The Little Town in the Land of Used-to-Be

A few months ago, a high-school student asked me what I thought Laura Ingalls Wilder’s favorite place was of all the places she had lived as a young person. Of course, a definitive answer to such a question is not really possible when Wilder herself is not around to consult. But, as I told the student, Wilder’s writings do suggest an answer: De Smet, South Dakota.

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De Smet, 1883. Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society

Another South Dakota author, Elizabeth Mills Irwin, captured what I think De Smet meant to Wilder. In her book, Home of the Heart: Mound City Stories (2000), Irwin wrote: “For everyone, at least for the lucky, there is a home, a secret place to which one returns, in memory and in dreams, for solace when today is a wrong day, when doubt clouds the future, when wherever we are now, we need something that is not there. It is our heart’s home” (p. 13). De Smet was Wilder’s heart’s home and possibly Almanzo’s as well.

In 1948, Wilder wrote to a friend: “Almanzo and I were speaking of De Smet the other day, and of how we were still homesick for Dakota” (quoted in A Little House Sampler, ed. William Anderson, p. 231). The Wilders had returned to South Dakota three times in the 1930s, but she still wrote of her yearning for the prairies and what she called “the Land of Used-to-Be” (ibid., p. 227). Those faraway days were now mostly a memory of her youth, as she recalled in her poem “Little Town of Memory”:

Oh little town of memory
I hear your voices singing
I see your faces bright and gay
I hear your sleighbells ringing—

Those three trips home had taught her what so many of us have learned about going home, and she concluded her poem with these lines:

It all has gone beyond recall
Its music fades away. (A Little House Reader, ed. Anderson, p. 166)

And, yet, it did not fade away, neither for Wilder nor for her millions of readers. In writing By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years, Wilder visited her heart’s home of De Smet, South Dakota, “in memory and in dreams,” and preserved it for all of us.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

I am indebted to Paula Nelson for the gift of Elizabeth Mills Irwin’s book.

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Prairie Fires

Congratulations to Caroline Fraser on her new book Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which received a great review from historian Patricia Nelson Limerick.

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Earlier this year, Fraser contributed to the South Dakota Historical Society Press book Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder with her essay “The Strange Case of the Bloody Benders: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and Yellow Journalism.” In Prairie Fires, Fraser looks further at the questions she brought up in this essay and at much more.

One-hundred and fifty years after Wilder’s birth, the Little House series continues to shape ideas of the historical United States—its settlement, its literature, and the roles of women, among other things. Laura Ingalls Wilder is and always will be an important voice of American heritage.

—Jennifer McIntyre

Look Out—Locusts!

Even though my research for the forthcoming Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts covers aspects of history not focused on in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, one episode that I just cannot get out of my head is the plague of locusts that destroy the family’s crops in Minnesota. The family’s powerlessness to combat the locusts and the insects’ seemingly mysterious departure four years later have lodged themselves in my mind. And so I dig into research of the plague. William Watts Folwell’s 1926 A History of Minnesota , volume 3, devotes the entirety of Chapter 4 to “The Grasshopper invasion, 1873-77.” The locusts that descended on the people of Minnesota left a lasting impression on the state’s history. As Wilder described it, Rocky Mountain locusts swooped from the sky, “their wings a shiny white making a screen between us and the sun. They were dropping to the ground like hail in a hailstorm faster and faster.” (Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, p. 79) Folwell quoted another eyewitness as saying that seeing the locusts flying “‘may be likened to an immense snow-storm, extending from the ground to a height at which our visual organs perceive them only as minute, darting scintillations.’”(History of Minnesota, p. 95).

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The Ingalls and others were helpless when it came to protecting crops from Rocky Mountain locusts, c. 1870. Minnesota Historical Society

Imagine locusts as a hungry, eating, chomping snowstorm! Such devastation boggles the mind; yet, while scientists believe the Rocky Mountain locust is extinct, such plagues of locusts continue to devastate farms and crops in other parts of the world. In 2015, locusts destroyed crops in Russia, and in 2016, northern Argentina experienced their worst season of locusts in sixty years. In a quotation given to the New York Times, Juan Pablo Karnatz reported farmers seeing “locust clouds that were more than four miles long and nearly two miles high” (Jan. 26, 2016). The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations issued a report in November 2015 that unusually heavy rains in “northwest Africa, the Horn of Africa and Yemen could favor Desert Locust breeding” (www.fao.org). The increasing number of extreme weather events attributed to climate change could bring more frequent and more intense swarms of locusts to these regions.

In the 1870s, the Ingalls could do little to fend off the attacks. Charles Ingalls attempted to defend his wheat by setting fires near the crops, reasoning that the smoke might discourage the insects. It was a futile effort, and eventually he left the family homestead to find work farther east in order to send money back to help the family survive the winter.

Jacob Jurss

C-SPAN Stops by the Pioneer Girl Project

Earlier this fall, C-SPAN correspondents stopped by the Pioneer Girl Project office to speak with Nancy Tystad Koupal during BookTV’s City Tour of Pierre, South Dakota. From discussion of Laura Ingalls Wilder herself to why Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is such a big book, Koupal outlined the Project’s early beginnings, current research, and overall goals as it continues down the path of research into the life and legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

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Below are a few excerpts from the program. You can watch the entire episode online at c-span.org.

“We decided to go with the handwritten original because that was the closest to Wilder’s original voice,” says Koupal. (However, as detailed in a previous post, once that decision was made, the work did not end there.)

“I was in New York and my staff called me and said, “We’re on the New York Times Best Seller list!” We were pretty excited. . . . It opened up a whole new world of conversations.”

“One of the things that the Annotated Autobiography did was it allowed us to think more comprehensively about what the Pioneer Girl Project was doing. And what we decided we wanted to do was really look at those [other Pioneer Girl] texts and start to answer some of those questions . . . what kind of an editor was Rose Wilder Lane? What kind of a memory did Laura Ingalls Wilder have? To what extent was that memory supplemented by her daughter’s work? And this is just on the nonfiction aspects of it. . . . Then you move into fiction, and how did that daughter/editor/agent lead her mother into fiction, and what were the roles of the two women?”

“We don’t understand, as a reading public, . . . the role of authors and editors—that most good authors have good editors. . . . We don’t talk to enough editors, we don’t know what it is that they really do, and I think we should rectify that.”

Two other South Dakota Historical Society Press authors were interviewed during the Pierre City Tour, Cathie Draine, author of Cowboy Life: The Letters of George Phillip, and Nathan Sanderson, author of Controlled Recklessness: Ed Lemmon and the Open Range. Find more information about both books at sdhspress.com.

 

At the Hoover

Earlier this month, I cleared my schedule so that I could spend five uninterrupted days researching Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. It was my second trip to this amazing repository in a lovely little Iowa town of about twenty-five hundred people just outside of Iowa City. Although the leaves carried a tinge of yellow, signaling the onset of autumn, the weather had turned summery, and people were enjoying the Hoover park and museum. As an added bonus, on Friday, September 15, the grounds were a sea of bright colors as friends and relatives came to watch more than seventy immigrants become proud United States citizens. On that same day, I was privileged to see the original manuscript of Wilder’s “The First Three Years,” another highlight of the trip.

Archivists Spencer Howard and Matt Schaefer brought the manuscript from the vault, laid it on a research table in the reading room, and ordered me to “glove up.” Pulling on white cotton gloves, I gingerly touched the manuscript just as I had carefully explored the Pioneer Girl manuscript six years earlier. As with her autobiography, Wilder had written this adult novel of the first years of her marriage in pencil on cheap, wide-lined school tablets. Overall, however, the manuscript, and especially the first tablet, is in much rougher shape than the original Pioneer Girl manuscript, with strike-overs and eraser holes rubbed into the cheap paper. In a seemingly helter-skelter fashion, Wilder had appended text, crossed it out, and covered it over with scraps of paper, leaving a puzzle for researchers to decipher. In contrast, the extant tablets of Pioneer Girl are clean, with almost no strike outs or false starts and clear instructions for following the author’s intentions. Wilder’s care with that manuscript compared to the haphazard nature of this one confirms my speculation that the original Pioneer Girl is a fair copy prepared for her typist. It is not a first or working draft as “The First Three Years” manuscript clearly is.

Through special fundraising efforts, the Hoover library staff has had “The First Three Years” treated for acidity and stored in acid-free wrappers. Damaged pages have been stabilized, and the three tablets of the manuscript are housed in a specially made case. It is a beautiful presentation. Congratulations to the staff at the library for their foresight in preserving this important manuscript for future generations of Wilder scholars.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

 


 

1. Nancy Tystad Koupal and Rodger Hartley, “Editorial Procedures,” in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. lxv. Some of Wilder’s other remaining manuscripts, especially those of Little House on the Prairie, are clearly first or working drafts as well, showing the same characteristics as “The First Three Years.” Others, like Pioneer Girl, are fair copies prepared for the typist.

L’Étoile du Nord State

The sun is rising over the prairie grasses and I’m on the road again. Instead of an old wagon and horses, I’m relying on the horsepower of a Uhaul truck and a rusted-out ’99 Pontiac Grand Am to take me east. This fall I accepted a post-doctorate fellowship position teaching Native American and Indigenous studies and the history of the American West at the University of Minnesota, Morris. I’ll be trading the grasslands of the Great Plains for the woodlands at the edge of the prairie. Don’t worry—I will still be researching and blogging for the Prairie Girl Project. Perhaps it is serendipity that as my research on Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts turns towards the North Star state I will now make my home there.

Moving is never easy. Ferrying boxes back and forth from an apartment to the truck is not walking from Wisconsin to Kansas, but it shares some unpleasant characteristics with that task. Harder still are the goodbyes to good friends. Though technology helps to shorten the distance, nothing replaces the good-morning smiles that working with the folks of the South Dakota Historical Society Press provided. Thank you Nancy, Jeanne, and Jenny for making my time in South Dakota so wonderful.

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Garth Williams illustrated the 1953 edition of Little House on the Prairie. On page twenty-eight, he depicts Caroline Ingalls using a cast-iron “spider skillet.” 

As my last day in Pierre approached, I found myself smiling at the comparison of a covered wagon to my soon-to-be overstuffed Uhaul. My smile quickly vanished as we piled a second couch into the truck. A box with kitchen goods contained an old cast-iron skillet bought from an antique dealer near Watertown, South Dakota. The first such skillets came into widespread use in the late 1800s, and the Ingalls family found them useful when traveling or on the homestead. And while Laura Ingalls Wilder may have appreciated my ever-growing home library, Charles Ingalls may have asked whether I could condense the collection a bit to ease the weight in the wagon.

My family came to help me pack and begin a new chapter in Minnesota. With the last box safely stored in back, my dad and I climbed into our rig. I guided the truck down a hill and out across the grasslands. As I transition from the edge of the West to the northern outpost of the Midwest, stay tuned in coming weeks for essays on the Dakota War of 1862, maple sugaring, and plagues of locusts.

Jacob Jurss

The Beads on the Ground

Beading takes an artistic eye, an engineering mind, nimble fingers, and steady patience. I understood these facts in the abstract, but it was not until my wife, Leah, began beading that I grasped more fully the artistry of the work. Beadwork is on my mind because I am annotating Wilder’s memory of traveling to an Osage camp with her sister Mary and her father Charles Ingalls. Scattered on the ground were beads that Wilder and Mary collected. Wilder recalled in the Bye revision of Pioneer Girl that they “found a great many pretty ones. . . . white beads and blue beads and yellow beads and very many red ones” (p. 5).  From these discarded beads, the girls made a small necklace for the family’s new baby. But from where did these beads come?

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This “bead box” features red trade beads (first column, rows 13–19) like the ones that the Ingalls girls may have found. Photograph by Jennifer Tiger, courtesy of Osage Nation Museum

Before the common use of European-manufactured beads, American Indians used a variety of materials and techniques to create beads. Wampum beads were made of special shells and used to make pictograph belts that recorded important events like treaties. To make wampum beads, a person trimmed the edges of a shell until only the columella, or central column, remained, which was then cut into sections for the desired bead length. The colors of the beads and the designs created often held (and continue to hold) significant spiritual values. Many Great Lakes tribes incorporate intricate floral patterns filled with blues and purples, while Osage beadworkers, along with many Plains tribes, often include symmetrical and geometric patterns.1

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Osage beadwork from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century often used geometric patterns for adornment. Photograph by Jennifer Tiger, courtesy of Osage Nation Museum

The beads the Ingalls girls found in the Osage camp were likely trade beads dropped during the beading process. Trade beads made their way through North American Indian trade networks starting in the sixteenth century. These were often Venetian glass beads made of molten glass wound around a wire. When the wire was removed, it left a hole just large enough for threading. The bead maker then cut the long glass tube to create different sizes of beads. They were often called “seed beads” because of their resemblance to tiny seeds. Later, the “drawn” technique increased the speed of this process. In this technique, a beadmaker pulled a rod through the molten glass, which created the threading hole.2 Following the decline of the Venetian glass monopoly in the eighteenth century, other nations developed glasswork exports, particularly the Czech Republic. Czech beads are shaped like donuts, wider than they are tall. In recent years, Japanese seed beads have expanded in popularity to take a share of the beading market. Japanese beads are often taller than they are wide, leading to more uniform results in some applications. Today, many beaders use beads of differing origin depending on the needs of the particular project they are creating.

 

Jacob Jurss

 

I’d like to thank Hallie Winter and the Osage Nation Museum for generously providing answers to my questions and images of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century beads and beadwork. The images included in this post are a wonderful example of the variety and colors of beads the Osage used in the late nineteenth century. Thanks also to Leah, whose knowledge of beading sparked my own interest.


1. Lois Sherr Dubin, North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment: From Prehistory to the Present (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999), pp. 170–71; Garrick Alan Bailey, Daniel C. Swan, John W. Nunley, and E. Sean Standing Bear, Art of the Osage (Seattle, Wash: Saint Louis Art Museum University of Washington Press, 2004), p. 9.

2. Dubin, North American Indian Jewelry, pp. 172–73, 589–90.