In 2011, when I was working on notes for the Library of America edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, the one that was the most fun to write and research was about the Bloody Benders. These serial killers in Kansas played a starring role in the most important statement Wilder ever made about her work, the speech she gave at the Detroit book fair. And no wonder: the Benders had it all—murder, mystery, sex appeal.
The illustration page from a feature on the Bender murders in Harper’s Weekly on June 7, 1873
When Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography was published, I was thrilled to see that it included, among its other gorgeous accoutrements, a meaty little appendix about the Bloody Benders. Then Nancy Tystad Koupal and Pioneer Girl Perspectives offered me the perfect excuse to indulge my morbid fascination with this killer family and to delve into the story of why the Benders became something of a touchstone for Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Why were they always bringing up the Bender account—what did it mean to them? And what does their adding the episode to the Pioneer Girl narrative say about their understanding of the difference between fiction and nonfiction?
My essay aims to provide some answers to those questions, but to give you a teaser: Lane’s early journalism goes back to a lurid period in the history of newspapers—what used to be called “yellow journalism,” named for the “Yellow Kid” comic strip immortalized during the circulation battles between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Yellow journalists gave rise to both good and bad trends, to investigative journalism as well as tabloid fodder—they were the pioneers of “fake news.”
Lane cut her teeth in the “journalistic kindergarten” of yellow journalism in San Francisco, California. Within weeks of being hired at the San Francisco Bulletin, she began churning out fake celebrity “autobiographies.” At the same moment, she was teaching her mother the tools of that strange trade. It’s an astonishing chapter in their story. The saga of the Bloody Benders dramatizes the editorial struggle between them, a struggle over values represented by truth, on the one hand, and fiction on the other. My essay features new information on the Bender-Ingalls connection and how Wilder and her daughter may have come across the salacious tale, as well as a long-lost letter of Lane’s, described for the first time.
Caroline Fraser, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives
I have been a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder since I was a little girl. Like many, I received my first copy of Little House on the Prairie when I was five or six from my grandmother, Elsie Mattson, and I continued to receive all of the books, out of order, for varied birthdays and Christmases. Playing “Little House” was a favorite pastime; I lived in northern rural Wisconsin when I was small, and my cousins and I had no shortage of personal experiences to relate to our reading and playing of “Laura’s” story. Grandma Elsie was even friends with the real Laura’s cousins who lived in the area, and I knew early on that the fictional Laura had a real-life counterpart. That knowledge lent realism to my childhood experiences, and that connection fostered my adult interest in women’s history.
Rose Wilder Lane in 1942. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum
But as I grew up and uncovered the story of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, I discovered that I related much better to her than I did to Wilder. Lane was a “modern woman” who left rural America and built a career as a freelance writer in a time when that justwasn’t done. Lane defied convention and gained notoriety in a period when women were actively encouraged to stay home. She also faced significant hardships—a failed marriage, a lost child, and lifelong struggles with depression—and when it came to public opinion, her “give-a-darn” broke long before her divorce in 1918. Lane educated herself, and she valued intellectual thought. I admired her willingness to speak out for her beliefs. Her tenacity led her to carve out a career that allowed her to support herself, her parents, varied friends, and foster children throughout her life.
In the chapter I wrote for Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, I focus on Lane’s story, particularly her later career, her interactions with the FBI, and her less-than-subtle political commentary in the Woman’s Day Book of American Needlework. My essay reflects on the fact that this extraordinary person was every inch her mother’s daughter. The values that Wilder articulates in Pioneer Girl and her early journalistic writings clearly appear as a theme in Lane’s work and personal choices.
Rose Wilder Lane was not perfect; she made some poor choices that put her at odds with her mother and, later, with her mother’s fan base. Laura Ingalls Wilder was not perfect either, but the lessons each woman’s story holds for the contemporary reader remain valuable to women’s history in the United States.
We can learn a lot from Lane’s story.
Amy Mattson Lauters, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives
The best cover artwork has a backstory about its creation, and in the case of the latest Pioneer Girl Project book, I have a personal connection.
Once the Pioneer Girl Perspectives authors were on board, we had to consider what the book would physically look like. The first decision was obvious; we wanted another original watercolor from the artist Judy Thompson, who created Silver Lake Reflections for the cover of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. We asked her to follow the spring-like Silver Lake Reflections with a summer painting, and she suggested a haying scene.
This topic is appropriate as Wilder’s Pioneer Girl is littered with examples of her own hay-stacking familiarity:
“The wild grass, so tall and thick in the sloughs and the blue joint grass on the upland all made good hay. Pa cut and raked the hay. Ma and I helped load it on the wagon and unload and build it into the large stacks to feed our horses and two cows through the winter that was coming.”—Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl, p. 198
Though you can still find a few hay stacks in the Dakota countryside, by the time I was helping my dad in the late-1990s and early 2000s, a single person used a tractor to cut, rake, turn, and bail the hay rather than stack it. Technology also helped lessen common haystack problems like spontaneous combustion due to summer heat and moldy stacks from the inability to repel water during a storm.
Camilla, Janet, Janice, and Doug Pflaum rake hay into a stack on their farm near Letcher, South Dakota, circa 1924. Photograph courtesy of Jennifer E. McIntyre.
I am a third- or fourth-generation South Dakotan, depending on which ancestral line you follow. The prairie and lifestyle of Dakota also inform my own childhood experiences, even though I grew up over one hundred years after Wilder did. My maternal grandmother, Janice Pflaum, graces the monitor background of my work computer, making haystacks with her siblings in the mid-1920s. Much like today and in Wilder’s time on the farm, the whole family pitched in to get the work done. I shared the photograph with Thompson as she was researching positioning and other aspects of her painting, such as the long, thin-handled rakes.
In addition to the photograph of my family, Thompson and I looked into hay stacking during Wilder’s time, ensuring accuracy in the figures’ clothing and the tools that would have been used.
The final product is Summer Fields, a watercolor painting that shows Laura Ingalls as a young pre-teen raking the hay into a stack as her father, Charles Ingalls, loads more onto the wagon. Off in the distance viewers can see the Ingalls homestead. What a great image to introduce a book that studies Wilder’s life and work!
Earlier, the Pioneer Girl Project announced that Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder would be coming out in 2017, and it’s on its way—set your calendars for May 18!
Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder takes a serious look at Wilder’s working life and at circumstances that developed her points of view. Along the way, authors William T. Anderson, Caroline Fraser, Michael Patrick Hearn, Elizabeth Jameson, Sallie Ketcham, Amy Mattson Lauters, John E. Miller, Paula M. Nelson, and Ann Romines explore the relationship between Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, as well as their path to the Little House novels. Editor Nancy Tystad Koupal also includes an interview with Little House Heritage Trust representative Noel Silverman, who has worked with Wilder’s works for over forty-five years, and annotates Wilder’s 1937 speech about the Little House series given at the Detroit book fair.
This rich source book from these Wilder scholars from across North America will also explore, among other topics, the interplay of folklore in the Little House novels, women’s place on the American frontier, Rose Wilder Lane’s writing career, the strange episode of the Benders in Kansas, Wilder’s midwestern identity, and society’s ideas of childhood.
The presses never seem to rest for Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. The ninth printing of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book recently arrived at the South Dakota Historical Society Press warehouse, bringing the total number of copies in print to over 165,000. Our good friends to the north at Friesens Corp. sent us photographs of the bestseller on their production lines. It’s like our very own episode of How It’s Made!
This week, as a heavy winter snowstorm blanketed the Northern Great Plains, I found myself with the happy task of reading or rereading a lot of the popular and critical literature about Wilder: Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow, Ann Romines’s Constructing the Little House, and Elizabeth Jameson’s “In Search of the Great Ma” (Journal of the West 37 [Apr. 1998]), among others. The personal journeys of the women who wrote these works include a childhood familiarity with and love for the Little House books that ultimately led them to make the author the subject of their research. Each has her own personal encounter with Wilder herself (Romines) and/or the books (Fellman, Jameson). Other writers make their encounters with Wilder’s books the subject of their work: Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie or Nancy McCabe’s From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood, for example. I came to realize that, just like these women, I have my own “Laura” story.
Me in fifth grade.
It begins in the fifth grade at Notre Dame Academy in Mitchell, South Dakota, when Sister Kieran began to read The Long Winter out loud after lunch one day. The timing was significant because most of her pupils lived nearby, and we had just trudged through snow and wind, parked our rubber over-boots and snow-crusted winter coats and scarves in the cloakroom, and taken our seats in the warm classroom. Laura’s hard winter outlasted our own and made us all grateful that our winter had not matched hers (although there were one or two years in the fifties and sixties when that could not be said). It also made us proud that the Ingallses were South Dakota pioneers—after all, De Smet was just a few miles up the road.
Even before Sister Kieran finished The Long Winter, I had visited the Carnegie Library downtown and borrowed all the Wilder books in the original edition with the Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle illustrations. My favorite book would always be The Long Winter, but I also developed a fondness for On the Banks of Plum Creek (which had plenty of blizzards, too) and These Happy Golden Years with its harsh beginning at the Brewsters’ (more snowstorms!) and its happy ending. As I grew up to become a sort-of hippy at the end of the 1960s, I thought that all I needed was a plot of land and a copy of Little House in the Big Woods to become self-sufficient (in the event of a nuclear blast or some other catastrophe). I never tested the theory, but I remain convinced that, just like Ma and Pa, I am fully capable of making cheese and smoking meat
While I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that Wilder’s influence directed my career choices, I did eventually turn to American literature (via foreign languages, linguistics, and a brush with archaeology) as my academic path of study and to editing as my profession. Along the way I was fortunate enough to edit and annotate some of the Dakota writings of L. Frank Baum (Our Landlady, 1996), who spent a couple of formative years in Aberdeen, South Dakota. As editor of South Dakota History, I also got to work with and edit two of William Anderson’s groundbreaking biographical and critical studies of Wilder: “The Literary Apprenticeship of Laura Ingalls Wilder” (1983) and “Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane: The Continuing Collaboration” (1986). In 1997, I was invited to become a member of the board of directors of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, Inc., of De Smet, which is the curator of both the Surveyors’ House and the Ingalls Home. Serving on that board has been a privilege and a pleasure, and it has brought me close to many aspects of the Little Houses.
Then in 2005, when the South Dakota Historical Society Press decided to publish a biography series featuring the region’s important citizens, the first one the Press commissioned was Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (2007). A few years later, we began work on Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, and again, I found the winter of 1880–1881 to be one of the high points of Wilder’s memoir, allowing me to sink my teeth into research in the newspapers of the period. Here I found that the burning of hay was an economy farmers practiced even before the long winter, that price gouging among merchants was not a failing only of Mr. Loftus, that the lonesome whistle of the last freight train into De Smet came a little later than Wilder remembered, and that American Indians had in fact acted as weather forecasters on other occasions.
And, for me, it all began on that snowy day in 1957, when Sister Kieran stood in front of the class and started to read, “The mowing machine’s whirring sounded cheerfully from the old buffalo wallow south of the claim shanty, where bluestem grass stood thick and tall and Pa was cutting it for hay.”
Nancy Tystad Koupal
I am grateful to classmate Susan Tessier Mollison who helped me refresh my memory of those long ago days at Notre Dame Academy.
The process of western migration in the nineteenth century resembles an avalanche rolling down the sides of a thousand social networks. Here’s how it works: somebody moves out to the newest frontier, survives the winter, and writes back to all their friends and relations. “Come away I say! The water’s fine!” And lo, the smitten readers pack their belongings and jostle into the sunset.
The Charles and Caroline Ingalls family is a good example of this process. They moved to Iowa to go into business with some acquaintances who had bought a hotel. They moved to Dakota to work with family members on their railroad-grading contract. Charles wanted to move to Oregon because some fellow he met once in 1876 said the bees liked it better out there, but Caroline finally put a stop to his wanderlust.
If you could draw a vector on a map to show every move made by every family during this era of settlement, the lines would not be randomly distributed. Many of them would cluster together and form streams, particularly along railroads.
This isn’t really news, of course; once one gets past the idea of the Totally Independent Pioneer—a legend that Laura Ingalls Wilder herself did much to craft—it’s really quite obvious that people followed friends and family in their movements. Examples of this aggregate motion lie just under the surface of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography.
We at the Pioneer Girl Project first observed this phenomenon when looking for Walter Ogden. (Remember him? He stayed with the Ingalls family in the Surveyors’ House during the winter of 1879–1880 because they thought it would be wiser to stick together. Later Wilder decided that the Totally Independent Pioneer made a better story and wrote him out of By the Shores of Silver Lake, just as she would later excise the George Masters family from The Long Winter.) Charles Ingalls identified Walter Ogden as “a young man that was working for Henry Peck,”1 who turns out to be William Henry Peck, a farmer and sometime boardinghouse keeper for railroad workers in Beadle and Kingsbury counties.
Grundy County, Iowa. Cartography Associates, David Rumsey Collection
Hm. Peck. Another name that sounds familiar, but why? Fort Peck? No, that’s not it. Gregory Peck? Wait, what was Mrs. Boast’s maiden name? Aha!
Ella Boast, née Peck, came from Iowa, where she met her husband. And what do you know? So did W. H. Peck. They came from the same county, in fact; Grundy County, Iowa, was just packed with Pecks. We soon also discovered that both Ella’s and W. H.’s nuclear families moved to Grundy County from the same township in the same county in Illinois. Plato Township in Kane County.
Anybody know why this information is so exciting?
Because there were Ingallses in Plato Township, Kane County, Illinois, that’s why.
In 1850, we find two of Charles Ingalls’s uncles, James C. Ingalls and (Samuel) Worthen Ingalls, living in Plato Township with their families. Charles himself is living with his parents, Lansford and Laura Ingalls, in Campton Township, just to the south. Lansford appears to have followed his two brothers, who were already in Kane County by 1840. This chain of family migration reminds one of the James and Angeline Wilder family’s gradual move from New York to Minnesota and Dakota two to three decades later. Multiply this process by thousands, and you get a picture of the vast churning in the Midwest in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. These people were not moving to random places; they were moving between nodes of preexisting social and kin networks.
Lansford Ingalls and his family, of course, later went to Wisconsin. But what about the other Illinois Ingallses? Where did they go?
Well, at this point, it should be obvious.
They went to Grundy County, Iowa. Same as the Pecks. Worthen Ingalls took his family there, and so did James’s son Jasper. James himself went to Howard County, Iowa, not too far from Burr Oak, although he wasn’t around anymore when his nephew’s family came through in 1876–1877.
And since Wilder tells us that Louis Bouchie was a distant relative of Robert Boast’s, it’s not surprising to find both Louis and Joseph Bouchie in Grundy County, too, in 1880.
Considering the finite cast of characters in Wilder’s pioneering story, that’s a lot of traffic through one random county in Iowa with an 1870 population of about six thousand. And this movement is not the whole picture; I am confident that given more information, and extending the search beyond the circle of people whom Wilder mentions, one could uncover even more links in the Kane–Grundy–Kingsbury chain and more ways in which these people were related to each other by blood, marriage, or other social ties. And this stream is but one of hundreds or thousands in a truly epic but basically methodical migration.
It makes you wonder what might have prompted some of the other moves that the Ingalls family made. Did Charles Ingalls know someone in Kansas before he moved his family there? We may never know.
It no longer seems so strange, though, when Wilder tells us that Caroline Ingalls “was not excited at finding Uncle Henry at the R.R. camp” at Silver Lake.2 It was a small world, founded on social ties; the real surprise would have been not running into family or friends.
1 Ingalls, “The Settlement of De Smet,” n.d., Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society Archives, De Smet, S.Dak.
2 Wilder to Rose Wilder Lane, n.d. , box 13, file 194, Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.
It is hard to believe that one year has passed since the Pioneer Girl Project first unloaded pallets upon pallets and boxes upon boxes of books—readying them to be sent out all over the world. And what a year it has been!
Places like The Bookstore at Fitger’s, in Duluth, MN, put Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography front and center in their stores.
“The past twelve months have been a wild ride,” says Nancy Tystad Koupal, director of the Pioneer Girl Project. “We are ecstatic; the success of the book has been beyond our wildest dreams.”
On November 17, 2014, the South Dakota Historical Society Press released Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. And, as readers of this site know, the first three printings quickly sold out as the title became the “it book” of the 2014 holiday season. As more copies rolled off the presses, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography jumped up to number one on Amazon.com and spent six weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list, an amazing accomplishment for what various media networks have dubbed “a small press on the prairie.”
To date, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography has sold over 145,000 copies and been featured in the Wall Street Journal and on National Public Radio. It has over 2,635 ratings and 600 reviews on Goodreads and has been held up as the best way to publish a famous author’s first draft—see the Willamette Week’s review of Go Set a Watchmanand numerous conversations on Reddit/r/books. It is the stuff of publishing legends. And it does not end there.
Mitzi’s Books, an independent bookstore in Rapid City, SD, gave a shout out to the Press over Twitter when they received their issue of Publishers Weekly.
The November 2, 2015, issue of Publishers Weekly featured Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography on the cover. And the November 23, 2015, issue will feature a story about the book and Press.
BookExpo America is the largest book conference in the world, and it attracts big names and industry giants. Held this past week in New York City, May 27-29, the event showcases such popular authors as Rainbow Rowell and James Patterson. Luckily, we had Laura Ingalls Wilder on our side, along with a couple of children’s stories by L. Frank Baum, author of the Wizard of Oz. In 2014, the little booth with gigantic books was big news, and this year coverage of the little press on the prairie continued.
In her article for Publishers Weekly, correspondent Claire Kirch talks about the big-name authors that readers can find at the South Dakota Historical Society Press. She also reflected on last year’s BookExpo where the Press booth received a respectable amount of visitors as a new exhibitor but was not besieged by readers attempting to get “swag” from Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. “In hindsight,” Kirch states, “perhaps booksellers should have mobbed SDHSP’s booth last year.” The reason? “Pioneer Girl has sold 125,000 copies in five print runs since its publication,” Kirch notes. A few of those lucky readers that picked up the tote bag featuring Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography from last year’s BookExpo stopped by again to show us their coveted bag—a little worse for the wear after twelve months’ of daily use.
BookExpo America in New York created the opportunity for some great conversations with booksellers and librarians from around the United States, and Pioneer Girl Project staff got to share in the excitement of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography with some of its most avid fans in the industry. I am looking forward to 2016 in Chicago.