And to Think That It All Began with “The Long Winter”

This week, as a heavy winter snowstorm blanketed the Northern Great Plains, I found myself with the happy task of reading or rereading a lot of the popular and critical literature about Wilder: Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow, Ann Romines’s Constructing the Little House, and Elizabeth Jameson’s “In Search of the Great Ma” (Journal of the West 37 [Apr. 1998]), among others. The personal journeys of the women who wrote these works include a childhood familiarity with and love for the Little House books that ultimately led them to make the author the subject of their research. Each has her own personal encounter with Wilder herself (Romines) and/or the books (Fellman, Jameson). Other writers make their encounters with Wilder’s books the subject of their work: Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie or Nancy McCabe’s From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood, for example. I came to realize that, just like these women, I have my own “Laura” story.

NTK in 5th Grade

Me in fifth grade.

It begins in the fifth grade at Notre Dame Academy in Mitchell, South Dakota, when Sister Kieran began to read The Long Winter out loud after lunch one day. The timing was significant because most of her pupils lived nearby, and we had just trudged through snow and wind, parked our rubber over-boots and snow-crusted winter coats and scarves in the cloakroom, and taken our seats in the warm classroom. Laura’s hard winter outlasted our own and made us all grateful that our winter had not matched hers (although there were one or two years in the fifties and sixties when that could not be said). It also made us proud that the Ingallses were South Dakota pioneers—after all, De Smet was just a few miles up the road.

Even before Sister Kieran finished The Long Winter, I had visited the Carnegie Library downtown and borrowed all the Wilder books in the original edition with the Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle illustrations. My favorite book would always be The Long Winter, but I also developed a fondness for On the Banks of Plum Creek (which had plenty of blizzards, too) and These Happy Golden Years with its harsh beginning at the Brewsters’ (more snowstorms!)  and its happy ending. As I grew up to become a sort-of hippy at the end of the 1960s, I thought that all I needed was a plot of land and a copy of Little House in the Big Woods to become self-sufficient (in the event of a nuclear blast or some other catastrophe). I never tested the theory, but I remain convinced that, just like Ma and Pa, I am fully capable of making cheese and smoking meatLongWinter1

While I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that Wilder’s influence directed my career choices, I did eventually turn to American literature (via foreign languages, linguistics, and a brush with archaeology) as my academic path of study and to editing as my profession. Along the way I was fortunate enough to edit and annotate some of the Dakota writings of L. Frank Baum (Our Landlady, 1996), who spent a couple of formative years in Aberdeen, South Dakota. As editor of South Dakota History, I also got to work with and edit two of William Anderson’s groundbreaking biographical and critical studies of Wilder: “The Literary Apprenticeship of Laura Ingalls Wilder” (1983) and “Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane: The Continuing Collaboration” (1986). In 1997, I was invited to become a member of the board of directors of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, Inc., of De Smet, which is the curator of both the Surveyors’ House and the Ingalls Home. Serving on that board has been a privilege and a pleasure, and it has brought me close to many aspects of the Little Houses.

Then in 2005, when the South Dakota Historical Society Press decided to publish a biography series featuring the region’s important citizens, the first one the Press commissioned was Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (2007). A few years later, we began work on Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, and again, I found the winter of 1880–1881 to be one of the high points of Wilder’s memoir, allowing me to sink my teeth into research in the newspapers of the period. Here I found that the burning of hay was an economy farmers practiced even before the long winter, that price gouging among merchants was not a failing only of Mr. Loftus, that the lonesome whistle of the last freight train into De Smet came a little later than Wilder remembered, and that American Indians had in fact acted as weather forecasters on other occasions.

And, for me, it all began on that snowy day in 1957, when Sister Kieran stood in front of the class and started to read, “The mowing machine’s whirring sounded cheerfully from the old buffalo wallow south of the claim shanty, where bluestem grass stood thick and tall and Pa was cutting it for hay.”

Nancy Tystad Koupal

I am grateful to classmate Susan Tessier Mollison who helped me refresh my memory of those long ago days at Notre Dame Academy.

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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

“Your true ‘enemy’ Laura Remington”

Readers of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography continue to share interesting information with the Pioneer Girl Project staff. A good example is Nami Hattori, who follows our blog from Canada.  She recently wrote to us that she had found some additional information about Laura Remington, whom Wilder mentioned twice in her autobiography. On page 243 of Pioneer Girl, Laura Remington is “among the younger girls” at school, and on page 275, Remington is paired with Alfred Ely as a participant in the sleighing parties on De Smet’s main street in the mid-1880s. The annotation about Laura Remington reads: “The 1880 census includes one family named Remington in Kingsbury County:  Francis P. Remington and his wife, Ellen. They had one daughter named Grace—not Laura­­—and she would have been about six years old in the fall of 1881” (p. 244n46).

Nami Hattori, though, has discovered another source that sheds a little more light on the elusive Laura Remington. A girl by that name not only lived in De Smet in the 1880s, Hattori pointed out, but she also “wrote a message on Wilder’s autograph book,” which the “LIW library in Mansfield owns.” Hattori shared with us and our readers the photograph that she took of Wilder’s autograph book in the 1990s. It contains this handwritten line, “Your true ‘enemy’ Laura Remington.”

Laura Ingall's autograph album, photographed by Nami Hattori

Laura Ingalls’s autograph album, photographed by Nami Hattori

While Remington did not date her entry, Hattori noted that many others who signed the book, including Charles Ingalls, Cap Garland, and Ida Brown, had dated theirs from 1882 to 1885. “Judging from her handwriting,” Hattori wrote, Laura Remington “was not a little girl at the time.” Because the signatures appear to have been penned after 1882, Hattori continued, “we can speculate that she might have moved to Dakota after 1880,” which would explain why she is not listed on the census.

With Hattori’s speculation in mind and the album as proof that there was a Laura Remington in the area, we went back to the census data from a different angle and found a second candidate for the family: Laura Remington could be the daughter of William and Helen M. Remington, who moved to Dakota Territory from Wisconsin sometime before June 1883. Their daughter Laura would still have been six years younger than Wilder, closer in age to Alfred Ely with whom Remington went sleighing. However, because the state census records for Kingsbury County are missing, we still cannot be absolutely certain that this Laura Remington is the one Wilder knew. As with so many of the people mentioned briefly in Pioneer Girl, little can be uncovered about them all these years later. Even with the wonderful autograph album, we do not know much more about Laura Remington.

But the album itself is fascinating. It is a resource for modern researchers, and it apparently served Wilder herself as a source of information. “Ida Brown’s verse on the real autograph album is the same as the one in Little Town on the Prairie,” Hattori wrote. “It tells that Wilder used this album when she wrote LTOP.” We are grateful to Hattori for bringing this treasure to our attention.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

Where are the pasques?

I had the enjoyable task of researching and writing several of the annotations on flora and fauna that appear in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. As a young girl, Wilder was outdoorsy, observing everything from crabs to coyotes to the wide variety of plants that grew on the prairies of eastern Dakota Territory while she lived there. In addition to knowing the common names of many of the area’s various grasses, Wilder mentioned numerous prairie flowers, including the “may flowers, thimble flowers, wild sweet Williams, squaw pinks, buffalo beans and wild sunflowers, each blooming in its season” (p. 234) around her family’s homestead near De Smet. Her curiosity about the natural world is one reason that I find a certain omission so curious.

Wilder’s Pioneer Girl never mentions the blossom that is one of the first signs of spring and which, in 1903, became the official state flower of South Dakota. The fuzzy buds of the American pasqueflower (Anemone patens/Pulsatilla patens) typically emerge from the ground in March or April, opening into two-toned purple blossoms with bold yellow centers. Still fairly common, pasqueflowers must have been abundant in Wilder’s day. Why didn’t she mention them?

A little research leads me to some speculation. First, botanist Dave Ode writes in his book Dakota Flora: A Seasonal Sampler (South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2006) that pasques prefer “gravelly hills, buttes, and river bluffs” (p. 13). The Ingalls homestead, situated in a fairly low spot next to the Big Slough, might not have had just the right soil, drainage, or exposure for the little plants to establish themselves. Second, the blooms can be delicate and fleeting, lasting as little as a couple of days if a spring blizzard buries them or if hot, dry winds shrivel them (both scenarios are possible during a South Dakota spring). They can also be extremely localized, with numerous plants clustered on a single knob or hillside and none occurring on the next one over.

An image of the pasqueflower image found in Dakota Flora. Photograph taken by Jeanne Ode.

Photograph of a pasqueflower in bloom taken by Jeanne Ode

Finally, pasqueflowers don’t always come up in the spring. In drought years, they may lie beneath the surface for months or until another year, when enough rain falls to make them emerge. On the Ode “homestead” east of Pierre, the north side of a bluff is dotted with some fifty markers pegging the locations of pasqueflower plants. Every spring, we climb the hill to take inventory. This year, after a winter with little snow and a spring with no rain, not a single pasque has popped up. Maybe Wilder never walked past just the right spot at just the right time.

Or, the explanation might be simpler. Pasqueflowers are sometimes called prairie crocus for their resemblance to the domestic crocus, goslinweed for the fuzzy buds that resemble a gosling’s down, and prairie smoke for the plumes that appear once the plant is done blooming. Recently, I also found some sources that list “May Day flower” or “May flower” as an alternate name for the pasque. In Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, we speculated that Wilder’s may flower may represent the meadow anemone (p. 235). We can’t know for sure, but perhaps those in and around De Smet during the 1880s knew the pasque as the may flower.

Jeanne Kilen Ode

Following the Trail of Wilder

No so long ago, I found myself making another trip along U.S. Highway 14, this time from Pierre—pronounced “peer”—to Brookings in eastern South Dakota. As I drove, my thoughts meandered between summer road-trip plans and contemplation of the railroad tracks running alongside me. For those of you who don’t know, Highway 14 follows the very railroad line, the old Dakota Central Railway of the Chicago & North Western, that brought Charles Ingalls and his family to Dakota Territory. As I raced trains past Huron, the few remaining buildings of Manchester, and on through De Smet, my thoughts focused on how different distances are now in comparison to the 1800s.

Pierre to Brookings

The famous frontier family traveled thousands of miles by wagon, as well, and as readers of the Little House novels and Pioneer Girl know, it could take days, even weeks, to get from one place to another, depending on the weather and the condition of the “road,” or what we would call a trail today. And, with wagon travel not being especially popular in 2015, it can be hard for a modern audience to fathom the time and effort it took to travel among the homesteads, geographical landmarks, and towns that Wilder mentions in her original manuscript. With the advent of first the railroad and then the car, places have become much closer than they were, figuratively speaking.

That is why one of my favorite things about Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is the eight maps created for various sections in the book. Taken together, they give contemporary readers a better perspective on the scope of the Ingallses’ journey. Along with several historical maps reproduced in the book, they help me begin to visualize just how big the “Big Woods” were, where New Ulm is situated in relation to Walnut Grove, MN Mapand how close the Loftus store was to “Residence C. P. Ingalls, Justice of the Peace” in De Smet.

As detailed in our blog post from 2012, these maps did not simply appear on our desks one day. Since we did not have Laura Ingalls Wilder there to help with the finer points, Pioneer Girl Project editor Jeanne Ode dived into Wilder’s manuscript and waded through historical maps from archives throughout the region to give readers a clearer picture of the Ingallses’ now-famous voyage. The map-making journey, like the family’s sojourn, was “filled with twists, turns, and the occasional dead end,” Ode says. Determining locations from sources that sometimes conflicted and creating preliminary sketches to guide the illustrator who created the final, well-designed versions was not always a walk in the park. As readers will discover, though, the trip was worth the trouble. As for me, the drive down Highway 14 now has a bit of extra meaning.

Jennifer McIntyre

The First Oyster Festival in Kingsbury County

“Now that Christmas is over,” a South Dakota newspaper recently stated, “it’s time to start thinking about celebrations to welcome the New Year. And what to serve at any parties you’re hosting. Why not do as the pioneers did and include oysters?”

Ancient Greeks served them as an incentive to drink. Romans imported and fattened them. American Indians on both coasts considered them a staple in their diet. Abraham Lincoln also served them to guests at parties at his Illinois home. And, while oysters may have declined in popularity since Wilder’s time, when she was a young girl, these bivalves were considered a delicious addition to any special meal—even making an appearance at a gathering of early Dakota Territory settlers on New Year’s Day in 1880.

This small gathering near De Smet included Charles and Caroline Ingalls, their daughters Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace, as well as their fellow homesteaders, friends, and hosts, Robert and Ella Boast. As a biography of Charles Ingalls later declared, it was “the first oyster festival in Kingsbury county.”

Oysters Ad

The Overland Oyster Express Company advertisement, n.d. The Library of Congress

At the Boasts’ small home, the party “was all the more fun because their one room was so small, that with the table set, we had to go in the outside door and around to our place at the table one by one and leaving the table we must reverse the order and go out the door following the scripture that, ‘The first shall be last and the last first,’” Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. She even described the meal: “There were oysters and honey and sauce [from] home dried fruit the Boasts had brought with them. We told stories and joked and had a happy New Year’s day.”

As the Pioneer Girl Project researchers learned, the Ingallses and Boasts probably dined on canned oysters. Fresh or canned, oysters had soared in popularity in the nineteenth century, and packed in hermetically sealed cans, they “traveled the breadth of the wide trans-Missouri region almost as soon as Americans ventured there,” according to historian Paul Hedren. Due to the railroads, oysters were almost everywhere by 1880.

The Oyster Bay in Deadwood, South Dakota, n.d. The South Dakota State Historical Society

The Oyster Bay in Deadwood, South Dakota, n.d. The South Dakota State Historical Society

However, oysters were not what made New Year’s Day 1880 special. Instead, as readers of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography can tell from the loving way Wilder described this time with the Boasts, the day was worth remembering because it was shared with friends and was full of joy and song.

As the New Year 2015 begins, we hope your celebrations are just as sweet.

—Dorinda Daniel and Jennifer McIntyre on behalf of the Pioneer Girl Project staff

A Day Trip to De Smet

The staff of the Pioneer Girl Project is about evenly divided between the two great classes of humanity. There are the morning people—upstanding folks who wouldn’t mind getting up early with Charles Ingalls to shovel snow off their families—and then there are those who would prefer to chat with the Boasts until the moon rises in the wee small hours. I am one of these latter types; it was with a dull eye that I piled into the car early on a Wednesday morning in May with project director Nancy Tystad Koupal (another like me) and Jennifer McIntyre (not one of us). Soon we were off toward the rising sun on a research pilgrimage to a certain little town on the prairie.

As we traveled along U.S. Highway 14, we stayed generally in sight of the old Chicago & North Western Railway line, which raced across Dakota Territory to the Missouri River in 1879–1880. Charles Ingalls moved west with the railroad, taking a bookkeeping job for a contractor working on this very line.

In the car, we contemplated our goals. Specifically, we had two objectives:

First, we wanted to look at records pertaining to a murder in the Bouchie family.

Second, and more importantly, we wanted to look at various records to see what light they might shed on Laura’s school days as both student and teacher.

And if we had any time left over, perhaps we could twist some hay.

I was fully awake by the time we arrived at De Smet’s high school, where we pored over old school-board minutes. They didn’t extend as far back as we had hoped, and we broke for lunch without having achieved much.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe reconvened at the Kingsbury County Courthouse, a lovely Italianate-influenced structure built in two segments (1889 and 1898) for a fast-growing county. Charles Ingalls worked there at times in various roles, such as justice of the peace and bailiff of the court. Here we hoped to find the records of the county superintendent of schools. Our first stop was the auditor’s office, and from there we were led down to “the vault,” a room I can only describe as the perfect place to read “The Cask of Amontillado” by flashlight. Rusty, musty, and cramped, this is where records go when they are too old to be of any practical use to a county, and there are a lot of them. The room was lined—up, down, and across the middle—with shelves full of often dank and discolored tomes. And in this haystack, we had to find the pin. Never mind; it was game time. Off with the jackets, on with the dust masks, and in we went to divide and conquer.

The ebullient mood of optimism didn’t last long. It turned to strained choruses of “I am as happy as a big sun flower,” &c., &c., and finally to grim resolve, as it became clear that our quarry wasn’t where it should be. Was it possible that the superintendent’s records had been kept in a book that was labeled as something else? We continued to work down the shelves until—

There it was! It had fallen behind a row of completely unrelated record books. We recognized our luck in finding a source were it ought never to have been, but we still had no idea if it would tell us what we wanted to know. Nevertheless, with a jaunty step we took the book into the hallway, donned our cotton gloves, and with Nancy reading the text, Jenny taking notes, and me standing by with a camera, we dived in. I am happy to say that it went a long way to answering many of our questions.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe took the book back up to the auditor’s office (“This is a treasure—don’t lose it!”), then continued up the stairs to the clerk of courts, where we were ensconced in the judge’s chambers with the documents we needed.

I wonder what one of the Bouchie women would have written to explain her family’s troubles. Readers will remember Oliv Bouchie as Mrs. Brewster, the woman who got a little too expressive with a butcher knife in the claim shanty where Wilder spent a miserable winter while teaching her first school. But it was not this Bouchie who ended up on trial in 1887 for manslaughter; instead, Oliv’s stepmother-in-law, the mother of Wilder’s students, was one of the defendants. Wilder does not mention this incident, but the records of the case, including the depositions of witnesses, paint a picture of a strange and tense family.

We spent another hour lost in this troubling tale. As the courthouse closed for the day, we stopped for a brief visit behind the scenes at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society to scan some archival images. We did not make any hay twists—but we did photograph one.

And then it was back to Highway 14 and home, a full day of digging behind us and another step closer to the publication of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography.

Rodger Hartley