“Is There a Silver Lake?”

Even before Laura Ingalls Wilder had written the final novel in the Little House series, readers were researching the background of her books. In 1942, the mother of two girls from Kansas City wrote the mayor of De Smet, South Dakota, to ask “if there is really a Silver Lake and a Big Slough here.” Aubrey Sherwood, the editor of the De Smet News, answered the question for the mayor: “The News is happy to vouch for the authenticity of the books by Mrs. Wilder—that she actually experienced the pioneer days here with her family, on the shores of Silver Lake by a large slough, since drained, living on the claim throughout the Hard Winter and many more winters afterward, though many years ago she and her husband and daughter Rose moved to southern Missouri.”1 The editor sent Wilder a copy of the newspaper.

Big Slough, De Smet, S.Dak.

A view of the Big Slough in De Smet, S.Dak., that was so prevalent in Laura’s life

In the same issue, Sherwood, who would be the keeper of the Wilder legacy in De Smet for many years, inadvertently verified another Wilder story, one that did not appear in one of her books until the next year. Under the headline “Traveling the Same Old Prairie Road Brings View of Lakes with Expanse Water,” the editor took readers over the road that Laura and Almanzo travel on many a summer afternoon buggy ride in These Happy Golden Years, published in 1943. Lakes Henry and Thompson, which had been nearly dry through the 1930s, were full once again, Sherwood announced, adding: “If you like, you can drive around the west side of the lake [Henry] by the old road that winds from the west point to the old Grothe farm, and on up on the bluff, and then down into the meadow and south to the road that goes between the lakes. It is the same old winding prairie road. . . . [I]t is worth while to stop on the bluff to look over the lake from this highest bank.” A month later, Wilder, who was writing These Happy Golden Years at the time, requested another copy of the paper “telling of the Old Prairie Road” because she had sent hers on to Lane and “would like to have a copy to keep.”2

Nancy Tystad Koupal

1.) “Is There a Silver Lake? Asked after Children Read Mrs. Wilder’s Books,” De Smet News, July 16, 1942.

2.) Wilder to Sherwood, Aug. 17, 1942, IIA 59, Box F, Bell Collection, Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society Archives, De Smet, S.Dak.

Dragging Main

Teenage girls “dragging main” in 1957. Nina Leen, Getty Images

When I was a teenager, my friends and I spent endless hours “dragging main” in my hometown of Mitchell, South Dakota. Sometimes we paired off with our boyfriends, but many times a bunch of girls piled into a friend’s car, say a 1957 Ford, or a borrowed family car—a Chevy sedan with no style whatsoever—and drove from the railroad depot on the south end of Main Street to the bowling alley on the north end in endless circles. We might stop window-to-window with friends in the bowling alley parking lot and chew over the latest gossip or drive into the root beer stand for burgers and fries, but mostly we cruised up and down main looking for our boyfriends, or hoping for a peek at our latest heartthrobs, or speculating about who was going with whom. In our little town, even the sheriff and his deputy could be seen in the parade of cars on the main drag, keeping an eye on us. As a teenager, I never tired of this activity. I thought it was a product of the automobile era until I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl and learned that the practice was much older than that.

Cutter in Cedar Creek, Dakota Territory. South Dakota State Historical Society

Rather than automobiles, Wilder and her friends employed cutters and sleighs to ride up and down Calumet Avenue, the main thoroughfare of De Smet, South Dakota, during the winter months. “With all the rest of the gay crowd,” Wilder reported, she and Almanzo “were going the length of the street, around a circle on the prairie when the street ended, back down the length of the street, around a circle at the other end, and repeat, laughing and shouting from one sleigh to another.”1 When transferred to These Happy Golden Years, this appealing image led Wilder’s literary agent to comment that he “would like to go back to the days when the Sunday sport was to drive up and down Main Street in a cutter with your best girl tucked snugly in beside you.”2

In 2003, a writer for Deseret News in Utah noted that dragging or “cruising” main had “been passed down for generations” as a “staple of social life in the small rural towns.”3 The ritual, which “involved driving a central stretch of road in loops,” had become “a rite of passage.”4 Whether the participants drove automobiles, sleighs, or buggies, the activity itself always involved socializing while driving up and down the main street in endless circles. Dragging main may have reflected the fact that small towns offered little for young people to do. Driving back and forth on the main thoroughfare allowed them to take over public space and make it their own. For my part, I recall my endless circles of Mitchell’s Main Street with fondness, remembering old friends and good times, just as Wilder remembered “that charmed circle” of De Smet sleigh riders.5

Nancy Tystad Koupal

______________________________________________________________________

  1. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, forthcoming 2021), p. 376. See also Wilder, These Happy Golden Years, 1953 ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1943), p. 92.
  2. George T. Bye to Wilder, Sept. 29, 1942, James Oliver Brown Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York, N.Y.
  3. Jason Olson, “Dragging Main,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), Aug. 21, 2003.
  4. Andrea Tudhope, “Hey Small-Town Kansas, Whatever Happened to Cruising,” KCUR.89.3, Oct. 20, 2015, kcur.org.
  5. Wilder to Rose Wilder Lane, Aug. 17, 1938, Box 13, file 194, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library,

Brown Bread and Coffee Mills

When I was young, white bread—the softer, the better—was all I ate, but as an adult I have grown fond of nutty brown bread. As I crunch away, I imagine that its gritty texture is similar to the whole-wheat bread that Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family ate during the Hard Winter of 1880–1881. Of course, Wilder ground her wheat in a coffee mill, and her mother used sourdough starter to make it into bread, while I have the luxury of grabbing a prepackaged loaf off the grocery-store shelf. Wilder’s brown bread was a triumph over privation; mine is a matter of choice.

Advertisement for coffee mill featuring a balance wheel, 1888. Alamy

When Wilder’s family turned to making bread from hand-ground wheat in early 1881, almost everyone in and around De Smet was having to do the same. But it was not as automatic as Wilder made it seem in her novel The Long Winter, where Ma simply “reached to the top of the cupboard and took down the coffee mill” (p. 194). Such devices were at a premium in De Smet and do not appear to have been standard equipment in every pioneer home. Luckily, homesteader Delos Perry and his family had two: “One had a balance wheel and we took that one to town and they used it for their city flour mill. The other one we put up at home and the neighbors ground several bushels of wheat in it.”1 The “city flour mill” appears to have been in Daniel Loftus’s grocery store. In February, the Kingsbury County News noted that Loftus “makes a good miller,” having turned out “the first wheat ground in De Smet.”2

Resident Neva Whaley Harding reported that her neighbor Robert Boast shared both his seed wheat and his coffee mill. Harding, whose family made muffins from the whole wheat flour the Boasts supplied, observed in 1930, “Not knowing so much about the beneficial qualities of whole wheat then as we do now we were not so appreciative as we should have been.”3

That surprised me. Harding was aware of the benefits of whole wheat in the thirties when I was still eating processed white bread into the 1960s? Well, not surprising as it turns out. By the late 1920s, “the modest, ordinary loaf of white bread had been accused of some extraordinarily immodest deeds,” such as causing a whole list of diseases including anemia, cancer, and diabetes, as well as “criminal delinquency.”4 White bread resurged in popularity after it was enriched during the World War II era, but today whole grains are once again in the ascendancy.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Perry to Editor, De Smet News, Mar. 17, 1922.
  2. Quoted in Aubrey Sherwood, Beginnings of De Smet: “Little Town on the Prairie” Locale of Six Books of Laura Ingalls Wilder (De Smet: By the Author, 1979), [40].
  3. Harding, “Daughter of Homesteader,” De Smet News, May 30, 1930.
  4. Aaron Bobrow-Strain, “Kills a Body Twelve Ways: Bread Fear and the Politics of ‘What to Eat,’” Gastronomica 7 (Summer 2007): 45.

Hot Bean Soup and Laura Ingalls Wilder

Snow has fallen softly all day, and my thoughts have turned to keeping warm and burrowing in for the winter. My freezer is full of chopped tomatoes from my vegetable garden, stacked alongside gallons of tomato juice made according to my mother’s recipe. All summer long, my family and I feasted on cold soups, especially gazpacho replete with cucumbers, peppers, onions, celery, and toasted bread cubes. But now, as the temperature dives, my thoughts turn to hot bean soup and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Prior to the Hard Winter of 1880–1881, the Ingalls family painstakingly cut their garden plot from the tough prairie sod on their claim outside of De Smet. As we learn in Pioneer Girl, they harvested a meager amount of potatoes, which the family supplemented with milk from their cow. They moved to town for the winter so that they could acquire supplies from the local shopkeepers, who relied on the railroad to replenish their shelves. Once snow blocked the trains, food shortages began. In The Long Winter, the Ingalls family’s garden yielded a more satisfying but still scanty harvest of five sacks of potatoes, “lots of turnips,” six ripe pumpkins, nearly a bushel of beans, ten shocks of corn, and enough tomatoes to make a gallon of sweet preserves and “almost two quarts of green tomato pickle” (pp. 28–30). The stretching of this limited food supply over eight months provides a good deal of the drama both in Pioneer Girl and the novel, which one reviewer called a story “without much of a plot” but nevertheless “a good pioneer record.”1

Starting with her creation of a green pumpkin pie, readers watch Caroline Ingalls nurse her small harvest and a few store-bought staples (tea, flour, sugar, salt codfish, salt pork, canned oysters) through the Hard Winter of 1880–1881. Even during the early October blizzard, when supplies seem plentiful, Ma makes a batch of beans serve double duty as both soup for lunch and baked beans with salt pork for supper. The domestic details punctuate a cold and blustery day with warmth and coziness: “Now and then [Ma] spooned up a few beans and blew on them. When their skins split and curled, she drained the soda-water from the kettle and filled it again with hot water. . . . The cold crept in from the corners of the shanty. . . . But the steamy smell of boiling beans . . . seemed to make the air warmer. At noon Ma sliced bread and filled bowls with the hot bean broth and they all ate where they were, close to the stove” (Long Winter, pp. 39–40). As the winter deepens, bean soup becomes a distant memory as the family’s rations dwindle to a single whole wheat biscuit per person or a bowl of mush with water.

With temperatures headed into the single digits this past week, it seems that the winter of 2020–2021 has started early here in South Dakota. I think I’ll soak a batch of beans tonight.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Nebraska Education Journal, Feb. 1941, quoted in “Copies of Reviews of ‘The Long Winter,’” Box 15, file 241, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.

Reading Historical Fiction in the Era of Covid

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Illustration for By the Shores of Silver Lake, drawn by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle, 1939

I realized how germaphobic I had become when I found myself wincing as I reread the opening chapters of By the Shores of Silver Lake. In chapter 3, Ma and the Ingalls girls board a passenger train for the trip from Walnut Grove to Tracy, Minnesota. Looking around at the railroad car and its inhabitants, Laura notices that a drinking fountain of sorts is available at one end. She watches a tall man with a bobbing Adam’s apple drink deeply from a cup and decides to check it out. A “fascinating” spigot and drain with a shelf for the cup lead her to drink her fill from the selfsame vessel before refilling it “part way, in order not to spill it” (p. 24), and carrying it back for Carrie and Grace to drink. Gasp. Think of the droplets they are sharing. But it gets worse.

Once the family arrives at the end of the line, they go to the hotel for dinner. They wash up at a communal wash basin, where a pitcher held “only a little fresh water for each of them.” A twenty-second handwashing routine is clearly not in play here. After a soapless rinse, they wipe off on a roller towel, the ends of which were “sewed together and it ran around on its roller so that everyone could find a dry place.” Freshened up, Ma and the girls head into the dining room, where “some how Ma found empty chairs,” and they joined the many men “sitting in a row at the long table” (p. 33). No social distancing whatsoever!

By chapter 5, the family’s ever-present danger of exposure to disease on top of the current stream of current Covid-19 news has exhausted me, and I put the book down to read another day.

—Nancy Tystad Koupal

“The Greedy Girl” and the Influential McGuffey Reader

In publishing, timing is everything. Take, for instance, the case of William Holmes McGuffey. In the early 1830s, a Cincinnati-based publishing firm asked the famed educator Catherine Beecher—who had moved to Ohio to advocate for frontier schoolteachers—to write a set of schoolbooks. She declined but recommended McGuffey, a Presbyterian minister and philosophy professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The resulting textbooks, commonly referred to as McGuffey Readers, were wildly popular, collectively selling more copies than any book other than the Bible over the course of the nineteenth century. In the process, they reshaped school methods and informed students’ understanding of the world.1

Laura Ingalls Wilder was likely one of the millions of nineteenth-century Americans that picked up a McGuffey Reader. In the Wisconsin section of Pioneer Girl, Wilder described being “horrified” after reading a story in an unnamed schoolbook that began with the line, “Laura was a glutton.” “I could hardly be comforted,” she wrote, “even when [her mother] said the story did not mean me, and that I need not be a glutton even though my name was Laura.”2 The story Wilder referenced first appeared in an 1828 issue of Lydia Maria Child’s educational journal The Juvenile Miscellany. Child, who became a well-known abolitionist and advocate for American Indian rights, wrote many of the journal’s stories, including “Little Laura,” which began reaching a wider audience in 1836, when McGuffey reprinted it in his Second Eclectic Reader.3  In that volume, the tale begins: “Laura is a greedy girl. Indeed she is quite a glutton.” The author then contrasts Laura’s intemperate eating habits with those of several animals, each of which practice restraint and balance their meals with copious physical activity. The narrative ends: “I do not love little girls that eat too much. I do not think they will have such rosy cheeks, or such bright eyes, or such sweet lips, or such happy tempers, as those who eat less. Do you, my little readers?”4 Leading questions of this sort peppered the McGuffey Readers, which aimed to mold students’ characters while enhancing their reading and writing skills.

“The Greedy Girl,” McGuffey’s Second Eclectic Reader, 1920

While turn-of-the-century progressive educators would deride McGuffey’s pedagogical and moral style as old-fashioned, many at the time considered the readers’ deliberate approach to teaching literacy innovative. McGuffey compiled four volumes—his brother later produced two more—calibrated to children at different stages of their education, furthering the then-novel notion that students should be separated into different grades. The books, which often doubled as history texts, brimmed with patriotic tales and brief sketches of national figures.5 The first two readers went to press in the early years of the common school movement. The Yankee reformers who spearheaded this crusade aimed to make a basic education free to all students. They also worked to create statewide departments of education that would unify standards for curriculum and teacher training. As the reformers’ vision spread, so too did the readers. Revised versions appeared regularly, helping the books stay relevant in an increasingly crowded market. For the bulk of the nineteenth century, the readers were a fixture in schools and homes across the nation.6

Faithful adherents continued to buy the readers well into the twentieth century. A school board in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, even voted to readopt the texts in 1961, a decision that sparked considerable controversy. Around the same time, a “back-to-basics” educational movement began touting the readers as superior to modern textbooks, which largely eschewed the rote instruction and heavy-handed moralizing that characterized McGuffey’s tomes.7 Regardless of whether or not the readers have stood the test of time either in terms of content or function, they hold a key place in the history of American education.

Cody Ewert


1. William J. Reese, America’s Public Schools: From the Common School to “No Child Left Behind” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), pp. 30–31; Johann N. Neem, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), pp. 39–40.

2. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 50. The influence of the readers can be glimpsed elsewhere in the Wisconsin section of Pioneer Girl. In several editions of the Second Reader, “The Greedy Girl” directly precedes a story titled “The Guide-Post,” which resembles Wilder’s account of Pa mistaking a burned stump for a bear while walking home in the night (PGAA, pp. 46–47). In “The Guide-Post,” however, a boy mistakes the titular sign for a ghost. In both cases, the lesson was to not let one’s imagination get the best of them, a standard McGuffey trope.

3. Julia Maria Child, “Little Laura,” Juvenile Miscellany, Nov. 1828, pp. 203–5.

4. William Holmes McGuffey, ed., The Eclectic Second Reader (Cincinnati: Truman & Smith, 1836), pp. 23–24.

5. Neem, Democracy’s Schools, pp. 41, 44–46, 49–50.

6. For the main achievements of the common school movement, see Carl Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780–1860 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1982), pp. ix–x.

7. For more on this episode, see Campbell F. Scribner, The Fight for Local Control: Schools, Suburbs, and American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016), pp. 141, 145–53.

The Enduring Myth of the Great American Desert

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s earliest memory of hearing a railroad whistle is documented in the Minnesota section of her handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript. “I thought it was calling me,” Wilder claimed of her initial response to the engine’s distinctive wail.1 In one of the revised versions of the manuscript, however, her daughter and editor Rose Wilder Lane aimed to make this moment more instructive. In that version, Wilder’s father uses the train sighting to inform his children of the “building of railroads across the Great American Desert,” a grand project indicative of the fact that the family lived in “an age of wonderful invention and enterprise.”2 This bit of exposition reflected the way that many early twentieth century historians had come to view the settlement of the Great Plains. Prior to the devastation of the Dust Bowl, Americans’ ability to thrive in this allegedly uninhabitable region was a testament to their pioneering spirit.

A hand-colored wood engraving depicting settlers moving west across the Great American Desert, ca. 1875. Library of Congress

Edwin James coined the phrase “Great American Desert” to describe the vast prairies of present-day Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska in his chronicle of Stephen H. Long’s exploration of the region in 1820. James proclaimed this area “almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending on agriculture for their subsistence.” Zebulon Pike had come to a similar conclusion following his journey across the Great Plains in 1806, declaring that Americans would have to “leave the prairies . . . to the wandering and uncivilized aborigines of the country.”3 Clearly, these early explorers had little knowledge or appreciation of the ways that Plains Indian tribes used the land. Further, these descriptions had a limited impact, as only a few northeasterners bought into this view of the region. Still, this expansive “desert”—a term used at the time to describe any undeveloped lands—appeared on at least a few mid-nineteenth century maps.4

While interlopers from the verdant northeast balked, those living closer to the Mississippi River viewed the region’s prospects favorably. Following the Civil War, railroad expansion and a humid weather cycle made the area appear ripe for settlement. Boosters touted the Great Plains as ideal for farming, claiming that the recent spate of favorable weather proved rain “follows the plow.”5 In an 1878 report to the United States Congress, however, geologist John Wesley Powell cautioned that the area beyond the one-hundredth meridian—which comprised both the “sub-humid” or semiarid Great Plains and the arid lands west of the Rockies—could not be farmed without irrigation and would see periods of debilitating drought.6

Few heeded Powell’s warnings; instead, many romanticized the Great Plains as a man-made garden, using the idea of the “Great American Desert” to suggest that hardy pioneers had conquered what was once thought to be a barren land.7 Lane’s edits reflected that celebratory trend and foreshadowed the family’s move west to Dakota Territory, where they would settle between the ninety-seventh and ninety-eighth meridians. Belying boosters’ promises, however, their success as homesteaders would be uneven to say the least. Moreover, Lane’s 1930 revisions came at the beginning of a sustained drought that coincided with the worst economic downturn in the nation’s history. All told, the 1930s were a disastrous decade for farmers in the region. Americans, it turns out, still had a lot to learn about life on the Plains.

Cody Ewert


1. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 62.

2. Wilder, “Pioneer Girl—Revised” [Brandt Revised], p. 15, Box 14, file 207, Laura Ingalls Wilder Series, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.

3. Both quoted in The American West: A New Interpretive History, by Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 160.

4. Martyn J. Bowden, “Great American Desert,” in Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, ed. David J. Wishart (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), p. 389.

5. David M. Emmons, Garden in the Grasslands: Boomer Literature of the Central Great Plains (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971), p. 128.

6. Donald Worster, A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 356, 480–81.

7. In contrast, the historian Walter Prescott Webb would use the term “Great American Desert” in his classic 1931 study The Great Plains to argue that many aspects of the settlement of the plains had been misguided. Bowden, “Great American Desert,” p. 389.

What’s in a Name? The Confusing Case of the Gopher

Gophers are a common sight on the prairies of North America. Well, maybe not gophers per se; most of the critters that plains dwellers call gophers are technically ground squirrels. During my formative years in Montana, for instance, the quarry during our ostensible gopher hunting outings were Richardson’s ground squirrels. This conflation—or perhaps confusion—has deep roots. In The Discontented Gopher, L. Frank Baum’s 1905 fable inspired by his time living in Aberdeen, South Dakota, the title character is actually a thirteen-lined ground squirrel. Laura Ingalls Wilder, meanwhile, described the same species as “little reddish brown and black striped gophers” in the Dakota section of her 1930 autobiography Pioneer Girl (p. 231).

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An artist’s rendering of the seldom-seen pocket gopher from 1892. New York Public Library

So what, if not ground squirrels, are gophers? Technically, only pocket gophers—thirty-five distinctive species of which live throughout North and Central America—fit the bill. Some linguists posit that the term gopher stems from the French word gaufre, meaning honeycomb or waffle, perhaps a reference to their intricate burrows. While scientists did not name the species until 1821, Meriwether Lewis and William A. Clark observed the distinctive mounds and tunnels of the northern pocket gopher while traveling through present-day North Dakota in 1805. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of her family’s stint in Minnesota during the mid-1870s detailed the plains pocket gopher’s penchant for devouring crops. She noted that the animal carried away food “in the pockets in its cheeks” (Pioneer Girl, p. 76). Indeed, the pocket gopher’s expansive, fur-lined cheeks are its most distinct physical feature, hence the “pocket.”

While Minnesota had already been dubbed “the gopher state” by the time the Ingallses arrived, its nickname references neither the animal’s abundance nor its proclivity for crop destruction, but rather an 1857 political cartoon. The cartoonist derisively depicted members of the state legislature who had supported a hefty bond to aid railroad development as gophers pulling a train. Tellingly, the varmints in that drawing—and early renditions of Goldy the Gopher, the University of Minnesota’s mascot—more closely resembled thirteen-lined ground squirrels.

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The popularity of this 1857 cartoon by R. O. Sweeny led Minnesota to be known as the Gopher State. Minnesota Historical Society

While referring to ground squirrels as gophers is nothing new, there are important biological distinctions to consider. Pocket gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, while ground squirrels—a category which includes chipmunks, prairie dogs, and marmots, to name just a few—belong to the Scuridae or squirrel family. By most measures, ground squirrels are more charismatic than pocket gophers. Pocket gophers rarely appear above ground and use their long teeth and front claws—certainly not the most attractive features—to burrow. Ground squirrels, in contrast, rely on their powerful hind legs. Lastly, pocket gophers are active year-round, whereas most ground squirrels hibernate during the winter.

Despite the consternation they cause farmers, gardeners, and, as in the classic film Caddyshack, golf course groundskeepers, these burrowing rodents—whatever you choose to call them—play an important ecological role. Their digging aerates and enriches the prairie soil and stimulates the growth of native flora. Predators also depend on them as a food source. For instance, the ongoing recovery of the once nearly extinct black-footed ferret owes a great deal to parallel efforts to protect prairie dog towns. While ground squirrels and gophers continue to be regarded as pests, they deserve a place in any telling of the history of the Northern Great Plains, and they will surely play a role in its future.

Cody Ewert

Prairie Girl

In our recent work on the revised texts of Wilder’s Pioneer Girl, we have had some pleasant discoveries that make the job enjoyable. For example, in trying to determine why the Brandt manuscript is missing page 2, we discovered that the Lane Papers at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library also contain a six-page Pioneer Girl fragment, page 2 of which fits seamlessly into that hole in Brandt. Sweet!

Careful perusal of the fragment shows that its pages 3 through 6 are exact duplicates of the same pages of the Brandt manuscript. And, in fact, Hoover archivist Nancy DeHamer pointed out that pages 3 through 6 of Brandt were actually carbon copies, while this fragment contained the originals. Because page 2 fit so exactly into the hole in Brandt, we reasoned that these six fragmentary pages are actually the first edited rendition of Wilder’s Pioneer Girl; only the title page is different.

prairiegirlAnd what a difference it is! The name of this fragment is “Prairie Girl.” Lane has written “Pioneer Girl” above it and added Wilder’s name in longhand, a change that was duly made on the title page of the Brandt manuscript. She also made two small corrections in the text, changing Wilder’s passive voice, “sister Mary and I were put to bed,” into active voice, “she [Ma] put my sister Mary and me to bed.” Such is what a good copyeditor does. More intriguing was the title change.

Had Wilder originally called her manuscript “Prairie Girl” and had Lane changed it? Or had Wilder left it unnamed and objected to Lane’s assignment of “Prairie Girl”? Or had one or the other of them decided that “Prairie Girl” was not appropriate for the Wisconsin portion of the manuscript and substituted “Pioneer Girl,” which covered all geographical frontiers. My guess is the latter. Wilder truly loved the prairie, its flowers and wildlife, and, I think, considered herself a prairie girl even after moving to the Missouri Ozarks. Later, as you recall, she planned to call her last book in the Little House series “Prairie Girl,” giving that title to her preliminary outline. When that outline generated two books rather than one, “Prairie Girl” as a title again fell through the cracks in favor of Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years. So, I lean toward the idea that Wilder originally titled her memoir “Prairie Girl” and changed it to the more generic “Pioneer Girl,” but we will never know for sure.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

Wisconsin’s Big Woods—where and what was it?

In Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, we will be exploring questions that Wilder left largely unanswered in her handwritten autobiography. For example, the Big Woods, which Wilder said her father delineated as “just north of us a ways” (PGAA, p. 27), creeps closer and closer to the Charles Ingalls cabin in Lane’s editing of the revised texts until it finally encompasses it in the opening line of Little House in the Big Woods. Lane’s edits enhanced the family’s isolation in the forest, but Wilder and her father had been trying to say something about the difference in the woods themselves. To find out what the Big Woods were and where they began, we looked at histories and statewide forest assessments based on surveyor’s notes to find that the wooded areas around Pepin originally abounded in oak, elm, and maple trees. Settlers like the Ingalls families cleared these forests selectively to make room for home plots and farms. They released their pigs into the woods to eat acorns and other tree nuts.

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Group of loggers with axes among newly cut logs near Rice Lake, 1872. Wisconsin Historical Society

The “Big Woods,” in contrast, were something else. Wilder’s father was referring to the extensive pine forests that began roughly thirty miles up the Chippewa River and extended north to Minnesota, Canada, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Both the Chippewa and Saint Croix rivers, which enter the Mississippi near Lake Pepin, became shipping routes for the felled trees, and massive log drives would have been a common sight in the early 1870s, when the boomtowns of Chicago and Minneapolis provided a steady market for lumber. In the next two decades, railroads transported carloads of hewn boards to western settlements like Walnut Grove, De Smet, and beyond. It is a sad fact that in the 1850s, the Big Woods had contained roughly one-hundred-fifty billion board feet of red and white pine; by 1898, only seventeen billion remained. Tellingly, a recreation of the Ingalls cabin near Pepin stands next to a corn field, a reminder of the extent to which settlement and market forces reshaped Wisconsin’s landscape.

Nancy Tystad Koupal and Cody Ewert