The Story of the “Diggers”

I was dubious when Nancy Koupal invited me to contribute to Pioneer Girl Perspectives. What, I thought, could I possibly add? The comprehensive, incisive essays in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography ably tell the origins of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s apprenticeship manuscript.

Then Nancy gave me a pep talk. She has done this for lo, these past thirty years, during writing projects and sundry historical-literary affairs. She challenged me to consider the “first diggers”—the fraternity of people who started the initial research on Wilder. One enthusiastic old regular in early Wilder studies cheerily told me, “I hope our spades never get rusty.”

As a fledgling researcher in the 1960s and 1970s, I was welcomed into that coterie of folk dedicated to Wilder. The “diggers” were scattered throughout the Wilder country in America’s heartland and farther afield—even reaching to Japan and Australia. Many of them actively toiled to preserve Little House sites. Aubrey Sherwood, editor of the De Smet News and a friend of the Ingalls daughters, was among the most influential, a true mentor to me and countless others.

I had a brief brush with the great Rose Wilder Lane. She answered my letters, vetted my first writing, and lectured me on research technique. She autographed books for me and was incredulous that I had unearthed many of her early writings. She claimed she’d forgotten writing some of them.

How does all this connect with Pioneer Girl? Through ongoing involvement with Wilder people and places, some best-forgotten early writing of mine, and continuing research, I was cognizant of Pioneer Girl’s existence. The manuscript had its own surreptitious life, long before its 2014 appearance. I was charged to prepare a version for publication during the 1980s. I witnessed others using Pioneer Girl, all within an aura of secrecy. It was a dishy slice of literary lore, indeed.

I’ve told the story from my perspective in the chapter “Pioneer Girl: Its Roundabout Path into Print.” Writing this history was one more Wilder adventure, locating forgotten files of mine, drawing on long-held memories, and constructing a previously untold tale.

Yes, Laura Ingalls Wilder is still most relevant during this, her sesquicentennial year.

William Anderson, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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pioneer-girl-perspectives_frontcover

Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.

The Universal Appeal of Pioneer Girl

Readers who have followed this blog will not be surprised by the groundswell of enthusiasm that Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography has generated around the world. But every once in a while, the phenomenon expresses itself in a way that surprises even the staff here at the Pioneer Girl Project. For example:

Strolling into the office on Monday morning, we found tear sheets from two publications, both of which featured Pioneer Girl. Were they:

A. The Los Angeles Times and The Guardian
B. The Columbus Dispatch and Entertainment Weekly
C. The Christian Science Monitor and Foreword Reviews
D. The Wall Street Journal and The National Enquirer

The answer is D. That’s right, folks, D. We read them on the same day. Strange bedfellows, no? In fact, we had already known that a write-up in the Journal was coming, but the Enquirer made us grin with amusement. Wilder’s book appears on a page with Barbara Walters, Nicolas Cage, and Carrie Underwood. That’s pretty A-list company for an author who has been dead for nearly sixty years.

strange bedfellows

The fact is, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s appeal, both as a fiction writer and a historical figure, is broad and long-lasting. Indeed, all of the news outlets listed above have featured Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography in the last six months, along with leading online and broadcast media like NPR, BBC, Slate, and a fantastic review by Wendy McClure, author of The Wilder Life, on Refinery 29.

So keep your eyes open – you never know when Pioneer Girl may receive notice in a publication near you.

Rodger Hartley

The Long Shot Hits Home

“One blizzard came just before time for school to close. . . .

At a country school eight miles north of De Smet, the teacher [had] brought his children to school in a sleigh. . . . [Going home,] the teacher, with his load, was lost on the prairie.

When he knew that he couldn’t find his way, he . . . turned the sleigh bottom up over them. Then he crawled underneath the sleigh himself and there they huddled together while the snow blew and drifted over the sled keeping out the wind. . . . No one was frozen except the teacher whose hands and feet were frozen, but not badly.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, p. 315

There were a lot of long shots in the research for Pioneer Girl. We look at Wilder’s life through a double pane of frosted glass, trying to overcome both the shortfalls of her memory and our own distance from the subject. Not all of our long shots hit the target. But today, to tide you over until the book arrives, I’d like to tell you about one long shot—perhaps the longest one of all—that did.

Wilder places the story of the schoolteacher and his improvised igloo in the winter of 1884–1885, but the setup is strongly reminiscent of the “children’s blizzard,” a storm that struck without warning on a warm day in January 1888 and killed more than a hundred schoolchildren as they struggled to get home. Wilder did not always remember events in their true chronological order, and it seemed likely that she misplaced this one. But she does not give the teacher’s name, and the Kingsbury County newspapers that could complete the story have been lost, so there, it appeared, the matter would rest.

The scene: it’s about 10:30 one morning and a deadline looms. Enter Pioneer Girl Project director Nancy Tystad Koupal with a grin on her face and a book in her hand.

“Rodge. See if you can find that schoolteacher in here.”

“Wait, are you kidding me? We don’t even have a name.”

“We have a hunch. We follow it.”

“It’s not like I can look him up in the index. This could take all day.”

“It’s a good book. Humor me. I sign your paychecks.”

It is a good book. It’s The Children’s Blizzard, by David Laskin, and it is a fantastic and heart-stopping book. I read most of it that day, too quickly, like a man tearing through a haystack looking for a glint of metal, and this is all the glint I found:

“Mr. Stearns, a Dakota schoolteacher, had taken his three children to the school he taught near De Smet the day before and still had not returned home” (Laskin, Children’s Blizzard, p. 218).

Unfortunately, there’s no footnote and no follow-up. We still had laughably little information to work with. What were the odds? Still, the circumstances were tantalizing: here was a schoolteacher, near De Smet, whose own children were among his students. And critically, he had a name. It was federal records time.

Census first. Ready? No Stearns in the area in 1880. 1885 territorial census for the county is lost. 1890 federal census is melting the ice caps. 1895 state records are lost. 1900 federal census—stop!—there’s one.

Orion E. Stearns. Spirit Lake Township, Kingsbury County. Farmer. Born Vermont, August 1847. He and his wife have had five kids, of whom three survive; two are still in the household.

Now we’re cookin’ with Crisco. We have his name and his year and state of nativity, and we can follow this man, whether he’s Wilder’s man or not, wherever we want to. Orion’s daughter Bessie is a schoolteacher; does it run in the family?

Back to 1880.

No.

Back to 1870.

Yes.

Orion Stearns is teaching school in 1870 in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin. It doesn’t prove that he taught in 1888. But let’s say you’re a homesteader and you have teaching experience. What would you do in the winter to earn a little extra money to help prove up your claim?

Maybe this wasn’t a fool’s errand after all. I look at the clock. Between this and other tasks, it’s now 6:30, and I am not going home until this is settled.

But have I gotten ahead of myself? We still don’t know if Orion Stearns was even in Dakota Territory in 1888. But the U.S. General Land Office might.

Guess what: it does. On August 16, 1889, Orion E. Stearns was issued a patent under the Homestead Act for a quarter section seven miles northeast of De Smet. At this point my heart finally says: this is the guy. But that’s not enough. It’s a pretty safe bet that he was there in 1888, but I can’t be absolutely sure unless I order the paper land-entry records, which will take a month to arrive.

Wait. I have other evidence right under my nose. Remember his two kids living with him in 1900? The census shows that his son Sumner was born in Dakota Territory in 1885. Again, I can’t be certain they were in Kingsbury County, but we’re building a strong preponderance of evidence. This is the guy. While we’re at it, what other evidence can we glean from the kids’ census entries?

Little Sumner would have been too young to go to school in January 1888. Orion’s four other kids appear in the 1880 census: Lewis, Guy, Nellie, and Bessie. And then I remember that by 1900, only one of the three eldest kids was still alive. That’s when I start checking grave records.

Ten minutes later I’m in the State Archives library. This started with a book; let it end with a book.

Ten minutes after that, it’s over.

Beyond a doubt, Mr. Stearns was the man Wilder remembered, and I know exactly what happened to him and his kids on January 13–14, 1888. The long shot slams right into the bullseye.

And all I can think is, No. That isn’t how the story is supposed to end.

The story ends with annotations 90–91 on pp. 315–16 of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. It’s a book full of long shots, gunshots, schottisches, and everything else from the world of Wilder, and it finally ships out next week. Thanks for your patience, thanks for reading our blog, and stay tuned for more.

Rodger Hartley

Pa Ingalls—Fact or Fiction

After visiting De Smet, a follower of the Pioneer Girl Project posed the following questions:

“Was he [Pa] different than the one portrayed on Little House? Laura does say in a biographical piece that it was the Pa she wanted. What are your thoughts?”

The Pa of the Little House novels was the father Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered and sought to immortalize.  As she wrote her daughter Rose Wilder Lane in 1937: “Pa was no business man.  He was a hunter and trapper, a musician and poet.” His stories, Wilder said, inspired her to write the Little House books.  Even before her first novel was published, she noted that Pa’s stories “impressed me very much as a child and I still have a great affection for them.”

The essence of Pa’s character in the Little House books is consistent with Wilder’s portrait of her father in Pioneer Girl.  He was affectionate, warm, playful, musical, and restless.  But based on the historical record and Wilder’s recollections, it is clear that the fictional character in her novels is romanticized and idealized.  In Pioneer Girl, for example, Pa sneaked his family out of town in the middle of the night after failing to negotiate the rent with the landlord. Wilder suggested that Charles Ingalls justified it to his family by calling the man a “rich old skinflint.” Wilder’s fictional Pa would never have done such a thing.   Quite simply, the fictional Pa is more heroic, more noble, and more mythic than the real Charles Ingalls or the one who emerges from the pages of Pioneer Girl.

Wilder had much to draw upon in creating her character. The real Charles Ingalls made significant contributions to the communities in which he lived, serving as justice of the peace, school-board member, church officer, and civic-minded leader.  At his death in 1902, the De Smet News and Leader wrote of him: “As a citizen he was held in high esteem, being honest and upright in his dealings and associations with his fellows.  As a friend and neighbor he was always kind and courteous and as a husband and father he was faithful and loving.  And what better can be said of any man?”

Pamela Smith Hill

Snow Candy

“One morning she boiled molasses and sugar together until they made a thick syrup, and Pa brought in two pans of clean, white snow from outdoors. Laura and Mary each had a pan, and Pa and Ma showed them how to pour the dark syrup in little streams on to the snow. They made circles, and curlicues, and squiggledy things, and these hardened at once and were candy.” – Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods

One of the exciting things I have been able to do in the short time I have been the new Marketing Director for the South Dakota Historical Society Press is to reintroduce myself to the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The passage above is just one part of the story that has stuck with me as I grew up and moved on to reading adult accounts of life in the 1800s. The idea of snow candy —creating patterns out of maple syrup in the snow to make candy fascinated my young mind. In fact, I once sneaked a bottle of Aunt Jemima, or a similar brand, out into the mid-spring snow and ended up with a sticky puddle. Although I cannot remember why I decided I had to be secretive about my experiment, it was probably because I knew that my mother would tell me there was not enough snow or that it was too warm outside and I would have to wait until the next year. Luckily, I have a bit more patience now than I did then, and I look forward to researching recipes for snow candy in the coming months to repeat my experiment under better conditions. I will be sure to let you know how it goes.

Jennifer McIntyre

A really useful book

Every once in a while you run across a book that’s so useful, you just have to tell everybody about it.

Let’s say that you’re working on an annotated edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s unpublished autobiography. The Ingallses, you’ll recall, were a highly musical family, and dozens of tunes and lyrics are mentioned in Pioneer Girl and in the Little House books. Much of this music is unfamiliar to us early-twenty-first-century types, and so our annotations attempt to give the songs some context. And to do this, we keep coming back to Dale Cockrell, ed., The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook (Middleton, Wis.: A-R Editions, for the American Musicological Society, 2011).

Cockrell has systematically tracked down every song mentioned in Wilder’s oeuvre and provides us with music, lyrics, and valuable notes on variants, provenance, publication, and the general history of each one.  An impressive effort, and it came to fruition at just the right time for the editors at the South Dakota Historical Society Press.

Besides its intimate connection to a widely loved author, let me point out two other things that make this book so engaging.

First, what a neat concept!—to use these popular semiautobiographical novels as a case study, a lens through which to examine a (surprisingly wide) cross-section of nineteenth-century American music in the Midwest and Great Plains.

Second, as Cockrell points out, there may really be no better place to start such a study. “Almost no research has been conducted on nineteenth-century Midwestern performance practices,” he remarks in his extensive editorial notes. “In fact, perhaps the fullest published account of how music was actually played and heard in that time and place is found in the Little House books.”

Rodger Hartley