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.
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.
Spring is on its way. I know it still seems a long way off, especially since we recently received almost a foot of snow over a period of four days, but spring is on its way. I know this, not because it’s the beginning of Major League Soccer, or NCAA March Madness, or because pitchers and catchers are reporting in Arizona and Florida, but because when I head to work in the morning there is sun, and when I stop in the evening there are still traces of the sun’s light. The days are getting longer. Sugar bush season is here. That makes me think of Charles Ingalls in Little House in the Big Woods giving Laura and Mary their first taste of maple sugar in little brown cakes “with beautifully crinkled edges” that “crumbled in their mouths” (p. 121). Later, the Ingalls family travels to their grandfather’s home to help tap the maple trees and celebrate the coming spring season.
Stereograph from a series by A.F. Styles of sugaring in Vermont, circa 1870. New York Public Library
While many Americans are familiar with maple syrup, maple sugar is less common, but the process for making both was largely the same. Pioneers were not the first to start tapping maple-sugar trees. Within Wilder’s Big Woods in Wisconsin, the Ojibwe, Dakota, Potawatomi, and Menominee all made maple sugar. When the warm days and cold nights of spring reawaken the sap, collectors tap a tree by making an axe cut or drilling a hole for a spiel. Then, as the sap travels through the tree awakening its photosynthesizing processes, some of the sap drips out through the spiel into a waiting birch-bark basket or pail. The sweet-tasting watery liquid is poured into kettles to boil over an open flame or in an evaporator in a sugar shack. Depending on the quantity of sugar to water, it could take between twenty-five to fifty gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. For sugar, the sap is boiled past the syrup stage until nearly all of the water is gone and then ground into sugar. For American Indians and early settlers, the sugar was lighter to carry and could be stored for months on end. It was also a welcome treat after the long cold winter.
I have been sugar bushing several times now. The smell of fires mingling with the boiling sap is magical. If your fingers start getting cold, you can always step near the boil kettle for a moment to inhale the warmth of the sugary flame. To find your own sugar bush this year, particularly those of you in the Northeast or Midwest, look for your local maple-syrup operation to see if it offers tours or check out a nearby nature conservatory or center. Many nature centers offer spring sugar bush special events. For those of you who live farther afield or out on the Great Plains where trees are scarce, check out the Fenner Nature Center’s Maple Syrup Festival for modern pictures of syrup collection, and the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary for a sugaring collection that showcases traditional practices.
The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest’s Hidden Lakes Trail in Wisconsin.
Where did Laura’s Big Woods go? That is the question I am currently exploring. In her memoir, Pioneer Girl, Wilder wrote that the woods “went on and on into the north,” (Brandt 14). Today, those woods are not quite so big.
I grew up in Wisconsin, and going “up ‘nort’” meant traveling to a cabin or a tent on the shore of a lake surrounded by what was left of the Big Woods of Wilder’s memory. I remember one trip when, staring out of my parents’ station wagon windows, I watched as we passed an extra-long truck on the highway. When I asked what kind of truck had passed us, my parents said it was a logging truck used to haul the cut timber from the north and was probably headed to one of the paper mills in Wausau or Stevens Point. “Your great-grandparents worked in a logging camp as camp cooks, you know,” my mom told me. At the time, I imagined the cook camp to be like a Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty restaurant, with all-you-can-eat powdered doughnuts and huge stacks of pancakes.
A group of men transporting logs across the snow-covered ground on a sled near Rice Lake, Wisconsin, circa 1872. Wisconsin Historical Society
As my interest in history and the history of my family matured, family members showed me the letters and photographs of my great-grandparents from the logging camp. Written in a mix of Dutch and English, the letters talked about longing for home. The timber that drew hundreds into the woods, including my great-grandparents, was the Big Woods of Wilder’s childhood. The lumber was used in dozens of paper products and building materials across the nation. Timber floated down swollen rivers to Chicago, where it was shipped east on the Great Lakes by boat or by railroads that took it in all four directions. The lumber industry helped build America, but it also greatly diminished the northern woods. Today, in protected national and state parks, the woods are returning to Wisconsin, a rebirth that is welcomed by so many like me, who love to be surrounded by trees and feel at home in the Big Woods.
I last read Little House in the Big Woods in fourth grade during a unit on the history of my home state of Wisconsin. My teacher introduced me to a world more than a hundred years in the past. I remember taking a field trip to a historic one-room schoolhouse in order to experience what Wilder and my great grandparents’ childhood might have been like. I still have the black-and-white photograph of my fourth-grade class taken that day. We were all dressed in our or, rather, our parents’ best attempts to replicate period attire.
The one-room Reed School near Neillsville, Wisconsin. Wisconsin Historical Society
I do not remember reading many of Wilder’s other titles (Wisconsin’s other great cultural tradition, the Green Bay Packers, captured my interest at the time), but I do remember seeing highway signs for places with historical claims to her legacy throughout my travels in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and now South Dakota. The subject of upper Midwest and western history did make a lasting impact on my life. I went on to study history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and recently completed my Ph.D. at Michigan State University. I study the societal and power dynamics between Ojibwe, Dakota, and white settlers during the early 1800s in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. My research focused on the generation before Charles Ingalls’s birth that laid the cultural and societal foundations for the Ingallses’ world.
Through a great deal of serendipity, I found myself offered a position as a summer researcher and associate editor for the South Dakota Historical Society Press. My first task has been to read through the Kansas, Missouri, and Wisconsin chapters of Wilder’s Brandt, Brandt Revised, and Bye manuscripts of Pioneer Girl. My previous reading of pioneer memoirs has made this both a familiar experience and a unique one as I stumble across passages that recall my distant memories of Little House on the Prairie and Little House in the Big Woods.
As I conduct my research, I hope to bring another perspective to Wilder’s work and the world that Wilder remembered, and I look forward to hearing from the large and engaged community of Wilder readers and scholars. I have winced at the stereotypical depictions of the Osage, an American Indian tribe in Kansas whose lands were invaded by American settlers, have been horrified by Wilder’s tales of the Bender murders, and have laughed at Laura’s antics as a mischievous three-year-old. One message I have thus far gleaned from Wilder’s remembrances is that Pa always, always needed to take his gun with him. It never seems to fail that, when he doesn’t, there is a bear, panther, or pack of wolves nearby to give him and the family a scare. Indeed, referencing Grandpa’s encounter with a panther, Pa said: “A man’s a fool to leave his clearing without taking a gun. But we all do it” (Bye, p. 18).
Even though I grew up in Nebraska with a western historian for a mother, I did not read the Little House books as a child—my loss. At the time, I took the lonely plains of my childhood for granted and dreamed of other, undoubtedly more romantic fields: the Yorkshire moors of the Brontës, the secret gardens of Emily Dickinson, the haunted Black Forest of the Brothers Grimm. But like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s New York editor, the legendary Virginia Kirkus—who famously became so engrossed reading Wilder’s first novel that she missed her evening train home to Connecticut—when the real and shimmering magic of Little House in the Big Woods took hold of me, it did not let go.
When I finally turned the last page of These Happy Golden Years, I had one overriding, visceral reaction: I know Laura Ingalls; I know this girl.
Like so many readers before me, young and old, I did not want her story to end because I knew how much I would miss her. As a children’s writer with a special interest in the history of children’s books, I was curious about how Wilder had pulled off this kind of literary alchemy, how she had forged such intense identification between her readers, her heroine, and her heroine’s lost world.
Out of the raw material of her own life, Wilder had created something I had never read before: America’s Great Frontier Fairy Tale. “Once upon a time,” Wilder wrote, “sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.” It was the first line of Little House in the Big Woods and it presaged the highly original, unusual, and evocative artistic decisions Wilder would make as she fused childhood memory, family chronicle, western history, fairytale, folklore, and her love of the living prairie.
By the time she brought her story full circle, culminating in the happily-ever-after marriage of Laura Ingalls to her storybook hero on horseback, Wilder had executed a remarkable literary feat, irrespective of its historical, cultural, or political significance. Her classic American stories of the western frontier have old-vine roots, deeply entangled in European fairy tale, which Wilder uses to strange and surprising effect. Fairytale lies at the heart of Wilder’s artistic vision; it is central to the wandering hero’s journey of Laura Ingalls, not because it is trivial, childish, and superficial, but because it is dark and cautionary, profound and true. Fairy tale is particularly relevant to Wilder’s narrative because fairy tale, in its traditional form, preserves and passes down complicated stories of faith, hope, identity, betrayal, struggle, and redemption. It is the charming red apple in Wilder’s work, luring the reader into the heroine’s quest for self-realization, existential meaning, and the elusive place called home.
It’s the “real magic” in the telling.
Sallie Ketcham, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives
For Christmas this year, the gift I most enjoyed giving was a year’s worth of old photographs that I collected while traveling across North and South Dakota, Illinois, Oregon, and Florida. I spent many pleasurable hours in antique malls and flea markets, looking for images with a story to tell that my friend, a historian who specializes in rural women’s history, would find interesting. As I was wrapping the gift, though, one of the photographs reminded me so strongly of Laura Ingalls Wilder that, in the end, I just couldn’t part with it.
The photograph is a stereoscopic view called “Waiting for a ’Bus,” but I think readers will instantly see what it was that reminded me of Wilder. It’s the crinoline1 —or hoop skirt—of course, as well as the polonaise coat and the muff. These details echo Wilder’s fashion interests of the 1870s and 1880s, which she shared with readers in Pioneer Girl, as well as in her novels. At first, I thought the stereograph was from that same time period, and this particular card may date from that era, but the image itself and the fashions it depicts are older—from the 1860s. Wilder’s young aunts and her mother might have worn such dresses to the sugaring-off party in Little House in the Big Woods, where Aunt Ruby’s and Aunt Docia’s “large, round skirts” sailed across the dance floor, and Ma’s skirt was “ruffled and flounced and draped and trimmed with knots of dark green ribbon” (pp. 141-42).
But this particular stereograph, I discovered as I started doing some research, has an even larger story to tell about the follies of fashion and the prices that women had to pay when they followed it too slavishly. If you look closely at this card, which is meant to be viewed in a stereoscope that would turn the side-by-side images into a three-dimensional view, you will note that the young woman is standing just beneath a handwritten sign that reads, “A Young Man Wanted.” And thereby hangs a tale. . . .
This view of the fashionable young woman drew its inspiration from a cartoon that appeared in Punch, or the London Charivari on December 3, 1864. The butt of the joke was definitely the woman, who unintentionally appeared to be advertising for a young fellow or putting herself on display to attract one. In 1866, photographer Michael Burr turned the cartoon into a stereograph of a fashionable woman caught in the same position and spread the joke further in an era in which stereoscopy was all the rage.2 I missed the joke completely, being enamored of the young woman’s ermine muff, matching bonnet, and prodigious hoop skirt.
All that attention to fashion was also part of the humor, it turns out, for hoop skirts, in particular, were the cause of much mirth and satire in the press. Consider these images from the same year as the original cartoon—on April 9, 1864, the Punch cartoonist showed us the difficulty that such fulsome crinolines could cause for women on a stroll in the country. On June 18, the theme resurfaced again with another cartoon that illustrated
how hoop skirts became a hazard on public transportation or city streets, and on July 9, the magazine published “A Man Trap,” which offered at least one ploy that would induce a man to duck into a hat shop. My favorite, however, came on October 1, 1864, with “The Safest Way of Taking a Lady Down to Dinner.” Here, the woman’s beau is forced to walk on the outside edge of the balustrade to accompany his crinolined dinner partner. In some ways, it is amazing that the fashion endured as long as it did with so much ridicule directed toward it. Even stranger, it just keeps coming back—the poodle skirts of the fifties held out by all those stiff mesh petticoats so that they would swirl around the dance floor seem to me to be just a shorter version of the same style. And have you thought about wedding dresses?
Nancy Tystad Koupal
1. I am using the word crinoline here to mean a stiffened petticoat or caged skirt that is also known as a hoop skirt, although the term originally meant a stiff fabric of horse hair and linen that women began to use for petticoats around the 1830s to widen and fill out their skirts. Wilder had the original meaning of the word in mind when she described her wedding dress in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography: “It was plain at the top, but gored so it was full at the bottom. It was lined through[ou]t with cambric dress lining and interlined with crinolin[e] from the bottom to as high as my knees” (p. 322). For a history of the term and the fashion, see “The Crinoline or Hoop Skirt,” Victoriana Magazine, victoriana.com, and “What’s All the Hoopla?” The Ultimate History Project, www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/crinoline.html.
2. Dennis Pellerin and Brian May, The Poor Man’s Picture Gallery: Stereoscopy versus Paintings in the Victorian Era (London: London Stereoscopic Company, 2014), p. 175.
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.
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 meat
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.