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 is out!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThank you to everyone who pre-ordered Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography from the South Dakota Historical Society Press. We are glad to say that the books will be arriving on your doorsteps in the next few days.

On Friday, November 14, the long-awaited Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography made it safely to our warehouse. As pallets of boxes were brought off the semitrailer, sod-house-like structures began to form and Press staffers Lisa Nold and Rodger Hartley quickly lost their sense of time and place.

However, they soon gathered themselves in preparation for the big sendoff beginning DSCF0259November 17.  That Monday, as if jolly ol’ Saint Nick himself were looking over our shoulders, box upon box was packed with care to be sent off across North America. The project of packing pallets to be shipped to our national and international distributors and bookstores had also begun. Boxes were hauled from one storage area to the next as our muscles protested the change from desk-work to dock-work. Yet, we can report that DSCF0257the work is done and the books are on their way to bookstores around the world.

Thousands of readers will soon discover what advance reviewers have already found:

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The pre-orders are stacked and ready to go.

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography . . . is clearly the definitive work on Wilder. It thrills with new insights and mature content, educates with historical facts and documentation, and enlightens with cultural perspective and commentary, all while maintaining the spirit of adventure and integrity that is the backbone of the Little House world and Wilder herself.”—Foreword Reviews

With Judy Thompson’s beautiful cover art, maps, photographs, and annotations all enhancing Wilder’s Pioneer Girl, we think the result is astounding.  We hope you agree.

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Everyone helped load boxes for the De Smet Memorial Society.

Jennifer McIntyre

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography can still be ordered from the South Dakota Historical Society press for $39.95, plus shipping and tax.

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