During the course of writing eight historical novels, Laura Ingalls Wilder was always in search of authentic material for her next book. She mined her memories of her own life as recorded in Pioneer Girl, her autobiography. When that source proved insufficient, she combed the letters of her aunt Martha Carpenter for appropriate topics. Carpenter mentioned all-night sugaring-off parties, for instance, but offered little specific detail. Wilder, on the other hand, added so much detail that she even included the types of woods employed for the spigots and buckets used to collect the sap—cedar and white ash “because that kind of wood will not make the maple sap taste bad.”1 She also described how her grandfather whittled and shaped the spigots or “troughs” that went into the trees (Big Woods, pp. 121–22). It is not clear where this information came from.
Collecting and processing maple sap originated among the American Indian peoples of North America, and settlers in the northeastern parts of the United States adopted and adapted the process over time. To supply details, Wilder may have reached out to the state extension service or some other recognized source, as she did when researching her third book. Most likely, the author tapped the memory of her husband, Almanzo Wilder, who had grown up on a farm in New York State. Both Wilder and her daughter, novelist Rose Wilder Lane, relied on Almanzo’s farming knowledge for details in their writing. For example, a series of letters in March and April 1937, when Lane was writing her novel Free Land, illustrate how Lane asked questions of her father, and he and Wilder often answered jointly, sharing information back and forth among the family.2 Given this pattern, Wilder undoubtedly asked Almanzo for his memories of maple sugaring when she was drafting Little House in the Big Woods, and she would repeat many of the same details in Farmer Boy (pp. 109–12).
Of course, Wilder actively prodded Almanzo for his experiences when writing Farmer Boy, her second novel, which is about his childhood. As she sat down to revise that book in the fall of 1932, Wilder assured her editor that she would “talk with Mr. Wilder about those days and try to have Almanzo come more to life.”3 Wilder’s writing tablets lend us clues about what such talks produced. On a loose tablet page of her draft of Farmer Boy, Wilder jotted down snippets of information that Almanzo had shared, including the way in which his father polished an ax handle “with a bit of broken glass in the evenings by the heater.” Wilder then listed the various woods used for ax handles and hop poles, i.e., spruce, hemlock, cedar, and so on.4 Throughout her series, Wilder used such small tidbits of shared memory to bring her stories to life by grounding them in authentic detail. In Farmer Boy, Almanzo and his family sat around “the big stove in the dining-room wall” on a winter night. Royal popped corn, Mother knit, Alice embroidered, Eliza Jane read newspapers out loud, and “Father carefully scraped a new ax-handle with a bit of broken glass” (Farmer Boy, pp. 31–33).
—Nancy Tystad Koupal
- Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2023), p. 119.
- “The History of Maple Syrup,” Michigan Maple Syrup Association, michiganmaple.org/history; Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), pp. 12–13n28; Wilder and Almanzo Wilder to Lane, Mar. 12, 20, 23, 25, Apr. 14, 1937, file 193, box 13, Lane Papers.
- Wilder to Virginia Kirkus, Sept. 24, 1932, File 1932–1935, Wilder Editorial Files, Archives, HarperCollins Publisher, New York, New York.
- Wilder, Draft of Farmer Boy, frame 234, folder 13, Laura Ingalls Wilder Papers, Microfilm ed., Collection 3633, State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia.