A Pioneer Girl’s Treasures

On my most recent visit to Rocky Ridge Farm in the Missouri Ozarks, I was once again struck by all the things Laura Ingalls Wilder had managed to save from her childhood— her sampler, her handkerchief, the slates she and Mary used when they attended school in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, even the jewel-box she describes in such loving detail in On the Banks of Plum Creek.

It’s remarkable that so many objects from her childhood survived, given how often the Ingalls family moved—from Wisconsin to Missouri to Kansas and back to Wisconsin again; on to Minnesota, then Iowa, and back to Minnesota; finally on to Dakota Territory. All these moves were made either by covered wagon or by train, which meant the family had to travel light. I suspect Caroline Ingalls supervised her girls’ packing closely, but based on accounts in “Pioneer Girl” as well as the Little House series, both the real and fictional Ma understood how important it was to make a home wherever the family settled. That clearly included letting her girls take their small but precious possessions with them from one little house to another.

Wilder and her husband Almanzo made plenty of moves too—from South Dakota to Minnesota to Florida to South Dakota again and from there to Missouri, where they lived out their lives together. And they too traveled by train, wagon, or buggy. So it’s literally a small miracle that Wilder’s jewel-box from Plum Creek days survived.

A Childlike Sense of Wonder

I’ve long assumed that Wilder saved these things because, in a childhood marked by frugality and poverty, even the purchase of those slates must have seemed like an extravagance. But I’m not sure that an impoverished childhood entirely explains why Wilder saved those treasures from her past. My father, a child of the Great Depression, grew up in an Arkansas log cabin and like the Ingalls girls, he and his sisters delighted in simple pleasures and learned to live happily with less. Yet nothing except photographs from my father’s childhood remains; he didn’t save his childhood treasures.

I suspect that Wilder kept hers because part of her never entirely grew up. Yes, like most of us, she kept important and official family documents, the papers that define a family’s history. The archives at Rocky Ridge Farm, for example, include Charles and Caroline Ingalls’s wedding license, Mary’s diploma from the Iowa College for the Blind, and Wilder’s own teaching certificates. Wilder became the family member responsible for preserving family history and documentation. But she also continued to nurture that childlike sense of wonder, a characteristic that often defines children’s book writers.

A Writer’s Ambition

Among the items Wilder saved is her essay titled “Ambition,” written when she was seventeen for her teacher, Mr. Owen, in De Smet, South Dakota. It was a piece of writing that she was proud of. Perhaps her secret ambition had long been to become a writer.

Years later when Wilder, her husband, and daughter moved to Missouri, she began to act on that ambition. Almanzo had made her a portable writing desk, and throughout the journey to Missouri in 1894, Wilder kept a diary in a small notebook of her impressions along the way. She drafted a letter home to friends and family in De Smet, and it was published in the De Smet News and Leader in August 1894. Of course, she kept the clipping with a handwritten note, “First I ever published.”

Wilder began to write her life story in 1930, two years after she and Almanzo moved into the Rock House, a gift from their daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Here Wilder wrote Pioneer Girl, as well as the first three novels in the Little House series. It’s impossible to know all the details of Wilder’s writing process, but I like to think of her at the dining room table in the Rock House, a supply of No. 2 lead pencils and a Fifty Fifty tablet from Springfield Grocer Company at the ready. Perhaps as she struggled to find the right word or to describe the sound of Pa’s fiddle, she looked across the living room and out the window at that hazy Ozark sky and found the inspiration to continue, one word at time, one memory at a time.

Pamela Smith Hill

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17 thoughts on “A Pioneer Girl’s Treasures

    • School slates like Laura and Mary’s can be purchased in Amish country – Try Ohio or Pennsylvania – or online, for that matter.

  1. I am so looking forward to reading Pioneer Girl. I have wanted to read it forever. I have always been amazed that so many of Laura’s keepsakes survived. I thought they had lost most everything when their home burned after the baby died. Thank you for taking on this project. Laura’s fans of all generations will be thrilled for years to come. And @Sherry Bastow – they carry 50-50 tablets in the gift shop at the museum in Mansfield.

  2. thank you for writing that article,I can relate to it,considering that last month I went to the musemum in mansfiled and saw artifacts that belonged to Laura and her family. I also thought it was amazing that Laura had kept many things from her childhood,and just seeing them for myself fulfilled me with pleasure. Thank you for publishing Laura’s memoir,I can not wait to read it.

  3. As a child in elementary school in South Dakota, the ‘Red Chief Tablet’ was considered the best for one’s writing. As one can see by the illustration, It was quality. Today, a legal pad would do the same. I like to save my writing in a binding or ringed composition book so all pages are kept, unless a decision is made to remove pages Today, writings/paper often succumb to technology and changes are not as pure.

  4. I am wondering if some of Laura’s treasures from her childhood weren’t stored at Pa’s house on 3rd St. The Wilder’s house caught fire and only a few things were saved. They must have been somewhere else, don’t you think?

  5. I am so thankful to everyone that is pulling together to publish Pioneer Girl. :) I think that Laura Ingalls Wilder is an important American, and she and her family’s legacy should never be forgotten. What she wrote serves so importantly as not only historical fiction, but also character and Biblical examples interwoven throughout her books. My son and and sit and talk about things throughout the books and relate them back to the Bible. I’ve found a greater appreciation for the simpler things in life because of Laura and her books. :)

  6. I am a LIW fangirl and finally was able to go to the museum in Mansfield, MO this past weekend. I was thrilled to see so many of the items mentioned in the books and could not believe how many of them survived. I had the opportunity to talk with Vicki at the museum about this Pioneer Girl project and am very excited to learn this will be published.

  7. Regarding this…She drafted a letter home to friends and family in De Smet, and it was published in the De Smet News and Leader in August 1894. Of course, she kept the clipping with a handwritten note, “First I ever published.” …will you all include a copy of this in the printed (book) copy? These are the treasures that the fans and other researchers and scholars love to see! — Please don’t forget her TEACHER CERTIFICATE…that is another treasure!

  8. Missouri….a part of the story, South Dakota, our reality. Laura is the same in Dakota, where I grew up with ‘The little house books’. Laura shared her life, writing and remembering. My trek to the DeSmet Pageant in the early 1980’s gave me assurance that pioneers kept the best memories. Every reader can appreciate this simple sharing of life, learning, growth, and experience,

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  10. Well, for most of Laura’s childhood, they didn’t have access to photography. And when they did, it was a matter of going to a professional photographer for a portrait, not having a camera in the family. Given how they lived, they probably could go for several years without having access to a photographer.

    In that context, photographs would be rare prized momentos, like the china box and the other keepsakes. You might only have a photograph taken every few years, for very special occasions. I think I remember reading somewhere that the photo of Mary, Laura and Carrie commemorated Mary’s departure for the blind school, and the photo of Laura and Almonzo was a belated wedding portrait. Every photograph would be framed and displayed, essentially making it a 3-dimensional decorative item, much like the jewelry box.

    But photographs weren’t taken frequently enough to be the primary tool for remembering – for most occasions, you’d need to have something else as a keepsake. So a jewelry box would be saved not just for its function, but to remember the Christmas when you received it. You also see people saving things in other ways, such as perhaps drying and saving flowers from a wedding, or keeping an autograph album to save memories of your friends, It probably never occurred to Laura to have a photograph taken with her childhood friends to remember them by, but a piece of handmade lace would be saved, perhaps even after it was too worn to use, for the sake of the memory.

    By the time of the great depression, photography had changed. It had gone from a professional activity to something that was affordable and convenient for an amature, with commercially available film and development, rather than all of that having to be done by the photographer. Photographs were probably thought of as different from other keepsakes. You’d take photos at birthdays and holidays, or on vacation, and save them in an album. And photographs became the primary personal remembrance of a place or event, with other types of mementos and souvenirs loosing some emotional significance.

    For your grandfather, if the family wanted to remember the Christmas when he was eight, they’d take a picture, and save it. Half a century earlier, that wouldn’t have been possible.

    Photographs were still a much bigger deal than they are now, with fewer taken for any given event (due to the expense) and they were still kept as treasures. I do wonder how our grandkids would remember us today. Digital photographs can’t be enjoyed without the right hardware and software. How many people won’t have pictures of their grandparents because the CD or flash drive they were saved on is a technology no longer in use?

    I suspect that Laura would have categorized the photographs, the jewelry box, and other saved items together as “keepsakes” in her mind – they were all unique objects used to remember events in her life. Either way, each item had a story attached, and she’d share the story with the item, to pass memories on to her daughter.

    For your grandfather, photos and keepsakes were probably different mental categories. If he wanted to tell someone about an event in his past, he’d probably go first to the photographs, to show a picture related to the event. The photograph from a childhood birthday would be saved to remember the event, but the presents wouldn’t necessarily be kept for the sake of the memory.

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