John E. Miller, historian and Wilder scholar, died on May 1, 2020, well before he finished the work he had outlined for himself. He had an active mind that found the Midwest, especially the history of its small towns and the people who called them home, endlessly fascinating. He studied Laura Ingalls Wilder’s De Smet and most of the communities along U. S. Highway 14 in South Dakota. Small-town residents who distinguished themselves in art, architecture, entrepreneurship, or, like Wilder, literature, piqued his historical curiosity, as did big-picture concepts such as democracy, literacy, and transportation. Miller, who received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin, taught twentieth-century American history and other history courses at South Dakota State University for thirty years. He became a full-time researcher and writer in 2003. Prominent among his many books are three about Wilder: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town: Where History and Literature Meet (1994); Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend (1998); and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane: Authorship, Place, Time, and Culture (2008).
Unlike many South Dakotans who met Miller during his years as a history professor, I was never his student. Instead, I proudly served as one of his editors, beginning with his first article on Wilder back in 1986. “Place and Community in the Little Town on the Prairie: De Smet in 1883” appeared in South Dakota History, Volume 16, no. 4, and was the start of a professional relationship between the two of us that extended for almost thirty-five years. We sat on panels about everything from Wilder to George McGovern to publishing in South Dakota. Miller, who was also a shutterbug, followed up any such events with pictures so that I have a photographic record of many of these occasions, including the LauraPalooza last summer in Wisconsin. In recent months, Miller and I spoke several times over the telephone about research and writing that he was planning to do. At 75 years old, he still had much he wanted to accomplish.
Miller left us with a lot to celebrate, not least of which are two additional articles in South Dakota History that feature De Smet or Wilder. His “End of an Era: De Smet High School Class of 1912” appeared in 1990 and explores the close-knit nature of high-school activities in the Little Town on the Prairie. “American Indians in the Fiction of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” published in 2000, explores a topic that is still much discussed today. When asked in 2014 why he had gotten involved in Wilder studies, Miller said that his work grew “incrementally and serendipitously over time,” but that he “saw the Wilder books as a way to get some insight into the life and culture of small towns and the Midwest.”1 In 2017, he shared his analysis of Wilder as a midwesterner in an essay and blog for Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Thank you, John, for all your insights into Wilder and the region. We wish there had been time for much more.
Nancy Tystad Koupal
1. Jon K. Lauck, “Historian of the Midwest: An Interview with John E. Miller,” South Dakota History 44 (Summer 2014): 29.