Wilder’s Chickens

Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in the American West, witnessed the building of a railroad, fought against hoards of grasshoppers, and started her professional career as an author by writing about chickens. Yes, chickens.

It isn’t common knowledge, but those who have read the introduction to Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography know that before her time as a famous children’s novelist, Wilder was a writer for the Missouri Ruralist, and before the Ruralist, she was a poultry columnist for the St. Louis Star Farmer. Renowned for getting eggs in winter when no one else could, Mrs. A. J. Wilder shared her knowledge about how to raise spectacular egg-laying hens and thus started her writing career. The woman who defined an era did indeed have a humble beginning, but, you have to start somewhere. Although raising hens may seem quaint in the modern age, a backyard chicken and urban farming movement is on the rise in the United States. So you could say that, even now, whether through the telling of her coming-of-age story or by sharing her strategies for getting the best eggs, Wilder continues to be relevant to our times.

Wilder’s favorite breed of chicken was the Brown Leghorn.

Wilder’s favorite breed of chicken was the Brown Leghorn.

Wilder’s motto in raising hens was “to get results with as little expenditure of time and acreage as possible.” She echoes my own experience in raising backyard hens—that a well-fed hen is a happy hen, and when you skimp on the feed, you get subpar eggs. In an era where one did not simply buy chicken feed down at the country store, her article “Economy in Egg Production” from the April 5, 1915, issue of the Missouri Ruralist shares her detailed knowledge about the types of crops women should grow to produce vibrant plumage and hefty eggs. Wilder knew her chickens, and while I have never bundled wheat or oats for my hens, I can say that Wilder is spot on in her advice that “it is much better for hens to let them do their own threshing.” The backyard chicken-raiser knows that you don’t get in the way of a chicken with oats or fresh veggie scraps from the kitchen—you are liable to get a claw or beak to the hand as they try to consume those wriggly worms—your fingers—that are messing with their food!

I also share Wilder’s frustration in her article “On Chickens and Hawks” from June 1917:

“‘In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,’ sings the poet, but in the spring the fancy of the hawk surely turns to spring chickens. Day after day, he dines on the plumpest and fairest of the flock. I may spend half the day watching and never catch a glimpse of him, then the moment my back is turned—swoop!—and he is gone with a chicken. I should like to sentence the ex-governor who vetoed the state bounty on hawks to make his living raising chickens in the hills.”

I have spent countless days watching the skies and endless hours nursing an attacked hen back to health, so I know the frustration of dealing with aerial predators. I am not sure that it calls for an attack on hawks, as Wilder does, but I agree with her concluding sentiments: “I know it is said that hawks are a benefit to the farmers because they catch field mice and other pests, but I am sure they would not look for a mouse if there were a flock of chickens near by.”

It would be pleasant to sit for an hour or two with Wilder on her front porch listening to her wisdom on chickens as she plots her revenge on the “ex-governor.” However, as I work on plans for my new hens, I will simply have to settle for reading more articles by Mrs. A. J. Wilder.

Jennifer McIntyre

For more of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist columns, check out two volumes edited by Stephen W. Hines, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks (Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2008) and Little House in the Ozarks: The Rediscovered Writings (New York: Galahad Books, 2000)

“Your true ‘enemy’ Laura Remington”

Readers of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography continue to share interesting information with the Pioneer Girl Project staff. A good example is Nami Hattori, who follows our blog from Canada.  She recently wrote to us that she had found some additional information about Laura Remington, whom Wilder mentioned twice in her autobiography. On page 243 of Pioneer Girl, Laura Remington is “among the younger girls” at school, and on page 275, Remington is paired with Alfred Ely as a participant in the sleighing parties on De Smet’s main street in the mid-1880s. The annotation about Laura Remington reads: “The 1880 census includes one family named Remington in Kingsbury County:  Francis P. Remington and his wife, Ellen. They had one daughter named Grace—not Laura­­—and she would have been about six years old in the fall of 1881” (p. 244n46).

Nami Hattori, though, has discovered another source that sheds a little more light on the elusive Laura Remington. A girl by that name not only lived in De Smet in the 1880s, Hattori pointed out, but she also “wrote a message on Wilder’s autograph book,” which the “LIW library in Mansfield owns.” Hattori shared with us and our readers the photograph that she took of Wilder’s autograph book in the 1990s. It contains this handwritten line, “Your true ‘enemy’ Laura Remington.”

Laura Ingall's autograph album, photographed by Nami Hattori

Laura Ingalls’s autograph album, photographed by Nami Hattori

While Remington did not date her entry, Hattori noted that many others who signed the book, including Charles Ingalls, Cap Garland, and Ida Brown, had dated theirs from 1882 to 1885. “Judging from her handwriting,” Hattori wrote, Laura Remington “was not a little girl at the time.” Because the signatures appear to have been penned after 1882, Hattori continued, “we can speculate that she might have moved to Dakota after 1880,” which would explain why she is not listed on the census.

With Hattori’s speculation in mind and the album as proof that there was a Laura Remington in the area, we went back to the census data from a different angle and found a second candidate for the family: Laura Remington could be the daughter of William and Helen M. Remington, who moved to Dakota Territory from Wisconsin sometime before June 1883. Their daughter Laura would still have been six years younger than Wilder, closer in age to Alfred Ely with whom Remington went sleighing. However, because the state census records for Kingsbury County are missing, we still cannot be absolutely certain that this Laura Remington is the one Wilder knew. As with so many of the people mentioned briefly in Pioneer Girl, little can be uncovered about them all these years later. Even with the wonderful autograph album, we do not know much more about Laura Remington.

But the album itself is fascinating. It is a resource for modern researchers, and it apparently served Wilder herself as a source of information. “Ida Brown’s verse on the real autograph album is the same as the one in Little Town on the Prairie,” Hattori wrote. “It tells that Wilder used this album when she wrote LTOP.” We are grateful to Hattori for bringing this treasure to our attention.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

Where are the pasques?

I had the enjoyable task of researching several of the notes on flora and fauna that appear in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. As a young girl, Wilder was outdoorsy, observing everything from crabs to coyotes to the wide variety of plants that grew on the prairies of eastern Dakota Territory while she lived there. In addition to knowing the common names of many of the area’s various grasses, Wilder mentioned numerous prairie flowers, including the “may flowers, thimble flowers, wild sweet Williams, squaw pinks, buffalo beans and wild sunflowers, each blooming in its season” (p. 234) around her family’s homestead near De Smet. Her curiosity about the natural world is one reason that I find a certain omission so curious.

Wilder’s Pioneer Girl never mentions the blossom that is one of the first signs of spring and which, in 1903, became the official state flower of South Dakota. The fuzzy buds of the American pasqueflower (Anemone patens/Pulsatilla patens) typically emerge from the ground in March or April, opening into two-toned purple blossoms with bold yellow centers. Still fairly common, pasqueflowers must have been abundant in Wilder’s day. Why didn’t she mention them?

A little research leads me to some speculation. First, botanist Dave Ode writes in his book Dakota Flora: A Seasonal Sampler (South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2006) that pasques prefer “gravelly hills, buttes, and river bluffs” (p. 13). The Ingalls homestead, situated in a fairly low spot next to the Big Slough, might not have had just the right soil, drainage, or exposure for the little plants to establish themselves. Second, the blooms can be delicate and fleeting, lasting as little as a couple of days if a spring blizzard buries them or if hot, dry winds shrivel them (both scenarios are possible during a South Dakota spring). They can also be extremely localized, with numerous plants clustered on a single knob or hillside and none occurring on the next one over.

An image of the pasqueflower image found in Dakota Flora. Photograph taken by Jeanne Ode.

Photograph of a pasqueflower in bloom taken by Jeanne Ode

Finally, pasqueflowers don’t always come up in the spring. In drought years, they may lie beneath the surface for months or until another year, when enough rain falls to make them emerge. On the Ode “homestead” east of Pierre, the north side of a bluff is dotted with some fifty markers pegging the locations of pasqueflower plants. Every spring, we climb the hill to take inventory. This year, after a winter with little snow and a spring with no rain, not a single pasque has popped up. Maybe Wilder never walked past just the right spot at just the right time.

Or, the explanation might be simpler. Pasqueflowers are sometimes called prairie crocus for their resemblance to the domestic crocus, goslinweed for the fuzzy buds that resemble a gosling’s down, and prairie smoke for the plumes that appear once the plant is done blooming. Recently, I also found some sources that list “May Day flower” or “May flower” as an alternate name for the pasque. In Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, we speculated that Wilder’s may flower may represent the meadow anemone (p. 235). We can’t know for sure, but perhaps those in and around De Smet during the 1880s knew the pasque as the may flower.

Jeanne Kilen Ode

Following the Trail of Wilder

No so long ago, I found myself making another trip along U.S. Highway 14, this time from Pierre—pronounced “peer”—to Brookings in eastern South Dakota. As I drove, my thoughts meandered between summer road-trip plans and contemplation of the railroad tracks running alongside me. For those of you who don’t know, Highway 14 follows the very railroad line, the old Dakota Central Railway of the Chicago & North Western, that brought Charles Ingalls and his family to Dakota Territory. As I raced trains past Huron, the few remaining buildings of Manchester, and on through De Smet, my thoughts focused on how different distances are now in comparison to the 1800s.

Pierre to Brookings

The famous frontier family traveled thousands of miles by wagon, as well, and as readers of the Little House novels and Pioneer Girl know, it could take days, even weeks, to get from one place to another, depending on the weather and the condition of the “road,” or what we would call a trail today. And, with wagon travel not being especially popular in 2015, it can be hard for a modern audience to fathom the time and effort it took to travel among the homesteads, geographical landmarks, and towns that Wilder mentions in her original manuscript. With the advent of first the railroad and then the car, places have become much closer than they were, figuratively speaking.

That is why one of my favorite things about Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is the eight maps created for various sections in the book. Taken together, they give contemporary readers a better perspective on the scope of the Ingallses’ journey. Along with several historical maps reproduced in the book, they help me begin to visualize just how big the “Big Woods” were, where New Ulm is situated in relation to Walnut Grove, MN Mapand how close the Loftus store was to “Residence C. P. Ingalls, Justice of the Peace” in De Smet.

As detailed in our blog post from 2012, these maps did not simply appear on our desks one day. Since we did not have Laura Ingalls Wilder there to help with the finer points, Pioneer Girl Project editor Jeanne Ode dived into Wilder’s manuscript and waded through historical maps from archives throughout the region to give readers a clearer picture of the Ingallses’ now-famous voyage. The map-making journey, like the family’s sojourn, was “filled with twists, turns, and the occasional dead end,” Ode says. Determining locations from sources that sometimes conflicted and creating preliminary sketches to guide the illustrator who created the final, well-designed versions was not always a walk in the park. As readers will discover, though, the trip was worth the trouble. As for me, the drive down Highway 14 now has a bit of extra meaning.

Jennifer McIntyre

All in a Cover

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a phrase that librarians, parents, and others caution young readers with. I’ve always taken issue with that phrase because, for me, the cover is an introduction to what I will be reading, a reminder of the world I will be jumping into every time I turn a page. Thus, from my point of view, the cover is an important part of the reading process, and a degree of judgment seems only natural. A good cover draws readers into the story before they have even cracked the spine. PG cover 72dpi 220px

The goal of the publisher is to create a cover that both attracts readers and provides a window into what the book contains. Some artistic license may be involved in conveying the essence of what readers can expect to experience. Even though there is a photograph of Laura Ingalls with her hair loose down her back, when we released the cover image for Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, a “hair controversy” ensued. In general, some readers claimed, the real Laura Ingalls would have worn her hair up, but when I look at the artist’s rendition on the cover of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, I am immediately transported to the wind-swept West and the beginnings of an American writer’s journey.

The cover does a great job of what it should do: catch the reader’s eye and engage the reader’s mind. As Nancy Aguilera wrote on this website, “I imagine Laura walking away . . . with her bonnet on and hair braided, under Ma’s watchful eyes, and then as soon as she’s out of sight she takes off her bonnet and shakes out her hair, enjoying the feel of theCover- By the Shores of Silver Lake warm prairie breezes blowing through her beautiful thick hair while she sits gazing at Silver Lake.” According to an Amazon reviewer, “The cover is beautiful, and not only does it look so much like teenage Laura, it also fits really well with the Garth Williams illustrations we are all familiar with.”

Deb Hosey White, in her blog on Goodreads, goes further: “If ever there was a book that felt special when I first held it in my hands and began turning the pages, this is the book.” The reader’s experience should begin from the moment they see and pick up the book, and that is what the Pioneer Girl Project production team aimed to do in creating this cover and the book it encloses. Based on the overwhelmingly positive comments and industry reviews, I would say they have succeeded. The New York Times Book Review even featured the cover along with their best sellers lists in the Sunday, April 12, print edition.NYTimes 4-12-15-1

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is a scholarly book (in fact, it has been called the encyclopedia on all things Wilder), but it is also the story of a woman’s childhood and adolescent experiences, and the watercolor painting by artist Judy Thompson illustrates this combination wonderfully well.

Jennifer McIntyre

“Not-So-Little Sales on the Prairie”: Pioneer Girl is still available; More Books to Come

Pubweekly sales chart

The week-to-week unit sales of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography are analyzed by Publishers Weekly.

Now in its fourth week on the New York Times Best Sellers list, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, continues to defy expectations. As the industry news source, Publishers Weekly, stated in its story “Not-So-Little Sales on the Prairie,” on March 30, transactions numbered close to 40,000 out of the 75,000 units printed, and the book remains on top-selling lists throughout the nation.

Moreover, bookstores report that this popular item continues to drive people to their stores. The customers who especially appreciate Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography?—those who prefer the physical book. “It’s this huge beautiful book, and it’s so much fun to spend time with and to hold,” said Sundance Books and Music employee Stephanie Lauer to Reno News & Review reporter D. Brian Burghart earlier this month. Never staying out of the limelight for long, the book appears in news articles weekly, links to which can be found on the Pioneer Girl Project Media Coverage page.

Copies of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography from the third printing continue to be available to individuals through the South Dakota Historical Society Press, as well as at retail locations throughout the United States. Distributors, online book sellers, and book stores will receive more books from a fourth and a fifth print run, totaling 50,000 copies, that will be shipped at the end of April and beginning of May.

Jennifer McIntyre

Follow the Breadcrumbs, Find Missouri

The Pioneer Girl Project is always on the lookout for new information, and sometimes, thanks to the courtesy of readers like you, it just turns up out of the blue—or in this case, out of Minnesota. Here’s the story as Project staff experienced it.

During their second stay in Minnesota, the Ingallses were neighbors of Mr. and Mrs. Pool and their grown daughter, Missouri, who kept house for her parents. In Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, Laura Ingalls Wilder remembers Missouri’s wonderful garden full of beautiful flowers and how she would smoke “a very small, white clay pipe” as she told “stories of Missouri, the state for which she was named.” Missouri even helped to care for Mary Ingalls during the illness that caused her blindness.

According to Wilder, Missouri had several siblings and was the only one not married. At last they learned the reason: Missouri’s mother, hoping to keep her daughter home to care for her in her old age, had been working to thwart Missouri’s courtships. Yet, despite her mother’s machinations, Missouri did finally marry and return to Missouri—only to die tragically during childbirth.

That’s Wilder’s memory. The editors of the Pioneer Girl Project read Wilder’s account and asked, as they had before, “What can we verify?”

Census data got us nowhere; there simply was no Missouri Pool listed in Minnesota at the right times. However, Nancy Tystad Koupal’s close reading of the Redwood Gazette for the years 1876–1879 turned up a Thomas Pool, who lived in Walnut Grove, Redwood County, Minnesota, “with his wife and daughter.”  Armed with this information, we went back to the census: was there ever, anywhere in the United States, a Thomas Pool with a daughter Missouri? There was—and moreover, there was plenty of information to confirm that his family was the one Wilder remembered and to confirm that Thomas Pool and his wife Annie had moved to nearby Brown County, Minnesota, in 1880. But—now here’s the thing—in 1880, Missouri Pool is gone. She’s enumerated with her parents in 1870, but by 1880, she was either married, dead, or both. With no married name, it was impossible to track her beyond that point (Missouri was a more common first name than you might think). So there the matter rested. “There is no further trace of her,” was the conclusion in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. “She would have been about forty years old” (p. 141n76).

Enter Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck.

These residents of Willow Lake Township in Redwood County read this annotation and recognized a familiar local name. They let us know that Missouri Evans, née Pool, was buried on a nearby farm. When we contacted them to follow up, they even went out and took some pictures of the grave marker for us. As you can see, Missouri Evans died in early 1881 at the age of forty—about the right age for our Missouri Pool. Was it the same woman?

Photograph taken and provided by Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck

Photograph taken and provided by Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck

Yes, it was. Now that we had her married name, everything fell into place. Missouri Evans’s 1880 census data matched what we would expect to see in Missouri Pool’s. The census data led to marriage records, and soon we had a clearer picture of Wilder’s friend. Missouri Pool married widower Henry Evans on March 14, 1880, in Brown County but she died thirteen months later. No death records are immediately available, but according to the Irlbecks, local tradition says that Missouri, like too many women of the nineteenth century, died in childbirth. Clearly, she did not return to her name state of Missouri, as Wilder believed, but had stayed nearby in Minnesota. By the time of her death, however, the Ingalls family themselves had moved on—to Dakota Territory and the Hard Winter.

Incidentally, two of Henry Evans’s other wives are also buried in this private cemetery: Anna, who died February 27, 1880 (we know, right?!), and Amelia, who died March 29, 1884. The women of Minnesota must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when the multiple widower packed up and moved to Canada—taking one final wife with him.

Jennifer McIntyre & Rodger Hartley

We thank Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck for contacting the South Dakota Historical Society Press with information on Missouri Pool and for taking the pictures of the Evanses’ gravesites.

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Photographs taken and provided by Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck