Searching for Laura’s Big Woods

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The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest’s Hidden Lakes Trail in Wisconsin.

Where did Laura’s Big Woods go? That is the question I am currently exploring. In her memoir, Pioneer Girl, Wilder wrote that the woods “went on and on into the north,” (Brandt 14). Today, those woods are not quite so big.

I grew up in Wisconsin, and going “up ‘nort’” meant traveling to a cabin or a tent on the shore of a lake surrounded by what was left of the Big Woods of Wilder’s memory. I remember one trip when, staring out of my parents’ station wagon windows, I watched as we passed an extra-long truck on the highway. When I asked what kind of truck had passed us, my parents said it was a logging truck used to haul the cut timber from the north and was probably headed to one of the paper mills in Wausau or Stevens Point. “Your great-grandparents worked in a logging camp as camp cooks, you know,” my mom told me. At the time, I imagined the cook camp to be like a Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty restaurant, with all-you-can-eat powdered doughnuts and huge stacks of pancakes.

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A group of men transporting logs across the snow-covered ground on a sled near Rice Lake, Wisconsin, circa 1872. Wisconsin Historical Society

As my interest in history and the history of my family matured, family members showed me the letters and photographs of my great-grandparents from the logging camp. Written in a mix of Dutch and English, the letters talked about longing for home. The timber that drew hundreds into the woods, including my great-grandparents, was the Big Woods of Wilder’s childhood. The lumber was used in dozens of paper products and building materials across the nation. Timber floated down swollen rivers to Chicago, where it was shipped east on the Great Lakes by boat or by railroads that took it in all four directions. The lumber industry helped build America, but it also greatly diminished the northern woods. Today, in protected national and state parks, the woods are returning to Wisconsin, a rebirth that is welcomed by so many like me, who love to be surrounded by trees and feel at home in the Big Woods.

Jacob Jurss

 

Past and Future Projects

In 2010, the South Dakota Historical Society Press set up the Pioneer Girl Project as a research and publishing program to create a comprehensive edition of Wilder’s autobiography, as well as to create books dedicated to exploring Wilder’s life and works. We had just earned the privilege of publishing Wilder’s memoir from the Little House Heritage Trust, and we were determined to do a thorough and professional job of it. We modeled the project loosely on the Mark Twain Project at the Bancroft Library/University of California Press, which was then publishing Twain’s multi-volume autobiography. Since 2010, we have had a dedicated team working in period newspapers, census and land records, archival collections in five or more states, and other primary and secondary materials to research the life and times of the original pioneer girl and her manuscripts. In 2012, we began this website as a way to share our research with those who were interested in Wilder’s life and legacy.

PG cover 72dpi 220pxThe first phase of our project came to fruition in 2014, with the publication of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill. And, as you all know, that book found both a national and international audience and went on to become another bestselling volume by author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Moreover, its financial success gave the Pioneer Girl Project team the resources to plan three additional books. The second is Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, published in May 2017.

The idea for the additional books began as the research for and editing of Wilder’s 9781941813089original handwritten autobiography was drawing to a close in 2014.  The project team could see that many questions remained unanswered about Wilder as a person and about Wilder as a writer—and especially about the relationship between Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Because we had been studying the text of the handwritten Pioneer Girl so meticulously and comparing it to the typed and edited versions, it became clear that there was indeed something special about that mother/daughter, writer/editor relationship. This complex relationship reveals itself more fully as we examine Lane’s edits to her mother’s writing and then evaluate the evolution in Wilder’s response. Clues about this process abound in both the nonfiction and fiction texts, drafts, discarded pages, and other materials held at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and elsewhere.

In the upcoming books, we plan to address nonfiction and fiction processes separately. Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts will concentrate on Wilder’s and Lane’s interaction in the creation of the nonfiction autobiography. The book will contain the text of the three surviving typescript versions of Wilder’s autobiography in a side-by-side format. This presentation will facilitate intertextual comparison among the Brandt, Brandt Revised, and Bye manuscripts. The book will also contain annotations that highlight differences among the manuscripts and provide an analysis of Wilder’s and Lane’s working relationship as revealed in those manuscripts and elsewhere. The annotations will not repeat material published in the first volume, offering instead new information about Wilder’s life and its historical context where relevant. The Revised Texts will focus on the editorial work that Rose Wilder Lane performed on these adult, nonfiction manuscripts and the revisions or additions that Wilder herself made to them.

By contrast, the fourth book will analyze Wilder’s transition from nonfiction to fiction writer. In Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction, we will take a closer look at Lane’s role as her mother’s editor and agent in the field of children’s literature and at Wilder’s initial attempts at writing fiction. While the overarching purpose of both books will be to study the relationship between Wilder and Lane, the fourth book will examine the fiction writing/editorial process itself, a process in which both women took active roles. Other books have discussed this process, but The Path into Fiction will be the first to explore it completely within the context of the most critical piece of evidence—the draft manuscripts themselves.

We are excited about these forthcoming books, and we think that the study of the texts themselves will tell us much about the creative and editorial processes as well as about Wilder and Lane as working writers.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Wilder!

Today, February 7, 2017, is the 150th anniversary of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birth. It is an important date for readers of the Little House series and for all of us at the Pioneer Girl Project, and it got me to thinking, how did we begin celebrating birthdays?

The true origin of the birthday celebration is lost to history, but we can say that the party started in Egypt, and the Greeks added the candles. However, these ancient celebrations were not like our modern birthdays; they were reserved for gods and goddesses only. It was not until the Romans came onto the scene that the common people began to commemorate their own births. In the eighteenth century, German bakers made cakes popular, and the industrial revolution brought dessert to the masses. Finally, in 1893, two women, Patty and Mildred Hill, created a tune that Robert Coleman would turn into “Happy Birthday to You” in 1924.1 The modern birthday basics were set.

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Division of Pomology U. S. Department of Agriculture, 1887

So, where does a little girl on the American frontier fit into all of this? For starters, I find it interesting to note that Wilder’s childhood birthdays could not have included the fiddle rendition of “Happy Birthday” that I always imagined they did in my youth. In fact, in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, Wilder’s birthday episodes are minimal. During the Ingalls family’s time in Wisconsin, Wilder remembered: “After awhile I had a birthday. I didn’t know anything about it until when I got up in the morning, Pa played spank me, . . . one for each year. Then he gave me a little wooden man he had whittled out of a stick. Ma and Mary gave me a rag doll that Ma had made and Mary helped dress. And I was a great girl 4 years old!” (p. 41).2

Not until Wilder moved to De Smet did she experience her first birthday party, given for a boy named Ben Woodworth, and in true introvert fashion, she “felt very awkward.” She did have a good time, though, recalling: “The long dining table was set and ready when we got there. It was beautiful with its silver and china its beautiful linen tablecloth and napkins. At each place, on a pretty little plate was an orange standing on end with the peel sliced in strips half way down and curled back making the orange look like a golden flower. I thought them the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, even prittier than the birthday cake in the center of the table” (p. 251). Oranges were a luxury on the frontier, as was the oyster soup that the Woodworths served along with a “generous piece” of cake. Afterwards, the young people played games. “We went home early well pleased with the evening” (p. 252), Wilder remembered.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society

Generally, Wilder’s youth occurred before birthday celebrations became popular in the United States. As time went on, annual birthday parties became a normal part of people’s lives. Wilder even dressed up to commemorate her eighty-fourth birthday at the library in Mansfield, Missouri, in 1951.

So, today, let’s wish a fine and modern happy birthday to Laura Ingalls Wilder from all of those whose lives she touched.

Jennifer McIntyre

1. Todd Van Lulling, “This Is Why You Get To Celebrate Your Birthday Every Year,” huffingtonpost.com.

2. Wilder was actually five at the time.

Stacking Hay, Cover Art with a Story

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.

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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!

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Summer Fields by Judy Thompson, © 2016

Jennifer E. McIntyre

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!

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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.

The Bottom of the Ninth

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!

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A Holiday Greeting and Best Wishes for the New Year

In 1924, Wilder wrote, “Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmastime.”1

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“The little fur cape and muff still hung on the tree.” Helen Sewell, 1937.

No matter what your traditions, this time of year seems to hold special meaning for people around the world. On the Northern Great Plains, we gather closer and hang lights around our homes to stave off long winter nights with much the same excitement that Wilder shared over surprise visits from the Boasts or decorating her first tree. Cards are sent out and begin to arrive at their destinations, and it is this tradition specifically that has the staff at the Pioneer Girl Project thinking about Wilder’s thoughts and reminisces on Christmastime.

Earlier this week the South Dakota Historical Society Press received a card from James Pollock, an artist who lives in Pierre, South Dakota, and whose holiday greeting is decorated by a watercolor he painted this past summer at the Harvey Dunn Society’s annual Plein Air Paint Out event in De Smet. On it, the Ingalls family’s cottonwood trees stand solid against the prairie wind, and it is not difficult to imagine them covered with the blankets of snow that the state has received in the past month. Though it is not as bad as the storms of 1880 that stopped the trains from delivering the Ingallses’ Christmas Barrel, the weather does promise a white Christmas for the Great Plains, enhancing memories of times past.

From everyone at the Pioneer Girl Project, warm wishes to you and yours this holiday season.

Jennifer McIntyre on behalf of the Pioneer Girl Project staff

Wilder Tree Claim watercolor by James Pollock

Wilder Tree Claim, watercolor by James Pollock, © 2015

Originally published by the Missouri Ruralist, December 1924, and reprinted as “Christmas When I Was Sixteen,” in Little House in the Ozarks: The Rediscovered Writings, ed. Stephen W. Hines (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), p. 170.