendants. Wilder does not mention this incident, but the records of the case, including the depositions of witnesses, paint a picture of a strange and tense family.

We spent another hour lost in this troubling tale. As the courthouse closed for the day, we stopped for a brief visit behind the scenes at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society to scan some archival images. We did not make any hay twists—but we did photograph one.

And then it was back to Highway 14 and home, a full day of digging behind us and another step closer to the publication of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Edition.

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“New Characters” in Pioneer Girl

There is nothing quite like seeing a photograph of someone you have read about. Melding the writer’s words with the physical image can give a rush of recognition or, in some cases, wonder. In our research with Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, we have worked to find images of the people, places, and events that fill Wilder’s manuscript. Because Wilder wrote about an era when not many people had a camera, the task was, at times, difficult. However, we also had our share of serendipitous moments.

The adorable Masters children and their dog (name unknown). Standing (left to right) Alex and Arthur Masters; sitting (left to right) Vere, Nita, and Claude Masters. From the photo collection of Lucille (Masters) Mone. Used with permission.

The adorable Masters children and their dog (name unknown). Standing (left to right) Alex and Arthur Masters; sitting (left to right) Vere, Nita, and Claude Masters. From the photo collection of Lucille (Masters) Mone. Used with permission.

One such incident came when, through this website, we were able to contact a descendant of Samuel Masters and his son and daughter-in-law George and Maggie Masters. Although Wilder did not put George and Maggie in her book The Long Winter, in her autobiography, the presence of these two boarders and their infant son intensified the Ingallses’ hardships during the winter of 1880–1881. As Wilder documents in Pioneer Girl, Arthur Kingsbury Masters was actually born in the upstairs room of the Ingallses’ home in De Smet during the Masters family’s stay.

While Wilder’s portrayal of the family is not flattering, the extreme winter tested everyone’s endurance and may help to explain her unpleasant memories. Imagine how thin Pa must have been in real life with nine people to feed, compared to the six in the novel. As the photograph shows, George and Maggie Masters would go on to have more children, and George and Charles Ingalls would remain friends, for Masters served as a witness for Ingalls’s 1886 homestead-patent application. And I can certainly say that it was a pleasure to work with the modern-day Masters family.

—JMc

Rare Charles Ingalls Letter Discovered

In working with newspapers as we conducted background research for Pioneer Girl, we ran across a letter, dated February 2, 1880, from Charles Ingalls to the Brookings County Press that has gone unrecorded until now.

In the 1870s and 1880s, newspapers relied on “correspondents” for news of outlying towns. For example, the Redwood Gazette of Redwood Falls, Minnesota, published newsy letters on a weekly basis about Walnut Grove from a number of different writers, one of whom was a member of the Ensign family. The Ingallses lived briefly with the Ensigns when they moved back to Walnut Grove from Iowa in 1877.

In the short period before De Smet acquired its own newspaper in the spring of 1880, Charles Ingalls appears to have tried his hand at corresponding with the Brookings County Press. Appearing in the February 12, 1880, issue, Ingalls’s letter was headlined “From Kingsbury County” and is datelined “De Smet, Feb. 2d. 1880.” It is signed “C. S. I.”  At first glance, this signature does not appear to match Charles P. Ingalls, but several clues indicate that it actually does. First, De Smet had few residents in February 1880 and only one man with the initials “C. I.” Second, the letter mentions another county resident, “W. H. Seck,” who can only be W. H. Peck, the man whose livestock Walter Ogden, a boarder at the Ingalls home, had been caring for through the winter. Clearly, the typesetter was misreading Ingalls’s capital “P” for a capital “S.”

But it is the content of the letter that most clearly reveals its writer:

From Kingsbury County.

                                  De Smet, Feb. 2d., 1880 .

   Editor Press.—Thinking a few lines from this vicinity might be interesting to your readers I take the liberty of sending them to you.

   De Smet is situated in the center of Kingsbury county, on the Chicago & N. W. R. R. and on the bank of Silver Lake. It is surrounded by as fine a country as can be found in the west. There are some claims to be had here yet; some very fine chances for stock-raising.

   Times are lively here again. W. H. Seck has removed his herd of stock from this place to his homestead 15 miles east. D. I. Egleston and party gave us a call last week. They seemed very much pleased with the country and its prospects; they were a jolly good natured party and seemed determined to have a good time. We hope they will call again.

   Trappers and hunters have been on the go to and from the “Jim” all the winter. They seem to have had a poor success in both vocations.

   The wolves, foxes, coyotes, and keeping warm have made lively times for your correspondent this winter; he has made a successful warfare and hopes to bring more stirring news when next he enters your sanctum.                         

C. S. I.

As Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels and Pioneer Girl clearly show, Charles Ingalls did successfully trap foxes and coyotes, among other animals, during the winter of 1879–1880. Having settled at De Smet, rather than thirty-some miles farther west on the James, or Jim, River, Ingalls was not only broadcasting his own prowess but advertising the greater bounty of the De Smet vicinity at the same time.

—Nancy Tystad Koupal

Meet Artist Judy Thompson

SDSDS LIW BIO CVR 4-low resAdorning the cover of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is a stunning watercolor by award-winning artist Judy Thompson.

Made possible through a donation from De Smet Farm Mutual, Thompson’s Silver Lake Reflections captures a glimpse of Laura during her homestead years in Dakota Territory. In the painting, Wilder is depicted as a young person sitting in the lush prairie surrounding Silver Lake. This image is based on an early photograph of Laura Ingalls with her sisters, Carrie and Mary.

Born and raised near Chicago, Illinois, Judy Thompson now lives in Orange City, Iowa.  Predominantly self-taught, she has been selected twice as an artist-in-residence with the National Park System and is an approved teaching artist for the Nebraska Arts Council. The Iowa Arts Council awarded her a grant in 2012 that enabled her Homestead Series to tour the Midwest in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act. This year, one of her projects can be found in the South Dakota 2014: Artists Respond to the State’s 125th Anniversary exhibitat the Center for Western Studies in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She teaches drawing and painting techniques and is a member of the National Art Education Association and South Dakotans for the Arts.

Ingalls, Carrie, Mary, and Laura id126 LIWHA

Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls, ca. 1879–1881. Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum

When asked about her inspiration for the painting, Thompson said, “Like Laura, I have a love for the prairie. Its wide horizons, wild grasses, and endless skies provide a boundless landscape for an artist to grow in, explore, and create. In Silver Lake Reflections, I wanted to portray Laura in her prairie setting as a young person who is inspired by the wild beauty which surrounds her Dakota home. The setting of the painting is taken from Wilder’s book By the Shores of Silver Lake, after Laura and her family have moved to Dakota Territory, where they eventually acquire a homestead claim.” Thompson emphasized that Wilder’s own descriptions of the landscape surrounding Silver Lake inspired the composition. “Laura is depicted as a teenage girl, feeling the prairie wind in her face while she sits by the shores of the lake with a newly built town suggested in the background” (back cover).

About her technique, Thompson says: “Watercolor is a very spontaneous medium which creates a fresh, free-flowing feel to a painting—just right to portray the graceful grasses of the prairie and the wide, deep Dakota sky. The impressionistic style of this painting creates a sense of place without restricting the viewer’s imagination. Multiple washes of color provide just enough detail to describe the essence of the subject.”

To see more of Judy Thomson’s work, visit http://www.judythompsonwatercolors.com.

—JMc

Pioneer Girl is in Design!

SDSDS LIW BIO CVR 4-low res

We are excited to share the good news that the design of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography has begun and the cover will feature a watercolor entitled Silver Lake Reflections by artist Judy Thompson. It depicts a young Laura Ingalls Wilder surrounded by the prairie that defined her teenage years. The book, in final editing and design, is still on track for being released later this year.

—JMc

New Words

In the course of my work making editors’ corrections to the “Pioneer Girl” annotations, I have come across several unfamiliar words. Most of these terms have simply fallen out of usage and been forgotten. Some became clear as I read through the manuscript, but others remain puzzling.

When I first read of a “lunatic fringe” in “Pioneer Girl,” for example, I immediately thought of its modern definition, which refers to a fanatical group. I was surprised to learn, as many Wilder fans may already know, that the term referred to the bangs that fall across one’s forehead. Apparently, this hairstyle was not looked on especially favorably in the late 1800s.

“Fichu” was another unfamiliar word. Laura’s good friend, Ida Brown, gave her one as a wedding gift. The vintage dictionary we sometimes consult here in the office defines a fichu as a small cape, usually made from lace and triangular in shape, similar to a scarf. I also learned that this very fichu is on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri.

When Laura became engaged, she wore the garnet-and-pearl ring Almanzo gave her on her “first finger.” This one still has me stumped. Did she wear it on her index finger, or was the nineteenth-century “first finger” what we call a “ring finger” today?

I had also never heard of “lawn” in connection with a dress. Laura had a pink sprigged “lawn” dress. I have since learned that lawn is a sheer, lightweight fabric, now usually woven from cotton but, in the nineteenth century, also made from linen.

Laura’s father, Charles, would sometimes sit with the graybeards in the “Amen corner” of the First Congregational Church. I now know that those who led congregational responses or who were especially ardent worshippers would sit in that section.

In These Happy Golden Years, Laura wore her new hat, which she described as “a sage-green, rough straw, in poke-bonnet shape.” I have since learned that a poke bonnet is one with a projecting brim or front, designed to shade the face. “Pie-plant” had me stumped at first, too, but the definition of garden rhubarb makes sense.

Little did I know that working with the Pioneer Girl Project would expand my vocabulary in so many ways. I’m looking forward to solving the next “word mystery.”

—CO