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


Pioneer Girl is in Design!


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.


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.”


Wheels of Fire(trucks)

On the whole, our circumstances here at the South Dakota Historical Society Press are not much like those of Laura Ingalls. We do, it’s true, work in a building cut into the side of a hill, and oxen could easily wander over the roof, supposing there were any oxen around. But we all felt a little closer to her two weeks ago, when we experienced our very own prairie fire.

Miniature prairie fire at the CHC, October 2013

As you can see, our parking lot is being rebuilt, and the fire began with some sparks from a machine cutting metal. From its humble beginnings, the fire took off downwind, devouring the drought-parched natural prairie grasses that make up our front lawn. (While we evacuated the building, the statue, Dale Lamphere’s Citadel, regarded the threat with more or less equanimity.)

As Ma says with relief in On the Banks of Plum Creek (p. 275), “there is nothing in the world so good as good neighbors,” and presently our good neighbors arrived in the form of the Pierre Volunteer Fire Department.

The firefighters in action

They extinguished the fire in a few minutes. It did no damage to the stone face of our building but scarred the earth impressively.  And yet only two weeks later, green shoots are in evidence on the burned ground. Even so late in the season, the miniature prairie ecosystem is working to restore itself.

Green shoots ascend from the ashes

It’s a sight that might have given Laura Ingalls, and all those who have experienced danger and disappointment on the prairie, hope for the future.

But we’re keeping an eye out for grasshoppers just the same.


A Thank You to Our Supporters

What is the most important part of a project? You might say the finished product, but, to even begin, there need to be people who believe in the value and abilities of your plan. While the Pioneer Girl Project is what brings us together, it is the support of our donors that has made the dream of many—to read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s unpublished manuscript—a foreseeable reality.

The Great Plains Education Foundation, Inc., of Aberdeen, South Dakota, got the ball rolling with an $80,000 challenge grant. Contributions from Dennis and Carol Anderson, the South Dakota State Historical Society, Historic Preservation Office, BankWest, Inc., the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, John and Margaret Fowler and the Growth Opportunities Through Rail Access Coalition helped us to meet that challenge. De Smet Farm Mutual Insurance Company of South Dakota, NorthWestern Energy and the South Dakota Community Foundation have also recently joined the project as Pioneers (donations of $10,000 or more). It is because of these donors that the South Dakota State Historical Society Press will be able to offer Wilder’s autobiography at an affordable price. The book will include behind-the-scenes essays and details concerning the life of this significant author.

With the help of the Homesteaders (donations of $5,000 to $9,999) like First PREMIER Bank / PREMIER BankCard, we will also be able to bring important events and materials to readers throughout the nation to promote knowledge of Wilder’s life and writings.

Please visit the Pioneer Girl Project Donations page and thank everyone for their contributions toward the long-awaited publication of this important manuscript, including our Friends (donations up to $999) and Settlers (donations of $1,000 to $4,999). The Pioneer Girl Project is coming together because of our donors, large and small, and, of course, because of followers like you. Thank you for your support as we research and publish Laura Ingalls Wilders’ Pioneer Girl.

For information on how you can contribute to the Pioneer Girl Project, please email or donate now by visiting the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation Pioneer Girl Project donation page.


When is a crab not a crab?

When it’s Laura Ingalls’s ultimate weapon in the struggle against Nellie Oleson.

Fearsome creatures roam through the pages of Wilder’s novels: howling wolves, screaming panthers, devastating grasshoppers, hungry bears lurking in the woods, and a badger that sends Laura into headlong retreat. But pound for pound, what can compare with the animal that Laura meets while wading in a pleasant pool? Ever-vigilant, swift to attack, slow to disengage, alien in form and bellicose in disposition, audacious, ferocious, tenacious: it is the Jabberwock of the Minnesota prairie, the legendary beast of Plum Creek—of course, I mean the old crab.

It is clear that her encounter with this crusty old crustacean made a strong impression on Wilder, who was eight or nine years old at the time. The crab first appeared in her autobiography, Pioneer Girl, where it is clear, as it is from her detailed description in On the Banks of Plum Creek (p. 129), that the animal was not, in fact, what we would call a crab. So what was it?

Orconectes virilis, one of the crayfish species indigenous to southwestern Minnesota.

“Don’t tread on me.”
Image by D. Gordon E. Robertson.

As it happens, we are not the first ones to ask. Wilder’s daughter and editor Rose Wilder Lane wondered, too, and wrote Wilder for clarification. Lane included her own description of a crab: about the size of a turtle, with eyes “like a snail’s,” and appearing somewhat like an oversize spider. Lane suggested that the creature that Wilder saw might really have been a crawdad or crayfish. Wilder confirmed her daughter’s suspicions but also affirmed that young Laura had not been frightened for no reason: “I assure you he was enormous.”1

One might wonder why Lane let the error stand, but perhaps that’s the wrong question. To declare Wilder’s usage to be an error is to make unwarranted assumptions about her historical and linguistic context. Wilder agreed that it was not a crab, but added, “we always called them crabs.” Wilder was no more wrong in calling her crawdad a crab than a Texan is wrong in calling her 7-Up a coke. Some words simply had different meanings to Wilder and her neighbors, and our job as annotators is to suggest an explanation when something doesn’t seem to make sense. It usually comes down to differences in time, place, and circumstance.

I would point out that none of the three crayfish species indigenous to southwestern Minnesota is exactly “enormous,” either—but history—and biography—are all about context. Wilder’s “crab” may not really have been so huge, but it clearly made an enormous first impression. Try running into one for the first time as an eight-year-old, with no internet or Animal Planet to prepare you, and let me know how it goes for you.

We know how it went for Nellie Oleson.


1. The correspondence discussed here between Wilder and Lane dates to the summer of 1936 and is found in Wilder’s papers at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri.