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)

Pioneer Girl Still Available

UPDATE 1/27/2014
Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is now TEMPORARILY OUT OF STOCK. A second printing was ordered prior to Thanksgiving and shipped January 16-23. Orders are still being accepted, and orders placed after 5 p.m. CST, February 20, will be shipped in April.

On November 17, the South Dakota Historical Society Press began shipping Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. Since that time, enthusiastic reviews in places such as Foreword Reviews, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Los Angeles Times have helped to make the book highly in demand. Already we are near the end of our stock from the first printing.

If you would like to buy a copy of Pioneer Girl, we encourage you to order as soon as possible, and while we cannot guarantee pre-Christmas delivery using our normal media mail rate, you can call us at (605) 773-6009 to arrange first-class shipping. Our office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST, Monday through Friday.

In addition, we would like to announce that a second printing is in the works.  We promise that Pioneer Girl will be in print as long as readers want to explore the legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Thank you for supporting the mission of the South Dakota Historical Society Press and the Pioneer Girl Project.

An Interview with Pamela Smith Hill

Pamela Smith Hill was recently interviewed by Alaina Mabaso of Alaina Mabaso’s Blog. From Laura’s dog Jack to the Pioneer Girl Project, Hill and Mabaso discussed, among other things, Wilder’s career and work.

Click here to read the full interview on Mabaso’s blog, titled Pa sold Jack with the ponies, and other Laura Ingalls revelations: an interview with Wilder biographer* Pamela Smith Hill.

 *Pamela Smith Hill wrote Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press in 2007. For more information or to purchase this book visit www.sdshspress.com.

Mapping Pioneer Girl

There are many tasks associated with producing a book such as Pioneer Girl. Some are obvious: getting the words written and checked, for instance. But others might not seem so apparent at first glance.

One of those less-obvious tasks is that of preparing the information needed by the mapmaker. There are many places, towns, trails, and areas covered in Wilder’s autobiography, and we think it is important to help readers know where they are as they follow her story. As such, we’re working with high-quality mapmakers to ensure that we get a useable and helpful series of maps. But mapmakers cannot be expected to simply guess what needs to be on the maps they are preparing. We must give them the names of the places and towns and so on that should be included. They also need historical base-maps from which to build these new maps.

We’ve been scouring through the manuscript, highlighting any geographical term that might be important or useful to a reader. Then we start searching for original maps from the era in question that will provide us with the markers/locators for the modern mapmakers. We scan and photocopy any and all useful material, add a thesaurus of places, rivers, boundaries, and so on, and package it all up and send it off to the mapmaker.

When the final maps appear in the published book, most of us will enjoy them but perhaps not consider how they got to be there in the first place given that no single, original map could provide everything necessary. We won’t be disappointed; we’ll just be pleased that the maps make enjoying Pioneer Girl all the easier.

Martyn Beeny

A Pioneer Girl’s Treasures

On my most recent visit to Rocky Ridge Farm in the Missouri Ozarks, I was once again struck by all the things Laura Ingalls Wilder had managed to save from her childhood— her sampler, her handkerchief, the slates she and Mary used when they attended school in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, even the jewel-box she describes in such loving detail in On the Banks of Plum Creek.

It’s remarkable that so many objects from her childhood survived, given how often the Ingalls family moved—from Wisconsin to Missouri to Kansas and back to Wisconsin again; on to Minnesota, then Iowa, and back to Minnesota; finally on to Dakota Territory. All these moves were made either by covered wagon or by train, which meant the family had to travel light. I suspect Caroline Ingalls supervised her girls’ packing closely, but based on accounts in “Pioneer Girl” as well as the Little House series, both the real and fictional Ma understood how important it was to make a home wherever the family settled. That clearly included letting her girls take their small but precious possessions with them from one little house to another.

Wilder and her husband Almanzo made plenty of moves too—from South Dakota to Minnesota to Florida to South Dakota again and from there to Missouri, where they lived out their lives together. And they too traveled by train, wagon, or buggy. So it’s literally a small miracle that Wilder’s jewel-box from Plum Creek days survived.

A Childlike Sense of Wonder

I’ve long assumed that Wilder saved these things because, in a childhood marked by frugality and poverty, even the purchase of those slates must have seemed like an extravagance. But I’m not sure that an impoverished childhood entirely explains why Wilder saved those treasures from her past. My father, a child of the Great Depression, grew up in an Arkansas log cabin and like the Ingalls girls, he and his sisters delighted in simple pleasures and learned to live happily with less. Yet nothing except photographs from my father’s childhood remains; he didn’t save his childhood treasures.

I suspect that Wilder kept hers because part of her never entirely grew up. Yes, like most of us, she kept important and official family documents, the papers that define a family’s history. The archives at Rocky Ridge Farm, for example, include Charles and Caroline Ingalls’s wedding license, Mary’s diploma from the Iowa College for the Blind, and Wilder’s own teaching certificates. Wilder became the family member responsible for preserving family history and documentation. But she also continued to nurture that childlike sense of wonder, a characteristic that often defines children’s book writers.

A Writer’s Ambition

Among the items Wilder saved is her essay titled “Ambition,” written when she was seventeen for her teacher, Mr. Owen, in De Smet, South Dakota. It was a piece of writing that she was proud of. Perhaps her secret ambition had long been to become a writer.

Years later when Wilder, her husband, and daughter moved to Missouri, she began to act on that ambition. Almanzo had made her a portable writing desk, and throughout the journey to Missouri in 1894, Wilder kept a diary in a small notebook of her impressions along the way. She drafted a letter home to friends and family in De Smet, and it was published in the De Smet News and Leader in August 1894. Of course, she kept the clipping with a handwritten note, “First I ever published.”

Wilder began to write her life story in 1930, two years after she and Almanzo moved into the Rock House, a gift from their daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Here Wilder wrote Pioneer Girl, as well as the first three novels in the Little House series. It’s impossible to know all the details of Wilder’s writing process, but I like to think of her at the dining room table in the Rock House, a supply of No. 2 lead pencils and a Fifty Fifty tablet from Springfield Grocer Company at the ready. Perhaps as she struggled to find the right word or to describe the sound of Pa’s fiddle, she looked across the living room and out the window at that hazy Ozark sky and found the inspiration to continue, one word at time, one memory at a time.

Pamela Smith Hill

Transcribing the Original

Many months ago I began transcribing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript into MS-Word format. It was my first contact with this historic document, and I rejoiced that Wilder had such clean handwriting, so unlike my own.

Wilder wrote Pioneer Girl as a remembrance of her childhood. It is a remarkable account in its own right, but what gives it special significance is its place in literary history, for this is the account that Wilder later spun out into the world-famous “Little House” series.

World famous those books may be, but I have a shocking confession to make: I have not read them. [Editor’s note: All these months later, Rodger has in fact at least perused some of the famous books!] That’s right; I am probably the first person since the 1930s to read her autobiographical manuscript before reading the books that it spawned. Those who have sought Pioneer Girl out before have done so because they loved the books and wanted to get closer to the truth of the story—whereas I read it because it was my job. Here am I, a newcomer to the world of Wilder, suddenly wrapped up in the Pioneer Girl Project, the most exciting development for fans and scholars of this author in years.

I feel like a bit of an outsider, but in a way, I think that my unfamiliarity made me a better transcriber, because every word was new to me. Now, of course, we’re well past the transcription stage. Now we’re deep in to research, gathering photographs, and so on, and I frequently have to refer to the published books. And when I read something that I remember from the Pioneer Girl manuscript, I get a little thrill of recognition. I’m interested to see how the story grew and, sometimes, changed. It gives me a hint, I think, of the excitement that confirmed fans of Wilder’s work will feel when they read Pioneer Girl—but in reverse.

Working on this project has definitely put the “Little House” series on my reading list. By the time Pioneer Girl goes to press, I will probably have read most of those books—just not in the right order. After that, it’ll be catch-up time.

Rodger Hartley

Seeing the Original

I flew into Springfield, Missouri, in a thunderstorm and all but kissed the ground as I deplaned. My fellow weak-kneed passengers agreed that it had been the worst flight in our collective experience. It was an inauspicious beginning to what proved to be a magical trip.

The next morning, Pam Smith Hill and I drove the roughly forty-five miles to Rocky Ridge farm near Mansfield, Missouri, for our first look at the original, handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript. The trip was the culmination of weeks of negotiation and preparation. We had earned the right to publish the manuscript, and we were working our way through various typescripts and digital copies to determine what constituted the core text. Outside of the staff and board members of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum in Mansfield, no one had seen the original manuscript in decades. We were excited.

We also had permission to photograph a number of artifacts in the museum collection to illustrate passages of the annotated edition. Pam had prepared the list, and professional photographer Keli Tetzlaff and her boss Angela D. Smith of Springfield accompanied us. With the help of staff member Kathleen Forte, we began in the museum, photographing Pa’s fiddle and other treasures and then moved to the Wilder farmhouse to see Wilder’s writing desk and the small, sunny room in which she did her writing. She had launched her journalism career in this house, writing columns for the Missouri Ruralist, and she penned the later novels here as well. (She had written the early ones in the stone house that her daughter built for her and which we would visit later.)

The scale of everything was so tiny that I felt like a giantess. The small alcove off the living room that formed the author’s library served as a frame for a photograph of Pam and me that proved the point: we modern women were much taller and, in my case, broader than the diminutive Wilder. Again, the exquisite Prairie-style architecture and detail of the house made a deep impression on me, as it had on my first visit to the author’s home ten years earlier. It was so modern for the time period and yet so classic. The beautiful W. H. D. Koerner painting of homesteaders in a covered wagon added a bright splash of color to the warm woods and muted fabrics of the sitting area.

Last of all, we met with museum director Jean Coday, who opened the vaults and brought out the aging tablets that contain the handwritten story of the young Laura Ingalls Wilder. The lined pages of these inexpensive pads of paper have toned over the years and become somewhat brittle, and although they have been treated for acidity, they are fragile. We pulled on white gloves and touched them carefully. Seeing the originals made clear some of the puzzles in the digital copy we were using to create the core text. In the era before computers, there had been no easy way to insert corrections or add text, and Wilder had used the cut-and-paste method, pasting in one edge of a slip of paper that contained additional handwritten text and thereby creating a flap that covered the original text but could be lifted up to continue reading. Or she had drawn lines or directions to additions on the back of a page or later pages. All in all, we learned a lot about the text in a few minutes of examination.

As we drove back to Springfield at the close of an intensely busy but successful day, we were tired but invigorated. We were, in fact, looking forward to the months of study, writing, and editing that loomed ahead of us.

Nancy Tystad Koupal