Laura Ingalls Wilder
Pioneer and Author
By Anne Adams
“Once upon a time, 60 years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.”
With these words from the 1932 book Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder began the saga that introduced innumerable children to her very unique personal story. For in this and in the other 8 books about her life – the “Little House” books – she enthralled youngsters with the story of her childhood on a frontier that most of her readers only knew from history books.
Also, while Laura may only have wanted to share her story, the “Little House” books offered her readers something else. Through her books they saw history as more than just boring dates and battles but as the life and adventures of a real youngster not too different from themselves. So while they were reading about a real person they were actually reading history.
The author whose accounts have been so popular was born Laura Elizabeth Ingalls in February, 1867 near Pepin, Wisconsin. She was the second child of Charles and Caroline Ingalls – known to many generations of readers as Pa and Ma. After leaving Pepin in 1868 Laura and her family traveled south, eventually settling in Kansas, where Pa built the home Laura described in The Little House on the Prairie (1935). There they encountered the challenges involved with settling in such a place, including wild animals, the remote location where they often had to live off the land, a prairie fire, as well as the uneasy experiences with local tribes. Two years later the Ingalls family returned to the “Big Woods” of Wisconsin and then settled in various communities in Minnesota – experiences Laura described in the 1939 book On the Banks of Plum Creek.
Then in 1879 Pa took a job with the railroad that was expanding west into the Dakota Territory. In her 1939 book By the Shores of Silver Lake Laura described how after he completed the railroad job, Pa found the perfect site for his own homestead claim. It was located near the new and growing town that became DeSmet, South Dakota.
Once settled on their claim, the Ingalls family then moved to town to struggle through The Long Winter (1940) when DeSmet was snowbound. From October 1880 to late spring 1881, continuous blizzards meant Laura and her family as well as her neighbors were entirely cut off from the outside world for more than six months.
Laura continued her story in Little Town on the Prairie (1941) as she grew into a young woman with many friends, attended school and developed a growing love interest in a young homesteader named Almanzo Wilder. In These Happy Golden Years (1943) Laura continued her story as Almanzo became more important in her life, as she taught school briefly and also continued her own education. The book ends with her marriage in August 1885 and the “Little House” book series also ends.
Yet while many readers treasured the characters and stories of Laura, Almanzo, Pa, Ma and the other members of the Ingalls family it would be natural to assume the “Little House” book series was actually carefully researched autobiography.
But was it?
The reality is that while the Ingalls family was real, as were many of the incidents, what Laura wrote was her life story in a fictional format. Or perhaps you could say the series are novels based on true stories. With “Laura Ingalls” as the main character the author used the third person narrative, compressed events, created composite characters, changed names and even skipped over some events in the Ingalls’ family story. For example, Laura advanced or reduced her actual age to enhance her story, skipped over some family moves, and also did not include an infant brother who died quite young. Laura’s biographer described Laura’s response to a fan letter about how she’d not mentioned a certain town in Minnesota, a short distance where the letter writer lived. “I should have [mentioned it],” was Laura’s response, “but at the time I had no idea I was writing history.” But the biographer added: “She meant, of course that she wasn’t.” Not strictly history, indeed, but an appealing life story written with an undeniable sense of reality.
So the “Little House” books are fiction of a sort, but of course based on real people and that makes it natural to wonder what happened to Laura and Almanzo after These Happy Golden Years? And how did Laura come to write the books about her childhood?
In real life, prior to the 1885 marriage, because of good weather conditions, Almanzo had experienced several good years on his homestead. So prospects seemed bright for the newlyweds as they started out, and a year later they welcomed their daughter Rose, An unnamed baby boy born in 1889 died soon after birth and that was only one of several family tragedies. A fire destroyed their house and barn, and several seasons of draught pushed them into debt. Then Almanzo suffered from diphtheria that left him partially paralyzed – he would walk with a cane for the rest of his life. Perhaps as a prelude to the “Little House” books she would write as a mature woman, Laura described these years of struggle in a manuscript that was only discovered after her death. It was published as The First Four Years in 1971.
Since their Dakota farm experience had been a failure, Laura and Almanzo and Rose moved to Minnesota in 1890 and then to Florida. However, though the warm climate there helped Almanzo’s health, Laura found it difficult to deal with the excess heat and humidity. They returned to DeSmet in 1892 where they found jobs in town to save enough to resume farming. Then when they did so two years later it was not in South Dakota.
In 1894 Almanzo and Laura purchased land near Mansfield, Missouri and there on what they called Rocky Ridge Farm they remained for the rest of their lives. Over the next few years they developed the property from 40 acres of wooded, stony country into a prosperous 200 acre farm producing fruit, poultry, and dairy products, as well as an extensive house and outbuilding complex. However, until they could make a living from farming, Almanzo and Laura had to live in town for a while and work at other jobs.
By 1910 the farm was successful enough for them to settle there, and two years later their farmhouse was completed. After their crop failures in South Dakota, they had learned the advantage of diversifying crops so they developed a variety of products – poultry, and dairy and an apple orchard. Also, Laura became involved in local and state agricultural organizations and within this interest she contributed articles to a state publication, becoming a columnist and editor. Under the title “As a Farm Woman Thinks,” Laura discussed home, family and even national events as well as news about their daughter Rose Wilder Lane who had become a nationally known author.
With their income from the farm and Laura’s writing as well as her work as a part time employee of a Farm Loan Association, she and Almanzo were financially comfortable. Also, though Rose encouraged her mother to consider submitting stories and articles to national magazines, Laura did not seriously pursue that idea.
By 1930 Laura and Almanzo were looking forward to an easy retirement on their farm but the 1929 market crash eliminated that possibility. They still had their farm, but their funds were nonetheless limited. Rose had returned home after many years of travel and publishing and it soon became evident that she would be their main source of support.
Caroline Ingalls – “Ma”- had died in 1924 and her eldest sister Mary in 1928, and their passing possibly inspired Laura to begin an autobiography with the hope that she could use her writing to provide a retirement income. So with both the manuscript and this desire, combined with Rose’s writing and editing skills, the Missouri farmwife Laura Ingalls Wilder at age 63 became an internationally famous children’s book author.
Yet as they developed, how much of the “Little House” book material was Laura’s and how much was Rose’s? Opinions differ. Some felt that Laura wrote a rough draft that Rose adapted and edited into publishable form. Others felt that Laura was a skillful writer and Rose’s part was encouragement and publishing connections. Perhaps the most likely answer was that it was a joint collaboration. Yet whatever the answer, the books ultimately combined their individual talents to provide a retirement income for Laura and Almanzo and at the same time entertain and educate countless readers over the years.
Laura and Almanzo continued to live at Rocky Ridge Farm, as they cared for their animals and their gardens, and receiving visitors, who wanted to meet the heroine of their favorite books. They remained as independent as possible until Almanzo died in 1942 at age 92. Laura continued to live at the farm, visited frequently by local friends and neighbors. In 1956 Rose came to the farm to find Laura failing, and after a brief hospitalization she returned home.
Laura had frequently said she wanted to live to be 90 because Almanzo had, and she attained her goal. She died three days after her 90th birthday in February, 1957.
Rose donated the farmhouse to an association that preserves the Wilder home for thousands of visitors every year.
Besides the “Little House” books, Laura shared different aspects in her life story in other volumes such as Farmer Boy (1933), about Almanzo’s childhood in upstate New York. There were also two books published posthumously besides The First Four Years. These were: On the Way Home (1962), about Laura’s and Almanzo’s move to Missouri (with editing and additions by Rose), and West From Home (1974), which were letters from Laura to her husband on a 1915 visit to Rose in San Francisco. And through these and the “Little House” books, Laura had provided not just a fascinating account of her life but offered a unique insight into history as it happened.