Reconnecting with the Little House

I last read Little House in the Big Woods in fourth grade during a unit on the history of my home state of Wisconsin. My teacher introduced me to a world more than a hundred years in the past. I remember taking a field trip to a historic one-room schoolhouse in order to experience what Wilder and my great grandparents’ childhood might have been like. I still have the black-and-white photograph of my fourth-grade class taken that day. We were all dressed in our or, rather, our parents’ best attempts to replicate period attire.

Reconnecting with the Little House_jursspost_illuswihist

The one-room Reed School near Neillsville, Wisconsin. Wisconsin Historical Society

I do not remember reading many of Wilder’s other titles (Wisconsin’s other great cultural tradition, the Green Bay Packers, captured my interest at the time), but I do remember seeing highway signs for places with historical claims to her legacy throughout my travels in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and now South Dakota. The subject of upper Midwest and western history did make a lasting impact on my life. I went on to study history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and recently completed my Ph.D. at Michigan State University. I study the societal and power dynamics between Ojibwe, Dakota, and white settlers during the early 1800s in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. My research focused on the generation before Charles Ingalls’s birth that laid the cultural and societal foundations for the Ingallses’ world.

Through a great deal of serendipity, I found myself offered a position as a summer researcher and associate editor for the South Dakota Historical Society Press. My first task has been to read through the Kansas, Missouri, and Wisconsin chapters of Wilder’s Brandt, Brandt Revised, and Bye manuscripts of Pioneer Girl. My previous reading of pioneer memoirs has made this both a familiar experience and a unique one as I stumble across passages that recall my distant memories of Little House on the Prairie and Little House in the Big Woods.

As I conduct my research, I hope to bring another perspective to Wilder’s work and the world that Wilder remembered, and I look forward to hearing from the large and engaged community of Wilder readers and scholars. I have winced at the stereotypical depictions of the Osage, an American Indian tribe in Kansas whose lands were invaded by American settlers, have been horrified by Wilder’s tales of the Bender murders, and have laughed at Laura’s antics as a mischievous three-year-old. One message I have thus far gleaned from Wilder’s remembrances is that Pa always, always needed to take his gun with him. It never seems to fail that, when he doesn’t, there is a bear, panther, or pack of wolves nearby to give him and the family a scare. Indeed, referencing Grandpa’s encounter with a panther, Pa said: “A man’s a fool to leave his clearing without taking a gun. But we all do it” (Bye, p. 18).

Jacob Jurss

Pioneer Girl Perspectives Update

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!

9781941813089

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.

Continue to follow the Pioneer Girl Project website for more updates.

Excuse me, your crinoline is showing . . .

For Christmas this year, the gift I most enjoyed giving was a year’s worth of old photographs that I collected while traveling across North and South Dakota, Illinois, Oregon, and Florida. I spent many pleasurable hours in antique malls and flea markets, looking for images with a story to tell that my friend, a historian who specializes in rural women’s history, would find interesting. As I was wrapping the gift, though, one of the photographs reminded me so strongly of Laura Ingalls Wilder that, in the end, I just couldn’t part with it.

Stereo Card

The photograph is a stereoscopic view called “Waiting for a ’Bus,” but I think readers will instantly see what it was that reminded me of Wilder. It’s the crinoline1 —or hoop skirt—of course, as well as the polonaise coat and the muff. These details echo Wilder’s fashion interests of the 1870s and 1880s, which she shared with readers in Pioneer Girl, as well as in her novels. At first, I thought the stereograph was from that same time period, and this particular card may date from that era, but the image itself and the fashions it depicts are older—from the 1860s. Wilder’s young aunts and her mother might have worn such dresses to the sugaring-off party in Little House in the Big Woods, where Aunt Ruby’s and Aunt Docia’s “large, round skirts” sailed across the dance floor, and Ma’s skirt was “ruffled and flounced and draped and trimmed with knots of dark green ribbon” (pp. 141-42).

But this particular stereograph, I discovered as I started doing some research, has an even larger story to tell about the follies of fashion and the prices that women had to pay when they followed it too slavishly. If you look closely at this card, which is meant to be viewed in a stereoscope that would turn the side-by-side images into a three-dimensional view, Punchyou will note that the young woman is standing just beneath a handwritten sign that reads, “A Young Man Wanted.”  And thereby hangs a tale. . . .

This view of the fashionable young woman drew its inspiration from a cartoon that appeared in Punch, or the London Charivari on December 3, 1864.  The butt of the joke was definitely the woman, who unintentionally appeared to be advertising for a young fellow or putting herself on display to attract one. In 1866, photographer Michael Burr turned the cartoon into a stereograph of a fashionable woman caught in the same position and spread the joke further in an era in which stereoscopy was all the rage.2 I missed the joke completely, being enamored of the young woman’s ermine muff, matching bonnet, and prodigious hoop skirt.

All that attention to fashion was also part of the humor, it turns out, for hoop skirts, in particular, were the cause of much mirth and satire in the press. Consider these images from the same year as the original cartoon—on April 9, 1864, the Punch cartoonist showed us the difficulty that such fulsome crinolines could cause for women on a stroll in the country. On June 18, the theme resurfaced again with another cartoon that illustrated

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how hoop skirts became a hazard on public transportation or city streets, and on July 9, the magazine published “A Man Trap,” which offered at least one ploy that would induce a man to duck into a hat shop. My favorite, however, came on October 1, 1864, with “The Safest Way of Taking a Lady Down to Dinner.” Here, the woman’s beau is forced to walk on the outside edge of the balustrade to accompany his crinolined dinner partner. In some ways, it is amazing that the fashion endured as long as it did with so much ridicule directed toward it. Even stranger, it just keeps coming back—the poodle skirts of the fifties held out by all those stiff mesh petticoats so that they would swirl around the dance floor seem to me to be just a shorter version of the same style. And have you thought about wedding dresses?

Nancy Tystad Koupal

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1. I am using the word crinoline here to mean a stiffened petticoat or caged skirt that is also known as a hoop skirt, although the term originally meant a stiff fabric of horse hair and linen that women began to use for petticoats around the 1830s to widen and fill out their skirts. Wilder had the original meaning of the word in mind when she described her wedding dress in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography: “It was plain at the top, but gored so it was full at the bottom. It was lined through[ou]t with cambric dress lining and interlined with crinolin[e] from the bottom to as high as my knees” (p. 322). For a history of the term and the fashion, see “The Crinoline or Hoop Skirt,” Victoriana Magazine, victoriana.com, and “What’s All the Hoopla?” The Ultimate History Project, www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/crinoline.html.

2. Dennis Pellerin and Brian May, The Poor Man’s Picture Gallery: Stereoscopy versus Paintings in the Victorian Era (London: London Stereoscopic Company, 2014), p. 175.

And to Think That It All Began with “The Long Winter”

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.

NTK in 5th Grade

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 meatLongWinter1

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.

Reflections on LauraPalooza and the International Wilder Experience

The vast conference room had few empty chairs as LauraPalooza go underway. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

The vast conference room had few empty chairs as LauraPalooza got underway. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

In July, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association gathered scholars, amateur historians, and avid “bonnetheads” in Brookings, South Dakota, for LauraPalooza. The association is a worldwide, nonprofit organization whose membership is dedicated to preserving the legacy and encouraging the research of everything related to Wilder. Those who attended LauraPalooza, including myself, wanted to learn more about the famous author who introduced millions of readers to the American frontier.

The conference did not disappoint. From novelists and academics to translators and meteorologists, the presenters were varied, and each one looked at unique facets of the Wilder experience. For me, having grown up on the prairie that Wilder writes about, the session covering non-American perspectives of the pioneer family was especially interesting. I find it amazing how Wilder’s novels, and now Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, speak to readers everywhere. How can you understand the harshness of a prairie winter if you have never experienced one—the wind blowing ice into your eyes as you struggle to figure out where you are in a vast white landscape? Even though some of the commentators at LauraPalooza had never seen snow or the limitless prairie until well into adulthood, Wilder’s writing had forged a connection with them and thrust the author into international stardom.

Wilder scholars William Anderson and John E. Miller took time to speak with attendees. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

Wilder scholars William Anderson and John E. Miller took time to speak with attendees. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

Japanese translator Yumiko Taniguchi, for example, was one of those children who, though living in a mountainous region of Japan, connected with the Ingalls family’s struggles on the open prairie during the long winter of 1880–1881. Little did Yumiko know at the time that she would go on to translate all of Wilder’s books for new generations of Japanese children. From the earliest translation of The Long Winter, the first of Wilder’s books to be published in Japanese, prairie life and frontier themes worked their way into Japanese popular culture. According to presenter Hisayo Ogushi, in addition to the television show Little House on the Prairie, Japanese comic books and resorts give visitors the “Laura Ingalls Wilder” experience. Both Taniguchi and Hisayo spoke about how the resoluteness of the Ingalls family and the strength of character they found in Laura made them fans of her books.

In another vibrant presentation, Eddie Higgins talked about the joy and confusion of reading the Little House books for the first time in a version of English—American English—that sometimes seemed as obscure as Japanese. For Higgins, growing up in England, it became a matter of deciding whether Wilder’s words were simply antiquated or different. Scenes like the one in which Laura and Carrie go to the Loftus store to buy Pa suspenders for Christmas made Higgins pause and reread the words over and over again. In England, “suspenders” refers to what we in the United States would call a woman’s garter belt (the conference hall in Brookings burst into laughter at this revelation). Other words, however, can give even Wilder’s home audience pause, much as they did in the Pioneer Girl Project staff post New Words. Higgins and young American readers today may try to imagine what a “pie plant” is, but, in Wilder’s day, it was simply another name for rhubarb.

In contrast to the lack of technology in Wilder's day, the facilities at South Dakota State University were top-notch. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

In contrast to the lack of technology in Wilder’s day, the facilities at South Dakota State University were top-notch. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

In reminiscing about their first experiences with the Ingalls family, LauraPalooza presenters also shared their exuberance for works like Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, which gives more detail to the Little House stories that, though they were worlds away, made these women dream of life on the American frontier. In the end, their comments about the place, spirit, and community of the books gave me more insight into why Wilder’s work remains so popular.

Jennifer McIntyre

Talk of the Town: BookExpo America, 2015

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.

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Wilder’s Chickens

Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in the American West, witnessed the building of a railroad, fought against hoards of grasshoppers, and started her professional career as an author by writing about chickens. Yes, chickens.

It isn’t common knowledge, but those who have read the introduction to Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography know that before her time as a famous children’s novelist, Wilder was a writer for the Missouri Ruralist, and before the Ruralist, she was a poultry columnist for the St. Louis Star Farmer. Renowned for getting eggs in winter when no one else could, Mrs. A. J. Wilder shared her knowledge about how to raise spectacular egg-laying hens and thus started her writing career. The woman who defined an era did indeed have a humble beginning, but, you have to start somewhere. Although raising hens may seem quaint in the modern age, a backyard chicken and urban farming movement is on the rise in the United States. So you could say that, even now, whether through the telling of her coming-of-age story or by sharing her strategies for getting the best eggs, Wilder continues to be relevant to our times.

Wilder’s favorite breed of chicken was the Brown Leghorn.

Wilder’s favorite breed of chicken was the Brown Leghorn.

Wilder’s motto in raising hens was “to get results with as little expenditure of time and acreage as possible.” She echoes my own experience in raising backyard hens—that a well-fed hen is a happy hen, and when you skimp on the feed, you get subpar eggs. In an era where one did not simply buy chicken feed down at the country store, her article “Economy in Egg Production” from the April 5, 1915, issue of the Missouri Ruralist shares her detailed knowledge about the types of crops women should grow to produce vibrant plumage and hefty eggs. Wilder knew her chickens, and while I have never bundled wheat or oats for my hens, I can say that Wilder is spot on in her advice that “it is much better for hens to let them do their own threshing.” The backyard chicken-raiser knows that you don’t get in the way of a chicken with oats or fresh veggie scraps from the kitchen—you are liable to get a claw or beak to the hand as they try to consume those wriggly worms—your fingers—that are messing with their food!

I also share Wilder’s frustration in her article “On Chickens and Hawks” from June 1917:

“‘In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,’ sings the poet, but in the spring the fancy of the hawk surely turns to spring chickens. Day after day, he dines on the plumpest and fairest of the flock. I may spend half the day watching and never catch a glimpse of him, then the moment my back is turned—swoop!—and he is gone with a chicken. I should like to sentence the ex-governor who vetoed the state bounty on hawks to make his living raising chickens in the hills.”

I have spent countless days watching the skies and endless hours nursing an attacked hen back to health, so I know the frustration of dealing with aerial predators. I am not sure that it calls for an attack on hawks, as Wilder does, but I agree with her concluding sentiments: “I know it is said that hawks are a benefit to the farmers because they catch field mice and other pests, but I am sure they would not look for a mouse if there were a flock of chickens near by.”

It would be pleasant to sit for an hour or two with Wilder on her front porch listening to her wisdom on chickens as she plots her revenge on the “ex-governor.” However, as I work on plans for my new hens, I will simply have to settle for reading more articles by Mrs. A. J. Wilder.

Jennifer McIntyre

For more of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist columns, check out two volumes edited by Stephen W. Hines, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks (Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2008) and Little House in the Ozarks: The Rediscovered Writings (New York: Galahad Books, 2000)