The Pioneer Girl Project sends condolences to the family and friends of Jean Coday. As director of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association, Coday was a long-time advocate for the legacy of Wilder and a respected colleague as we worked to bring Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography to the public. As stated in her obituary, “Jean has had an impact on countless lives. . . . She has given . . . selflessly, of her time, talent, money, and most of all her heart to those around her.” The entire memorial can be found at the Springfield News-Leader.
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 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
Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.
On my most recent visit to Rocky Ridge Farm in the Missouri Ozarks, I was once again struck by all the things Laura Ingalls Wilder had managed to save from her childhood— her sampler, her handkerchief, the slates she and Mary used when they attended school in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, even the jewel-box she describes in such loving detail in On the Banks of Plum Creek.
It’s remarkable that so many objects from her childhood survived, given how often the Ingalls family moved—from Wisconsin to Missouri to Kansas and back to Wisconsin again; on to Minnesota, then Iowa, and back to Minnesota; finally on to Dakota Territory. All these moves were made either by covered wagon or by train, which meant the family had to travel light. I suspect Caroline Ingalls supervised her girls’ packing closely, but based on accounts in “Pioneer Girl” as well as the Little House series, both the real and fictional Ma understood how important it was to make a home wherever the family settled. That clearly included letting her girls take their small but precious possessions with them from one little house to another.
Wilder and her husband Almanzo made plenty of moves too—from South Dakota to Minnesota to Florida to South Dakota again and from there to Missouri, where they lived out their lives together. And they too traveled by train, wagon, or buggy. So it’s literally a small miracle that Wilder’s jewel-box from Plum Creek days survived.
A Childlike Sense of Wonder
I’ve long assumed that Wilder saved these things because, in a childhood marked by frugality and poverty, even the purchase of those slates must have seemed like an extravagance. But I’m not sure that an impoverished childhood entirely explains why Wilder saved those treasures from her past. My father, a child of the Great Depression, grew up in an Arkansas log cabin and like the Ingalls girls, he and his sisters delighted in simple pleasures and learned to live happily with less. Yet nothing except photographs from my father’s childhood remains; he didn’t save his childhood treasures.
I suspect that Wilder kept hers because part of her never entirely grew up. Yes, like most of us, she kept important and official family documents, the papers that define a family’s history. The archives at Rocky Ridge Farm, for example, include Charles and Caroline Ingalls’s wedding license, Mary’s diploma from the Iowa College for the Blind, and Wilder’s own teaching certificates. Wilder became the family member responsible for preserving family history and documentation. But she also continued to nurture that childlike sense of wonder, a characteristic that often defines children’s book writers.
A Writer’s Ambition
Among the items Wilder saved is her essay titled “Ambition,” written when she was seventeen for her teacher, Mr. Owen, in De Smet, South Dakota. It was a piece of writing that she was proud of. Perhaps her secret ambition had long been to become a writer.
Years later when Wilder, her husband, and daughter moved to Missouri, she began to act on that ambition. Almanzo had made her a portable writing desk, and throughout the journey to Missouri in 1894, Wilder kept a diary in a small notebook of her impressions along the way. She drafted a letter home to friends and family in De Smet, and it was published in the De Smet News and Leader in August 1894. Of course, she kept the clipping with a handwritten note, “First I ever published.”
Wilder began to write her life story in 1930, two years after she and Almanzo moved into the Rock House, a gift from their daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Here Wilder wrote Pioneer Girl, as well as the first three novels in the Little House series. It’s impossible to know all the details of Wilder’s writing process, but I like to think of her at the dining room table in the Rock House, a supply of No. 2 lead pencils and a Fifty Fifty tablet from Springfield Grocer Company at the ready. Perhaps as she struggled to find the right word or to describe the sound of Pa’s fiddle, she looked across the living room and out the window at that hazy Ozark sky and found the inspiration to continue, one word at time, one memory at a time.
Pamela Smith Hill