As we continue to study Laura Ingalls Wilder, one of my favorite parts is the artifacts. In Pioneer Girl Perspectives, many of the authors looked at the early career of the now famous American author, reminding me that Wilder’s literary start was in chickens, which delighted me to no end, as I myself am a fan of the feathered fowl, and it got me interested in her early works. My favorite artifact from this period of Wilder’s life is a button from her time at the Missouri Ruralist that says, “‘HOWDY’ Mrs. A. J. Wilder, Farm Home Editor, Missouri Ruralist.” I can imagine Wilder struggling not to poke herself or tear her dress with its straight pin. But perhaps she had a better grasp of using pins than I do.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum
It can sometimes feel sacrilegious to dive deeply into our favorite authors’ lives, especially when their lives are the basis of the tales they created, but when I stumble across an artifact like a button or a photograph, I just have to know more. These artifacts supplement our research and give life to our publications, bringing literary heroines closer to us as human beings. It reminds me that though the real Laura’s life may have been darker than her fictional counterpart, her character grows with these remnants from the past. I, for one, am looking forward to finding more artifacts as we go forward, as well as continuing to revisit these known trinkets from the past.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books immortalized her family’s efforts to build homes and farms on the nineteenth-century frontiers of Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota. In my small town in southern Minnesota, my grade-school teachers read to us from Wilder’s novels almost every day after recess. Her words changed my life. She described the beauty of the prairies, from the tiniest flowers to sweeping vistas and enormous skies. Her words and appreciation of place helped me articulate my love of the grasslands. Wilder’s reflections on family, memory, and time (along with its passing) laid the foundation of my personal principles for the study of history: individuals matter; everyone has a story to tell; human nature, personal history and experience, and circumstance profoundly shape the lives of everyone.
Laura Ingalls Wilder began her writing career as a farm columnist long before she became a novelist. Laura and Almanzo settled in the Missouri Ozarks in 1894 and lived on their Rocky Ridge Farm until their deaths. Laura was known regionally as a successful chicken farmer. In 1911, the editor of the Missouri Ruralist read her paper on chickens and promptly offered her a job as columnist for the publication. Laura began a long career as an ardent advocate for farm women, their families, and farming as a way of life and a calling.
Wilder and Almanzo (left) posed with neighbors near Mansfield, Missouri, circa 1920. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum
Wilder wrote her columns during a time of crisis and rapid change. World War I, woman suffrage, the changing roles of women, rapid industrial change, mass migration from the countryside into the big cities, automobiles, radio, mass advertising, and the birth of consumer culture—all posed challenges to traditional ways for farmers and their families. Wilder wrote as a steadying force for her farm audience. She believed that farm wives had the opportunity, more so than in any other occupation, to be full partners in the enterprise, as she and Almanzo were. Some of her ideas might surprise her modern fans. She saw suffrage for women as an obligation rather than a right and opposed it. She feared the impact of the vote, and of politics generally, on women’s most important role, rearing the next generation of children to be good, productive citizens. Wilder did not share the suffragists’ belief that women voting would bring wonderful social reforms. In her opinion, women were not a class apart but instead were individuals who would vote according to their personal inclinations. When suffrage became law, however, she urged women to do their duty and vote.
Wilder’s columns in the Ruralist resonated with her love of the farm. Love of nature, the changing seasons, the birth of livestock, birds, flowers, the rhythms and rituals of farm work animated her days. Even as the mass movement from farms to cities continued, Wilder extolled the beauty in nature to remind women that their most important and primary duty to their communities and the nation was raising the next generation of farmers and citizens.
Wilder’s vision of farm life continues to be a lodestone for me. Since first hearing a Little House novel, I have frequently dreamed of being a farmer in Wilder’s time.
Paula Nelson, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives
In 1924, Wilder wrote, “Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmastime.”1
“The little fur cape and muff still hung on the tree.” Helen Sewell, 1937.
No matter what your traditions, this time of year seems to hold special meaning for people around the world. On the Northern Great Plains, we gather closer and hang lights around our homes to stave off long winter nights with much the same excitement that Wilder shared over surprise visits from the Boasts or decorating her first tree. Cards are sent out and begin to arrive at their destinations, and it is this tradition specifically that has the staff at the Pioneer Girl Project thinking about Wilder’s thoughts and reminisces on Christmastime.
Earlier this week the South Dakota Historical Society Press received a card from James Pollock, an artist who lives in Pierre, South Dakota, and whose holiday greeting is decorated by a watercolor he painted this past summer at the Harvey Dunn Society’s annual Plein Air Paint Out event in De Smet. On it, the Ingalls family’s cottonwood trees stand solid against the prairie wind, and it is not difficult to imagine them covered with the blankets of snow that the state has received in the past month. Though it is not as bad as the storms of 1880 that stopped the trains from delivering the Ingallses’ Christmas Barrel, the weather does promise a white Christmas for the Great Plains, enhancing memories of times past.
From everyone at the Pioneer Girl Project, warm wishes to you and yours this holiday season.
Jennifer McIntyre on behalf of the Pioneer Girl Project staff
1 Originally published by the Missouri Ruralist, December 1924, and reprinted as “Christmas When I Was Sixteen,” in Little House in the Ozarks: The Rediscovered Writings, ed. Stephen W. Hines (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), p. 170.
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 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.
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)