Wisconsin’s Big Woods—where and what was it?

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.

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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.

Nancy Tystad Koupal and Cody Ewert

Searching for Laura’s Big Woods

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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.

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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.

Jacob Jurss