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.

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

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

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.

One Year! The Pioneer Girl Project Celebrates the First Anniversary since the release of “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography”

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.

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 Watchman and numerous conversations on Reddit/r/books. It is the stuff of publishing legends. And it does not end there.

PW Mitzis Tweet

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.

What a great year it has been!

—Jennifer McIntyre

Carrie Ingalls, A Pioneer Woman

A common topic when discussing Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is how Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing and characters changed between her original memoir and her later fictional series for young readers. There are several differences that have been shared in the media, reviews, and here on the Pioneer Girl Project website, yet it is also true that Wilder could be a consistent storyteller as she traversed the line between reality and fiction.

For example, throughout her fiction, Wilder typically portrays her sister Carrie Ingalls as a fragile, shy child. Readers cannot fault the young Laura for being protective and having a certain “big sister” view of things. However, Wilder’s novels and autobiography end before we can really determine who any of the people Wilder wrote about were or went on to become outside of the writer’s purview and timeline.

A teenage Carrie Ingalls stands, second from the left, with other tennis team youth.

A teenage Carrie Ingalls stands, second from the left, with other tennis team youth.

The annotations in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography provide a fuller picture of Wilder, her family, and the community in post-pioneer days. For example, Carrie Ingalls did deal with illness throughout her life. She even moved to Colorado at one point seeking a better climate for her asthma. However, her health did not stop her from being quite the frontier woman herself after the events of Pioneer Girl and the Little House novels came to an end.

In fact, from all accounts, Carrie Ingalls lived a fairly exciting life. In 1907, she homesteaded, alone, near Topbar, South Dakota, where she resided in a tarpaper shack for at least six months out of the year as required by the law. Topbar is described as “a populated place in West Haakon township in Haakon County, near to Milesville and Philip, South Dakota.” In other words, it is in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the White River Badlands.

Carrie Ingalls, far left, stands in the doorway of the De Smet Leader where she worked as a typesetter.

Carrie Ingalls, far left, stands in the doorway of the De Smet Leader where she worked as a typesetter.

Before her homesteading years, Carrie, who originally planned to work as a teacher like her older sister Laura, became a typesetter for the De Smet Leader as a teenager. This career switch set Ingalls up for a long and prosperous career managing newspapers all over the Black Hills for E. L. Senn, the “Final Proof King of South Dakota.” Senn, who owned around fifty newspapers, made money from the settlers and miners who were required by law to file a notice of their claims in the local paper—in case there were any contesters to their settlement. Senn needed adventurous people, such as Carrie Ingalls, to travel to new mining towns in order to collect for and run his multiple enterprises. Eventually, Carrie Ingalls settled in Keystone, South Dakota, in 1911, and continued to work in the newspaper business until her marriage to David N. Swanzey in 1912, when she retired to care for her young stepchildren. After her husband’s death, she went to work for the railway station in Keystone.

Carrie Ingalls’s life is a perfect example of how the real adventures of Wilder’s “characters” are just as exciting as the iconic family’s journey west.

Jennifer McIntyre