The Terrifying Sound of a Tornado

A boom of thunder brought me out of a deep sleep before dawn this morning, and I listened tensely to see if the unmistakable sound of a tornado would follow. As a young girl—eleven or twelve—in Mitchell, South Dakota, I had found myself outside and running to a house across the street as the mechanical roar of an outsized John Deere tractor filled the night sky from every direction. It was my closest encounter with a tornado on the prairie, and I was terrified. My mother and my aunt raced behind me with a baby or toddler under each arm, and my father and uncle scooped up the remaining small children and herded us all into the neighbor’s basement as the sky crackled with electricity and the mammoth tractor rumbled on. In the aftermath, two things happened. We spent the next morning driving around the western part of Mitchell surveying the damage the tornado had done, and my father decided that it was time to jack up our house and put a basement underneath it. The family’s helter-skelter dash toward the neighbor’s house was, as he put it, a “rather stupid thing to do.” As a result, during my teen years, I spent storm events huddled in our new basement worrying about my father, who was always the last to head downstairs. Like Charles Ingalls in the summers of 1884 and 1885, Dad liked to watch the weather, confident in his own ability to reach safety before the storm hit.

Laura Ingalls Wilder described the sound of a tornado as “a dull roaring” that “filled all the air.” Just as I did, she heard “that awful roaring pass over [her family’s] heads and on.”1 To me, the twister sounded like a huge tractor grinding through the night sky, but others have likened it to the thunder of a waterfall or “the buzzing of a million bees, and even the bellowing of a million mad bulls.” Since the invention of the locomotive, people have most commonly compared the noise to the roar of a freight train. A tornado “is a very long, whirling tube of air, an enormous acoustical instrument,” but scientists still don’t fully understand how it produces sound.2 Like the growl of a grizzly bear or the crack of lightning, the sound of a tornado remains “among the most terrifying natural sounds on Earth,” according to science journalist Matt Simon.3

The August 1884 tornado was one of the first to be captured on film. South Dakota State Historical Society

As their roar suggests, “cyclones,” as Wilder called them, are destructive natural forces. In late August 1884, for example, a tornado near Huron “demolished everything in its path, leveling buildings as if they were pasteboard.”4 Weeks later, barns and sheds “were torn to atoms and scattered over the prairie” as another cyclone carried away stacks of grain and shredded houses “into kindling wood.” The tornado also swept up a woman and her eight-year-old daughter, leaving them badly injured in a nearby field.5 More recently, six people died during a tornado in Spencer, South Dakota, in 1998. Five years later, an F-4 tornado destroyed the town of Manchester, just a few miles west of De Smet.6 Each tornado season, we watch as television news stations chronicle similar devastation across the Great Plains.

On this late summer morning, however, the thunderstorm rolled on across the plains without producing a tornado, and I thankfully went back to sleep, but the sound and power of tornadoes haunted my dreams.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, forthcoming 2021), p. 438.
  2. Thomas P. Grazulis, The Tornado: Nature’s Ultimate Windstorm (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001), p. 11. See also Brian Palmer, “‘A Peculiar Moaning Sound’: How Did People Describe the Sound of a Tornado before the Advent of Trains?” Slate, May 22, 2013, slate.com.
  3. Simon, “A Tornado’s Secret Sounds Could Reveal Where It’ll Strike,” WIRED, May 8, 2018, wired.com.
  4. News item, De Smet Leader, Aug. 30, 1884.
  5. “Tornado near Huron Dak,” ibid., Sept. 6, 1884.
  6. Michael Klinski, “Spencer Tornado: Twenty Years Ago, Six People Died during Storm,” Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, May 30, 2018, argusleader.com; “Manchester Looks Back at Devastating F-4 Tornado,” June 25, 2017, Huron Daily Plainsman, plainsman.com.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Heroine

In her final Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder showcased her independent spirit and almost defiant self-reliance. For instance, in These Happy Golden Years, Laura—clad in an attractive brown dress—joins Almanzo on a buggy ride behind the colts. When Almanzo boldly puts his arm around her, Laura immediately startles the horses with the whip, causing them to bolt. “You little devil!” Almanzo says as he uses both hands to get the horses back under control. He then challenges her: “Suppose they had run away,” he says, but she replies that there was nothing for them to run against. “‘Just the same!’ Almanzo began, and then he said, ‘You’re independent, aren’t you?’ ‘Yes,’ said Laura” (THGY, pp. 166, 168). In her study of the pioneer heroines of regional fiction, Ruth Ann Alexander characterized these fictional protagonists as “usually quite independent of their mothers, they identify with male activities in homesteading, ranching, and small-town life, and they triumph through exercising their own wits and resources.”1 In her autobiography and her novels, Wilder portrayed herself with all the traits of this classic heroine of adolescent pioneer fiction.

In Pioneer Girl, Wilder is even more overtly independent. During thunderstorms in the summers of 1884 and 1885, she separated from her mother and sisters who huddled in the cellar and aligned herself with the riskier behavior of her father, who stayed outside to watch the storms approach. “I didn’t like to go into the cellar,” she wrote, “and I wanted to see the storm. I thought I could get to safety as quickly as Pa could. And I proved it.”2 While Laura does not insist on staying outside with Pa in Wilder’s draft of These Happy Golden Years, she does express “a strange delight in the wildness and strength of the storm winds, the terrible beauty of the lightening [sic] and the crashes of thunder.”3

Nancy Tystad Koupal

1.) Alexander, “South Dakota Women Writers and the Blooming of the Pioneer Heroine, 1922–1939,” South Dakota History 14 (Winter 1884): 306.

2.) Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, forthcoming 2021), p. 438.

3.) Wilder, “These Happy Golden Years” manuscript, p. 202, Rare Book Collection, Detroit Public Library, Detroit, Mich.

Summer 2021 Progress Report

As I sit down to bring readers up to date concerning our progress, I am reminded of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first mitten-knitting experience. “Taking great pains, with much hard work for days, I finished one mitten,” she wrote in Pioneer Girl. “Then I wanted to stop, but Ma said, one must always finish what she began.”1 And so it is here at the Pioneer Girl Project as we strive to finish what we have begun. I am pleased to report that after many years of hard work Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts is now at the printer. The South Dakota Historical Society Press will release it this coming October. Since my retirement as the director of the Press, I have been able to concentrate on this book, which we began in 2013, and bring it to a close. Unlike Wilder, however, I have enjoyed knitting this mitten, as it were, and am already happily clacking the needles as the Pioneer Girl Project’s next volume, Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction, takes shape. This fourth book concentrates on the next phase of Wilder’s career, the writing of her first novel, Little House in the Big Woods (1932). It is scheduled for release in late 2022, ninety years after publication of Big Woods.

Once again, we asked watercolorist Judy Thompson to create an original work of art for the cover of Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts. Her work, titled “Dakota Twilight,” captures the beauty and soft colors of the prairie at twilight as Grace, Mary, Carrie, and Laura Ingalls return from a walk along the Big Slough. Ordering information for the new book will be available in the next few weeks.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal, et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, forthcoming 2021), p. 38.

“Is There a Silver Lake?”

Even before Laura Ingalls Wilder had written the final novel in the Little House series, readers were researching the background of her books. In 1942, the mother of two girls from Kansas City wrote the mayor of De Smet, South Dakota, to ask “if there is really a Silver Lake and a Big Slough here.” Aubrey Sherwood, the editor of the De Smet News, answered the question for the mayor: “The News is happy to vouch for the authenticity of the books by Mrs. Wilder—that she actually experienced the pioneer days here with her family, on the shores of Silver Lake by a large slough, since drained, living on the claim throughout the Hard Winter and many more winters afterward, though many years ago she and her husband and daughter Rose moved to southern Missouri.”1 The editor sent Wilder a copy of the newspaper.

Big Slough, De Smet, S.Dak.

A view of the Big Slough in De Smet, S.Dak., that was so prevalent in Laura’s life

In the same issue, Sherwood, who would be the keeper of the Wilder legacy in De Smet for many years, inadvertently verified another Wilder story, one that did not appear in one of her books until the next year. Under the headline “Traveling the Same Old Prairie Road Brings View of Lakes with Expanse Water,” the editor took readers over the road that Laura and Almanzo travel on many a summer afternoon buggy ride in These Happy Golden Years, published in 1943. Lakes Henry and Thompson, which had been nearly dry through the 1930s, were full once again, Sherwood announced, adding: “If you like, you can drive around the west side of the lake [Henry] by the old road that winds from the west point to the old Grothe farm, and on up on the bluff, and then down into the meadow and south to the road that goes between the lakes. It is the same old winding prairie road. . . . [I]t is worth while to stop on the bluff to look over the lake from this highest bank.” A month later, Wilder, who was writing These Happy Golden Years at the time, requested another copy of the paper “telling of the Old Prairie Road” because she had sent hers on to Lane and “would like to have a copy to keep.”2

Nancy Tystad Koupal

1.) “Is There a Silver Lake? Asked after Children Read Mrs. Wilder’s Books,” De Smet News, July 16, 1942.

2.) Wilder to Sherwood, Aug. 17, 1942, IIA 59, Box F, Bell Collection, Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society Archives, De Smet, S.Dak.

Dragging Main

Teenage girls “dragging main” in 1957. Nina Leen, Getty Images

When I was a teenager, my friends and I spent endless hours “dragging main” in my hometown of Mitchell, South Dakota. Sometimes we paired off with our boyfriends, but many times a bunch of girls piled into a friend’s car, say a 1957 Ford, or a borrowed family car—a Chevy sedan with no style whatsoever—and drove from the railroad depot on the south end of Main Street to the bowling alley on the north end in endless circles. We might stop window-to-window with friends in the bowling alley parking lot and chew over the latest gossip or drive into the root beer stand for burgers and fries, but mostly we cruised up and down main looking for our boyfriends, or hoping for a peek at our latest heartthrobs, or speculating about who was going with whom. In our little town, even the sheriff and his deputy could be seen in the parade of cars on the main drag, keeping an eye on us. As a teenager, I never tired of this activity. I thought it was a product of the automobile era until I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl and learned that the practice was much older than that.

Cutter in Cedar Creek, Dakota Territory. South Dakota State Historical Society

Rather than automobiles, Wilder and her friends employed cutters and sleighs to ride up and down Calumet Avenue, the main thoroughfare of De Smet, South Dakota, during the winter months. “With all the rest of the gay crowd,” Wilder reported, she and Almanzo “were going the length of the street, around a circle on the prairie when the street ended, back down the length of the street, around a circle at the other end, and repeat, laughing and shouting from one sleigh to another.”1 When transferred to These Happy Golden Years, this appealing image led Wilder’s literary agent to comment that he “would like to go back to the days when the Sunday sport was to drive up and down Main Street in a cutter with your best girl tucked snugly in beside you.”2

In 2003, a writer for Deseret News in Utah noted that dragging or “cruising” main had “been passed down for generations” as a “staple of social life in the small rural towns.”3 The ritual, which “involved driving a central stretch of road in loops,” had become “a rite of passage.”4 Whether the participants drove automobiles, sleighs, or buggies, the activity itself always involved socializing while driving up and down the main street in endless circles. Dragging main may have reflected the fact that small towns offered little for young people to do. Driving back and forth on the main thoroughfare allowed them to take over public space and make it their own. For my part, I recall my endless circles of Mitchell’s Main Street with fondness, remembering old friends and good times, just as Wilder remembered “that charmed circle” of De Smet sleigh riders.5

Nancy Tystad Koupal

______________________________________________________________________

  1. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, forthcoming 2021), p. 376. See also Wilder, These Happy Golden Years, 1953 ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1943), p. 92.
  2. George T. Bye to Wilder, Sept. 29, 1942, James Oliver Brown Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York, N.Y.
  3. Jason Olson, “Dragging Main,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), Aug. 21, 2003.
  4. Andrea Tudhope, “Hey Small-Town Kansas, Whatever Happened to Cruising,” KCUR.89.3, Oct. 20, 2015, kcur.org.
  5. Wilder to Rose Wilder Lane, Aug. 17, 1938, Box 13, file 194, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library,

Brown Bread and Coffee Mills

When I was young, white bread—the softer, the better—was all I ate, but as an adult I have grown fond of nutty brown bread. As I crunch away, I imagine that its gritty texture is similar to the whole-wheat bread that Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family ate during the Hard Winter of 1880–1881. Of course, Wilder ground her wheat in a coffee mill, and her mother used sourdough starter to make it into bread, while I have the luxury of grabbing a prepackaged loaf off the grocery-store shelf. Wilder’s brown bread was a triumph over privation; mine is a matter of choice.

Advertisement for coffee mill featuring a balance wheel, 1888. Alamy

When Wilder’s family turned to making bread from hand-ground wheat in early 1881, almost everyone in and around De Smet was having to do the same. But it was not as automatic as Wilder made it seem in her novel The Long Winter, where Ma simply “reached to the top of the cupboard and took down the coffee mill” (p. 194). Such devices were at a premium in De Smet and do not appear to have been standard equipment in every pioneer home. Luckily, homesteader Delos Perry and his family had two: “One had a balance wheel and we took that one to town and they used it for their city flour mill. The other one we put up at home and the neighbors ground several bushels of wheat in it.”1 The “city flour mill” appears to have been in Daniel Loftus’s grocery store. In February, the Kingsbury County News noted that Loftus “makes a good miller,” having turned out “the first wheat ground in De Smet.”2

Resident Neva Whaley Harding reported that her neighbor Robert Boast shared both his seed wheat and his coffee mill. Harding, whose family made muffins from the whole wheat flour the Boasts supplied, observed in 1930, “Not knowing so much about the beneficial qualities of whole wheat then as we do now we were not so appreciative as we should have been.”3

That surprised me. Harding was aware of the benefits of whole wheat in the thirties when I was still eating processed white bread into the 1960s? Well, not surprising as it turns out. By the late 1920s, “the modest, ordinary loaf of white bread had been accused of some extraordinarily immodest deeds,” such as causing a whole list of diseases including anemia, cancer, and diabetes, as well as “criminal delinquency.”4 White bread resurged in popularity after it was enriched during the World War II era, but today whole grains are once again in the ascendancy.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Perry to Editor, De Smet News, Mar. 17, 1922.
  2. Quoted in Aubrey Sherwood, Beginnings of De Smet: “Little Town on the Prairie” Locale of Six Books of Laura Ingalls Wilder (De Smet: By the Author, 1979), [40].
  3. Harding, “Daughter of Homesteader,” De Smet News, May 30, 1930.
  4. Aaron Bobrow-Strain, “Kills a Body Twelve Ways: Bread Fear and the Politics of ‘What to Eat,’” Gastronomica 7 (Summer 2007): 45.

Miss Eliza Jane Wilder

While Nellie Oleson is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s archrival and the antagonist of many of the Little House novels, Eliza Jane Wilder also plays a spoiler role. In Little Town on the Prairie, Eliza Jane as “Miss Wilder,” the teacher, and Nellie as teacher’s pet team up to make Laura and Carrie Ingalls’s schooldays a misery. As a result, readers find Eliza Jane hard to like. In Pioneer Girl, Wilder explained that Eliza Jane “was well educated” but “had no idea how to govern a school. She had no sense of fairness and was uncertain as to temper. What she allowed one day she might punish severely the next.”1 In researching Eliza Jane for Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, I have had the opportunity to gain some insight into “Miss Wilder.” In proving up on her homestead in 1886, Eliza Jane Wilder painstakingly penned three lengthy versions of her experiences to justify time spent away from her claim, including her departure to Minnesota in 1882 after her disastrous teaching experience in the De Smet school. Based on her own accounts, Miss Wilder must have been, at the least, a distracted teacher.

Eliza Jane Wilder. Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum

To begin with, Eliza Jane had multiple responsibilities. She was farming a homestead claim a mile or so west of De Smet, planting and monitoring a tree claim farther north, and often taking care of her six-year-old niece, Laura Wilder Howard’s daughter. Then, in August 1882, Eliza Jane recorded, “the director of the school board in De Smet came to me urging me to take the town school as no good teacher could be found. . . . In September my sister came and brought baby, other friends came at the same time. And I found I could not entertain guests, teach school, and attend to household duties [together] with a walk of three miles per day. I therefore rented rooms in town for a time. But at the close of the school term I found my health so poor that I dared not renew the engagement for the remainder of the year.”2

In a subsidiary account written to the land commissioner in Washington, D.C., Wilder claimed that many De Smet parents “requested” the school board president “to secure my services if possible,” continuing: “I knew my strength was failing and feared but finally accepted the position for one term. . . . School, home, and farm work together with exposure to the harsh cold winds told rapidly upon a system that had had no rest from toil often beyond its strength for nearly two years. . . . I closed school two days before the expiration of the term. Worn out.”3 In her third telling of events, Eliza reiterated the message: “When the term of school ended I was worn out. And unfitted for any labor.”4 After Thanksgiving 1882, Eliza Jane and her sister Laura went to Marshall, Minnesota, where Laura and her children stayed with a third sister, Alice Wilder Baldwin, and Eliza visited other family and friends until the spring of 1883, slowly regaining her health.

In her own accounts, Eliza Jane often comes across as self-serving and egocentric, but it is also clear that she was a woman of amazing energy and focus who valued friendship and family. She is the Eliza Jane of Farmer Boy—bossy yet tenderhearted. As his older sister, she goads Almanzo into throwing a blacking brush at her but then patches the blotch it made on the parlor wall with wallpaper scraps and flour paste. Eliza Jane may be of “uncertain temper,” but she is also the one who tells Almanzo: “I guess I was aggravating, but I didn’t mean to be. You’re the only little brother I’ve got” (p. 227).

Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 246.
  2. Eliza Jane Wilder (EJW) to J. F. Chaffee, (Dec. 1886), Homestead Entry File #2263, Land Entry Files, U.S. Department of the Interior, Records of the General Land Office, Record Group 49, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
  3. EJW to “Hon. Land Commissioner,” ibid.
  4. EJW, Homesteading Account, [ca. 1886], Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society Archives, De Smet, S.Dak.

Hot Bean Soup and Laura Ingalls Wilder

Snow has fallen softly all day, and my thoughts have turned to keeping warm and burrowing in for the winter. My freezer is full of chopped tomatoes from my vegetable garden, stacked alongside gallons of tomato juice made according to my mother’s recipe. All summer long, my family and I feasted on cold soups, especially gazpacho replete with cucumbers, peppers, onions, celery, and toasted bread cubes. But now, as the temperature dives, my thoughts turn to hot bean soup and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Prior to the Hard Winter of 1880–1881, the Ingalls family painstakingly cut their garden plot from the tough prairie sod on their claim outside of De Smet. As we learn in Pioneer Girl, they harvested a meager amount of potatoes, which the family supplemented with milk from their cow. They moved to town for the winter so that they could acquire supplies from the local shopkeepers, who relied on the railroad to replenish their shelves. Once snow blocked the trains, food shortages began. In The Long Winter, the Ingalls family’s garden yielded a more satisfying but still scanty harvest of five sacks of potatoes, “lots of turnips,” six ripe pumpkins, nearly a bushel of beans, ten shocks of corn, and enough tomatoes to make a gallon of sweet preserves and “almost two quarts of green tomato pickle” (pp. 28–30). The stretching of this limited food supply over eight months provides a good deal of the drama both in Pioneer Girl and the novel, which one reviewer called a story “without much of a plot” but nevertheless “a good pioneer record.”1

Starting with her creation of a green pumpkin pie, readers watch Caroline Ingalls nurse her small harvest and a few store-bought staples (tea, flour, sugar, salt codfish, salt pork, canned oysters) through the Hard Winter of 1880–1881. Even during the early October blizzard, when supplies seem plentiful, Ma makes a batch of beans serve double duty as both soup for lunch and baked beans with salt pork for supper. The domestic details punctuate a cold and blustery day with warmth and coziness: “Now and then [Ma] spooned up a few beans and blew on them. When their skins split and curled, she drained the soda-water from the kettle and filled it again with hot water. . . . The cold crept in from the corners of the shanty. . . . But the steamy smell of boiling beans . . . seemed to make the air warmer. At noon Ma sliced bread and filled bowls with the hot bean broth and they all ate where they were, close to the stove” (Long Winter, pp. 39–40). As the winter deepens, bean soup becomes a distant memory as the family’s rations dwindle to a single whole wheat biscuit per person or a bowl of mush with water.

With temperatures headed into the single digits this past week, it seems that the winter of 2020–2021 has started early here in South Dakota. I think I’ll soak a batch of beans tonight.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Nebraska Education Journal, Feb. 1941, quoted in “Copies of Reviews of ‘The Long Winter,’” Box 15, file 241, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.

Summer 2020 Progress Report

Last year about this time, we reported that the Pioneer Girl Project team was hard at work on Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts. And we have made progress, laying out the various sections of the manuscript as we complete work on them. Much remains to be done, however, and effective the first of July 2020, I will begin to focus closely on completing that book and the one that will follow: Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction.

I am leaving my position as director and editor-in-chief of the South Dakota Historical Society Press and as director of the State Historical Society’s Research and Publishing office. I will continue as director and editor-in-chief of the Pioneer Girl Project. As you might suspect, wearing all those hats has kept me rather too busy to focus on the Pioneer Girl Project. That is about to change, and I am looking forward to the transition.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

Reading Historical Fiction in the Era of Covid

SilverLakePage19

Illustration for By the Shores of Silver Lake, drawn by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle, 1939

I realized how germaphobic I had become when I found myself wincing as I reread the opening chapters of By the Shores of Silver Lake. In chapter 3, Ma and the Ingalls girls board a passenger train for the trip from Walnut Grove to Tracy, Minnesota. Looking around at the railroad car and its inhabitants, Laura notices that a drinking fountain of sorts is available at one end. She watches a tall man with a bobbing Adam’s apple drink deeply from a cup and decides to check it out. A “fascinating” spigot and drain with a shelf for the cup lead her to drink her fill from the selfsame vessel before refilling it “part way, in order not to spill it” (p. 24), and carrying it back for Carrie and Grace to drink. Gasp. Think of the droplets they are sharing. But it gets worse.

Once the family arrives at the end of the line, they go to the hotel for dinner. They wash up at a communal wash basin, where a pitcher held “only a little fresh water for each of them.” A twenty-second handwashing routine is clearly not in play here. After a soapless rinse, they wipe off on a roller towel, the ends of which were “sewed together and it ran around on its roller so that everyone could find a dry place.” Freshened up, Ma and the girls head into the dining room, where “some how Ma found empty chairs,” and they joined the many men “sitting in a row at the long table” (p. 33). No social distancing whatsoever!

By chapter 5, the family’s ever-present danger of exposure to disease on top of the current stream of current Covid-19 news has exhausted me, and I put the book down to read another day.

—Nancy Tystad Koupal