Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Advocate

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books immortalized her family’s efforts to build homes and farms on the nineteenth-century frontiers of Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota. In my small town in southern Minnesota, my grade-school teachers read to us from Wilder’s novels almost every day after recess. Her words changed my life. She described the beauty of the prairies, from the tiniest flowers to sweeping vistas and enormous skies. Her words and appreciation of place helped me articulate my love of the grasslands. Wilder’s reflections on family, memory, and time (along with its passing) laid the foundation of my personal principles for the study of history: individuals matter; everyone has a story to tell; human nature, personal history and experience, and circumstance profoundly shape the lives of everyone.

Laura Ingalls Wilder began her writing career as a farm columnist long before she became a novelist. Laura and Almanzo settled in the Missouri Ozarks in 1894 and lived on their Rocky Ridge Farm until their deaths. Laura was known regionally as a successful chicken farmer. In 1911, the editor of the Missouri Ruralist read her paper on chickens and promptly offered her a job as columnist for the publication. Laura began a long career as an ardent advocate for farm women, their families, and farming as a way of life and a calling.

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Wilder and Almanzo (left) posed with neighbors near Mansfield, Missouri, circa 1920. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

Wilder wrote her columns during a time of crisis and rapid change. World War I, woman suffrage, the changing roles of women, rapid industrial change, mass migration from the countryside into the big cities, automobiles, radio, mass advertising, and the birth of consumer culture—all posed challenges to traditional ways for farmers and their families. Wilder wrote as a steadying force for her farm audience. She believed that farm wives had the opportunity, more so than in any other occupation, to be full partners in the enterprise, as she and Almanzo were.  Some of her ideas might surprise her modern fans. She saw suffrage for women as an obligation rather than a right and opposed it. She feared the impact of the vote, and of politics generally, on women’s most important role, rearing the next generation of children to be good, productive citizens. Wilder did not share the suffragists’ belief that women voting would bring wonderful social reforms. In her opinion, women were not a class apart but instead were individuals who would vote according to their personal inclinations. When suffrage became law, however, she urged women to do their duty and vote.

Wilder’s columns in the Ruralist resonated with her love of the farm. Love of nature, the changing seasons, the birth of livestock, birds, flowers, the rhythms and rituals of farm work animated her days. Even as the mass movement from farms to cities continued, Wilder extolled the beauty in nature to remind women that their most important and primary duty to their communities and the nation was raising the next generation of farmers and citizens.

Wilder’s vision of farm life continues to be a lodestone for me. Since first hearing a Little House novel, I have frequently dreamed of being a farmer in Wilder’s time.

Paula Nelson, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.

When a Man (like Almanzo) Goes Courting—1876

As readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books know, courting was a special time in Wilder’s life—a time when the set of her clothes and the condition of her hair were especially important to the young Laura Ingalls. The same is true in Pioneer Girl, where Wilder lovingly describes her poke bonnet, her brown poplin, and her lunatic fringe, among other fashion details. We see Laura primping before the mirror and sewing items of clothing with care. Almanzo’s perspective during the same time period, meanwhile, is left pretty much to the reader’s imagination. Did he primp and preen before he went to visit Miss Ingalls, or was that solely a woman’s prerogative?

Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder, circa 1885. Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association

One of the joys of newspaper research is the light it sheds on the habits and customs of people in different eras. In the course of our work with Pioneer Girl, we came across a wonderful column in the Decorah Iowa Republican of December 8, 1876, that illuminates the ritual of courting as a man experienced it:

We have in our family [at] present a young man who is deeply, we trust successfully, engaged in going a-courting. . . . When Sunday afternoon arrives it is plain to see that something is about to happen. Our young man is fidgety and non-communicative and cannot sit in one place half a minute at a time.  He is continually interviewing his watch and comparing it with the old eight-day, coffin-shaped clock in the corner. He looks in the glass frequently, and draws his forehead locks first back and then forward, and combs them up and puts them down, and is unsatisfied with the effect throughout.

The smell of bay rum and bergamot is painfully apparent. When he shakes out his handkerchief musk is perceptible. His boots shine like mirrors. There is a faint odor of cardamom seeds in his breath when he yawns. He smooths his . . . mustache with affectionate little pats, and feels his . . . side whiskers continually. . . . He tries on all his stock of neckties without finding just the thing; and he has spasms of brushing his coat, that commence with violence and last till one grows nervous for fear the broadcloth will never be able to stand it. . . .

And at seven, he sets forth, clean and tidy from top to toe, looking precisely as if he had just stepped out of a bandbox.

The image is so vivid that one can almost feel the anxiety of a young man like Almanzo as he worried over his appearance.

While allowing that a woman had the same issues in getting ready to greet a suitor, the writer was more sympathetic with the young man, who had to “walk up in the cannon’s mouth” of a young woman’s family, “consisting of father, and mother, and grandmother, and maiden aunt, and half a dozen brothers and sisters, and inquire in a trembling voice: ‘Is Miss Arabella at home?’”  Poor Almanzo.

The Republican column is not just entertaining; it is an invaluable historical resource that provides important clues about male grooming habits during the period, and it also gives modern readers a better appreciation for Almanzo Wilder’s perseverance in courting Miss Ingalls.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

Real People

Who’s real? How real?

We know that many of the characters in the Little House novels are based on real people—and sometimes in interesting ways. Take, for example, the notorious Nellie Oleson, a girl so persistently odious that you just know (or hope) that she cannot have been “real” in quite that way. As it turns out, this character is an amalgam of no less than three unpleasant people of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood acquaintance; Nellie as we know her combines all of their unpleasantnesses into a perfect triune arch-nasty.

The example of Nellie Oleson is well known, but the research and editorial team for the Pioneer Girl Project are probing the real basis of even the most occasional characters in Laura’s autobiography, Pioneer Girl. Historians wonder about any good story: Who’s real? How real? The answers are frequently gratifying, sometimes puzzling, and occasionally—well, occasionally, there’s no answer at all. That, too, is part of the practice of history.

Census records are the first tool in our box, an easy way to establish the basic fact of reality. Sometimes. Cap Garland, for example. Real? Yes. “Garland, Edmund”—for such was the lad’s given name—was enumerated outside De Smet in the 1880 census, living with his mother and two sisters, whom Laura mentions by name in Pioneer Girl.

Occasionally, the census has its little quirks that make the research all the more interesting. What about the Heath boys?

Wait, the Heath boys? you ask. Who are they?

Nobody crucial. Their story didn’t make it into the published novels. “The youngest Wilder boy and two other boys, Homer and Horace Heath, from near De Smet, were in the railroad camp when all this happened,” Laura wrote in Pioneer Girl. Well, I’m very much mistaken if you don’t know who the youngest Wilder boy is. But these Heath boys: real? Yes. So real that they were counted twice.

This section of the census from Brookings County lists the Heath boys. Screenshot taken from ancestrylibrary.com.

This section of the census from Brookings County lists the Heath boys. Screenshot taken from ancestrylibrary.com.

On 24 June 1880, a census taker enumerated a “Heath, Horice S.” and his brother, “Heath, Homer N.” on a farm just across the line in Brookings County. They were respectively twenty-five and twenty years old and were born, respectively, in New York and Wisconsin to parents who were also born in New York. They were listed as laborers.

Now, at some point in June—we don’t know exactly when—the following two laborers were enumerated in Beadle County, to the west of De Smet, boarding with thirty-two other laborers (smells like a railroad camp to me): “Heath, Horace” and “Heath, N. H.,” twenty-four and nineteen years old, born in New York and Wisconsin to parents born in New York. The first thing you learn in dealing with nineteenth-century census records is that the transposition of someone’s initials, or a year’s discrepancy in age, are commonplace. These were the same guys, counted twice in the 1880 census. I suspect that railroad camps—and other places using a seasonal workforce—were fertile ground for errors of this kind.

This section of the census from Beadle County shows the Heath boys and Almanzo Wilder. Courtesy ancestrylibrary.com

This section of the census from Beadle County shows the Heath boys and Almanzo Wilder. Courtesy ancestrylibrary.com

Oh, and look who appears on the same manuscript page, between Horace and Homer:

Wilder, A. J., twenty-two years old, laborer, born in New York to parents born in New York and Vermont. (Almanzo Wilder, too, was counted twice in 1880: once in this railroad camp in Beadle County and again outside De Smet with his brother Royal and sister Eliza.)

Real people.

Rodger Hartley