By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
Take a moment to study this face. Look at those clear, beautiful eyes that are so young and yet reflect an intelligence and degree of sincerity, depth, and understanding one might expect from someone much older. It's a fascinating face, reflecting not only the integrity and character this young woman possessed at this time, but also the promise of what she would become. It's all there...in that face...and in those eyes.
You might say there's a story there...in that face. The truth is, there were many. Stories that opened a window to the past, touched the hearts and minds of millions of children (and adults), and documented frontier life firsthand. So, it stands to reason that during the month of March when the Sweethearts of the West blog proudly focused on some amazing pioneering women, the name that came to mind for me was LAURA INGALLS WILDER.
Most people are familiar with the early life of Laura Ingalls Wilder because of her best-selling Little House books. But it is interesting to note that she did not start her career as an author until she was 65-years old. So, although I will briefly overview the events of her childhood, her adult life after her marriage in 1885 until her death in 1957 is just as adventurous and remarkable as her childhood.
Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born in a log cabin built by her father, on a cold winter day in the 'Big Woods' of Wisconsin. The date was February 7, 1867, and at this time the Ingalls family consisted of her parents, Charles Philip Ingalls and Caroline Lake (nee Quiner) Ingalls, as well as older sister, Mary Amelia. The Ingalls family lived seven miles from the nearest village of Pepin.
Today, to commemorate the site of her birth, there is a 3-acre rest area in Pepin County, Wisconsin. Known as "Little House Wayside", the cabin (pictured) is a replica of the home as described by Mrs. Wilder in Little House in the Big Woods.
It has often been said that the challenges and lessons of life not only shape us as individuals but define our character. Without question, the childhood of Laura Ingalls Wilder was filled with adventure, adversity, perseverence, a strong work ethic, faith, love, joy, tragedy and tears. And all of this is reflected in her Little House books, as well as an intrinsic wisdom about what truly matters in life.
“I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.” ~ Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Ingalls Wilder was a child of the frontier. The memories she shared with the world through her books, not only conveyed the importance of family, faith, and hard work, but also provided an amazing historical documentation of an important time in American history. Yet it is important to remember that she wasn't just an observer of frontier life. She was an active participant.
A year after her birth, her father (who must have been born under a wandering star) had heard about a homesteading opportunity in what was then Indian Territory in Montgomery County, Kansas. It was only after they had settled into their new little log cabin that Charles 'Pa' Ingalls learned the land had not been "officially" released by the government.
In 1870, the family returned to Pepin County, Wisconsin. They remained in the 'Big Woods' until 1874. Mrs. Wilder's novel, Life in the Big Woods is based on her childhood memories during this time period. In 1874, 'Pa' soon felt the wanderlust and the family moved again -- this time to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Mrs. Wilder's book based on her life during this time was called On the Banks of Plum Creek.
Before her parents would permanently settle in South Dakota in 1879, two more daughters would be added to the Ingalls family, Caroline 'Carrie' Celestia Ingalls and Grace Pearl Ingalls. A son, Charles Frederick Ingalls, would be born on November 1, 1875 in Walnut Grove, but tragically die at nine months of age. The family had stopped to visit relatives at their farm while en route to Iowa where 'Pa' had been offered a job as manager of a hotel. The family eventually returned to Walnut Grove, where tragedy would strike the family again when eldest daughter, Mary, would become seriously ill and suffer a stroke, which resulted in blindness.[Pictured below: Carrie, Mary (seated) and Laura Ingalls]
In 1879, Charles Ingalls accepted employment with the Chicago and North Western Railroad. His job required him to travel with the railroad into the eastern Dakota territory. The family joined him there in the fall of that year. They were, in fact, one of two families that founded the town of DeSmet, South Dakota.
In 1880, Charles Ingalls obtained a homestead near Silver Lake in DeSmet, and built a claim shanty on the site. Since work on the railroad had stopped for the winter, the Ingalls family was allowed to live in the Surveyor's house in exchange for guarding the tools and equipment.
By the Shores of Silver Lake documents this time period in the lives of the Ingalls family. However, the record-breaking winter of 1880/1881 would be addressed in a separate book entitled, The Long Winter. The weather was so severe and relentless that the trains could not run and townspeople almost starved to death for lack of provisions.
In 1883, to help her family financially, 15-year old Laura obtained her teaching certificate and taught three terms in a one-room school. In addition to teaching and attending school herself, she worked for the local dressmaker. It was also at this time that the pretty, hard-working and spirited Laura Ingalls caught the eye of a certain young farmer named Almanzo Wilder.
Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder were married on August 25, 1885. She was eighteen years old, and he was twenty-eight. Almanzo already had a homestead site and their future looked promising. The young couple were devoted to each other. On December 5, 1886, they welcomed the birth of their first child, a daughter named Rose.
They worked side-by-side, tending their fruit orchards and wheat fields. They also raised chickens and had cattle. But summers were hot, the land was hard to plow, and winters were hard. For several years in a row their crops were destroyed by drought, hail and insect infestation. Tragedy would strike in 1889 when their 12-day old son died of convulsions. A numb, devastated Laura carried the tiny lifeless body to the cemetery west of town for burial.
Then in 1891, their home burned down. The fire had been accidentally started by 5-year old Rose in the kitchen. The barn full of hay and grain also was destroyed by fire. As if these losses were not enough, both Laura and Almanzo faced life-threatening illness with diptheria. Worried about the farm, Almanzo returned to work before being fully recovered and suffered a terrible relapse which left him partially paralyzed. Although he would eventually regain full use of his legs, he would need a cane to walk for the rest of his life.
Physically exhausted and emotionally devastated, they left South Dakota to visit Almanzo's parents in Spring Valley, Minnesota. From there they traveled to Florida and settled for a short time near the coast. Laura quickly became ill from the damp air and the family returned to DeSmet, South Dakota. While their daughter attended school, Almanzo and Laura worked constantly at various jobs to earn enough money to settle somewhere that would offer them a secure future. They left South Dakota for the Ozarks on July 17, 1894, using a two-seat hack that had been covered with a black oilcloth like a covered wagon, and arrived in Mansfield, Missouri on August 31, 1894.
The couple purchased a small, windowless log cabin situated on a five-acre clearing and surrounded by forty acres of woodland and rocky soil for $100.00. Included in the purchase price of their property known as Rocky Ridge were 400 apples trees and a year-round spring. In time they were able to build a log hen house and a stable. With Laura handling one end of a crosscut saw, Almanzo was able to clear more acreage. The wood provided them with fuel, as well as posts and fence rail. They also sold firewood at $0.75 per wagon load in town.
By spring of their first year in Mansfield, they were able to plant their first crops. To earn necessary income, the family sold eggs, potatoes, and huckleberry and blackberry pies. When they were able to purchase a cow, the family sold homemade butter.
In 1897, the couple built a one-room frame house...together. Over time, the Wilders added nine more rooms and completed the house in 1912. The parlor featured a beautiful fireplace comprised of stones from the Rocky Ridge Farm. The chimney and foundation of the house came from fieldstones. A description of the living room states, "The room had a rustic freshness within itself, as indicated by the ceiling's heavy oak beams, cut, hewed and set by the Wilders' own hands." There was no planing mill in Mansfield, so all of the oak was hand-planed and finished by the couple.
Rocky Ridge Farm eventually consisted of 200 cleared acres, which allowed Almanzo to add to his stock. The Wilders raised hogs, sheep, Leghorn hens and Jersey cows. Almanzo's dairy goats and Morgans were famous in the town.
Mrs. Wilder's writing evolved from gaining experience writing articles for magazines and newspapers. Her first published article was a hand-written letter to the editor of the DeSmet paper back in South Dakota, wherein she let everyone know that she and her husband had traveled to Lamar, Missouri. She also wrote an obituary for the Capper's Weekly about the death of a well-known local Mansfield resident. In addition to her organizing several farm women's clubs, Mrs. Wilder became a columnist for The Missouri Ruralist during World War I. Her weekly column was called, "As A Farm Wife Thinks", and became quite popular.
She often spoke at ladies groups and encouraged women to become active in improving their farms and way of life. And long before she became a published author, Mrs. Ingalls became involved in literary clubs. She was a founding member of the Athenian Club of Hartville in 1916. The ladies would meet on a Wednesday afternoon, and Laura would travel the 12-mile distance in a buggy driven by her loving husband. Meetings were held in the homes of members, and the ladies would discuss books.
It was at the encouragement of her daughter, Rose, that Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing the Little House books in 1932. Originally, she thought to make it one book entitled, Pioneer Girl, but soon realized it would be easier to write it as individual books. The result was an 8-part series, hand-written over an 11-year period.
After the publication of her first book, Little House in the Big Woods (1932), almost immediately she started receiving fan mail. She would answer her mail every morning until she was no longer able. Laura Ingalls Wilder loved children and was delighted they not only read her books, but were so interested in her childhood.
Her husband, Almanzo, was proud of his wife's accomplishments, although he remained quietly in the background. And Laura made sure that writing did not monopolize all her time. Together with her husband, they cared for their farm and loved to explore nature. In fact, she loved to keep the windows in her home uncovered so she could always look at nature. Her daughter, Rose, once said, "She has windows everywhere, not only in her house, but in her mind." Rose also described her mother as follows: "She's little, about five feet tall, has very small hands and feet, and large violet blue eyes; I have seen them purple. Baby fine, pure white hair. She wears it short and well-groomed and moves and speaks quickly, sometimes vivaciously. But her character is Scotch, she holds a purpose or opinion like granite."
Mrs. Lichty, curator of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum,(whose mother was the same age as Laura and a friend)said of the author: "She was a very, very beautiful little lady as long as she lived. She had a pink and white complexion and still, after all the hard work, she looked kind of like a Dresden doll, so little and sweet."
It should come as no surprise that both Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder were loved and well respected by their neighbors. In their later years they drove into town every Wednesday to do their shopping and errands. The devoted couple were married for 63 years, until Almanzo's death in 1949.
In 1954, Garth Williams (the illustrator for the Little House books), designed the bronze Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal. It's first recipient was Mrs. Wilder. The medal is an annual award presented by the Association for Library Service to Children, to 'an author or illustrator whose books, written in the United States, have made, over the years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children'.
Laura Ingalls Wilder continued to live at Rocky Ridge Farm until her death on 10 February 1957 at the age of 90.
The Little House series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder include:
1932 - Little House in the Big Woods
1935 - Little House on the Prairie
1937 - On the Banks of Plum Creek
1939 - By the Shores of Silver Lake
1940 - The Long Winter
1941 - Little Town on the Prairie
1943 - These Happy Golden Years
1971 - The First Four Years
NOTE: Farmer Boy, based on the childhood of Almanzo Wilder, was published in 1933 and not part of Laura's story. It takes place before Laura Ingalls Wilder was born, and tells the story of Almanzo's life as a boy growing up on his family's farm in Upstate New York.
Five books would be written about Laura's life in South Dakota. They are: By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie,and These Happy Golden Years, which tells about her blossoming relationship with future husband Almanzo Wilder. The book ends with their marriage. The fifth book, originally titled The First Three Years and a Year of Grace, was retitled The First Four Years. The book is about the life-threatening hardships and difficulties the Wilders endured early in their marriage. The manuscript for this book was found after the death of Laura Ingalls Wilder and published posthumously in 1971.
I realize this is an exceptionally long post, but it was very difficult for me to edit the life of such an extraordinary person, especially someone whose work meant so much to me as a child. As for what happened to the other members of the Ingalls family, I will quote a letter by Laura Ingalls Wilder to her readership.
I was born in the “Little House in the Big Woods” of Wisconsin on February 7 in the year 1867. I lived everything that happened in my books. It was a long story, filled with sunshine and shadow, that we have lived since 'These Happy Golden Years'.
After our marriage Almanzo and I lived for a little while in the little gray house on the tree claim. In the year 1894 we and our little daughter Rose left Dakota in a covered wagon and moved to a farm in the Ozarks. We cleared the land and built our own farmhouse. Eventually we had 200 acres of improved land, and a herd of cows, good hogs, and the best laying flock of hens in the country. For many years we did all our own work, but now almost all of the land has been rented or sold. For recreation we used to ride horseback or in our buggy – later on, our Chrysler. We read and played music and attended church socials.
In 1949 Almanzo died at the age of 92. We had been married 63 years. Our daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, the novelist, now lives in Connecticut.
You may be interested to know what happened to some of the other people you met in my books. Ma and Pa lived for a while on their homestead then moved into town where Pa did carpentry. After Mary graduated from the College for the Blind she lived at home. She was always cheerful and busy with her work, her books and music. Carrie worked for THE DE SMET NEWS for a while after finishing high school, and then she married a mine owner and moved to the Black Hills. Grace married a farmer and lived a few miles outside DeSmet. All of them have been dead for some years now.
Several years before Almanzo’s death he and I took a trip back to DeSmet for a reunion with our old friends. Many of the old buildings had been replaced. Everywhere we went we recognized faces, but we were always surprised to find them old and gray like ourselves, instead of being young as in our memories. There is one thing that will always remain the same to remind people of little Laura’s days on the prairie, and that is Pa’s fiddle. Every year at a public concert, someone plays on it the songs Pa used to play.
The 'Little House' books are stories of long ago. Today our way of living and our schools are much different; so many things have made living and learning easier. But the real things haven’t changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with the simple pleasures and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong. Great improvements in living have been made because every American has always been free to pursue his happiness, and so long as Americans are free they will continue to make our country ever more wonderful.
With love to you all and best wishes for your happiness,
I am Sincerely your friend,
Laura Ingalls Wilder"
Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum
Walnut Grove, MN
Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum
Rocky Ridge Farm, Mansfield, MO
Laura Ingalls Wilder by: Emma Carlson Berne
ABDO Publishing Co., Edina, MN (2008)