Throughout history women have made their mark in a wide variety of ways. Each Saturday I plan to highlight one of these remarkable women. There will be no limit to the areas of history that I may include; however as a guide I will look to the month of their birth, the month of their death or the month associated with their mark in history when I select them. Is there an outstanding women in history you would like me to include? I welcome your suggestions. Would you like to guest blog one of the world’s outstanding women? Let me hear from you.
When I woke up Saturday morning, I realized that I had not written a post for this segment and didn’t know who I was going to write about. Google decided for me with its search engine logo dedicated to an outstanding woman from literature and folklore. Meet Laurel Ingalls Wilder.
Before I get too far into her story, I wanted to point out that I could probably not do her full justice in a simple blog post. There is a website dedicated to her that I recommend for further reading.
Click Here to go to the Museum Website
Remember me with smiles and laughter, for that is how I will remember you all. If you can only remember me with tears, then don’t remember me at all.
—- Laura Ingalls Wilder
Birth, ancestry and moving home
Laura Ingalls was born February 7, 1867. The Ingalls family that included her parents Charles Phillip Ingalls and Caroline Lake (Quiner) Ingalls, lived seven miles north of the village of Pepin in the “Big Woods” of Wisconsin. She was the second oldest and there were five children in all. The oldest, Mary Amelia, went blind in her teens. The three younger of Laura’s siblings were Caroline Celestia, Charles Frederick (who died in infancy), and Grace Pearl. Today, Laura’s birth site is commemorated by a replica log cabin, the Little House Wayside. They always say write what you know and that is why this childhood formed the basis for her first book, Little House in the Big Woods.
Here is something that I did not know. Laura was a descendant of the Delano family, relatives of the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This family history can trace back to the Mayflower in 1620.
At age two, Laura’s family moved from the Big Woods of Wisconsin in the year 1869. They stopped in Rothville, Missouri, and settled in Kansas, in Indian Country near what is now Independence. Soon after her younger sister, Carrie, (1870–1946) was born, the family was on the move again. Laura later told that her father Charles had been told that the location would soon be open to white settlers but that was incorrect. The homestead was actually on the Osage Indian reservation and they had no legal right to occupy it. Once informed of their error, they departed in 1871.
From Kansas they returned to Wisconsin where they lived the next four years. Those experiences formed the basis for Little House on the Prairie and Little House in the Big Woods, although the fictional chronology does not match the fact:
- The publisher had Laura change her age in Prairie as they felt it was not realistic that a three-year-old could have the memories so specific of her life in Kansas; hence she wrote of being four to five in Wisconsin (Big Woods) and six to seven in Kansas (Prairie). To be consistent with her already established chronology, she made herself six to seven years old in Prairie and seven to nine years old in On the Banks of Plum Creek, the third volume of her fictionalized history, which takes place around 1874.
- On the Banks of Plum Creek shows them moving from Kansas to an area near Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and settling in a dugout “on the banks of Plum Creek”. They really lived there beginning in 1874 when Laura was about seven. That year Charles’ restless spirit led them to Lake City, Minnesota, and then on to a preemption claim in Walnut Grove, where they lived for a time with relatives near South Troy, Minnesota. Laura’s little brother, Freddie, was born there on November 1, 1875; he died only nine months later on August 27, 1876. They next moved to Burr Oak, Iowa, where they helped run a hotel. Laura’s youngest sibling, Grace, was born there on May 23, 1877.
- They moved from Burr Oak back to Walnut Grove, where Charles served as the town butcher and justice of the peace. He accepted a railroad job in the spring of 1879, which took him to eastern Dakota Territory where they joined him that fall. Laura did not write about 1876–1877 when they lived near Burr Oak, but skipped directly to Dakota Territory, portrayed in By the Shores of Silver Lake. Thus the fictional timeline caught up with her real life.
On December 10, 1882 (Not December 24th as in Prairie), just before her sixteenth birthday, Laura accepted her first teaching position. She taught three terms in one-room schools when not attending herself in De Smet. She later admitted she did not particularly enjoy teaching, but felt the responsibility from a young age to help her family financially; and wage-earning opportunities for women were limited. Between 1883 and 1885, she taught three terms of school, worked for the local dressmaker, and attended high school, although she did not graduate.
Marriage, Children and the Early Years of the Wilder Family
Laura wrote about the first four years of their married life in The First Four Years. Like the Ingalls family, these were years filled with moves but also frequent difficulties.
- Complications from a life-threatening bout of diphtheria left Almanzo partially paralyzed. While he eventually regained nearly full use of his legs, he needed a cane to walk for the remainder of his life.
- Death of their newborn son.
- The destruction of their barn along with its hay and grain by a mysterious fire.
- The total loss of their home from a fire accidentally set by Rose.
- Several years of severe drought that left them in debt, physically ill, and unable to earn a living from their 320 acres (129.5 hectares) of prairie land.
Around 1890, they left De Smet and spent about a year resting at Almanzo’s parents’ prosperous Spring Valley, Minnesota farm before moving briefly to Westville, Florida. Although they thought that Florida’s climate would improve Almanzo’s health, they wilted in the Southern humidity and heat since they were not used to such climate. In 1892, they returned to De Smet and bought a small house.
Two years later they moved to Mansfield, Missouri, and used their savings to make the down payment on an undeveloped property just outside town.
- They named the place Rocky Ridge Farm and moved into a ramshackle log cabin.
- Initially gained financial security slowly with income only from wagonloads of firewood Almanzo sold in town for fifty cents.
- Apple trees they planted did not bear fruit for seven years.
- Laura’s parents visited around that time. They gave them the deed to the house they had been renting in Mansfield and this was the economic jump start they needed.
- They added to the property outside town, eventually owning nearly 200 acres (80.9 hectares).
- Around 1910 they sold the house in town, moved back to the farm and completed the farmhouse with the proceeds.
- What began as about forty acres (16.2 hectares) of thickly wooded, stone-covered hillside with a windowless log cabin became in twenty years a relatively prosperous poultry, dairy, and fruit farm and an impressive ten-room farmhouse.
In 1911, Laura received an invitation to submit an article to the Missouri Ruralist and this eventually led to a permanent position as a columnist and editor. She held this position until the mid-1920s. She also took a paid position with the local Farm Loan Association, dispensing small loans to local farmers.
Laura’s column in the Ruralist, “As a Farm Woman Thinks,” introduced her to a loyal audience of rural Ozarkians, who enjoyed her regular columns. Her topics ranged from home and family to World War I and other world events, and to the fascinating world travels of their daughter, Rose and her own thoughts on the increasing options offered to women during this era.
In the early to mid-1920s, her daughter Rose began intensively encouraging her to improve her writing skills with a view toward greater success as a writer. Rose had already achieved this and Wilders had come to depend on annual income subsidies from their increasingly famous and successful daughter. Before research for today’s post, I had never heard of her daughters success.
The Stock Market Crash of 1929 wiped them out as well as Rose’s investments. They still owned the farm, but they had invested most of their savings with Rose’s broker. In 1930, Laura asked Rose’s opinion about an autobiographical manuscript she had written about her pioneering childhood. The Great Depression, coupled with the death of her mother, Caroline, in 1924 and her sister, Mary, in 1928, seem to have prompted her to preserve her memories in a life story called Pioneer Girl. She also hoped that her writing would generate some additional income. The original title of the first of the books was When Grandma Was a Little Girl. On the advice of Rose’s publisher, Laura greatly expanded the story. Thanks to Rose’s publishing connections as a successful writer and after editing by her, it was published by Harper & Brothers in 1932 as Little House in the Big Woods. After its success, Laura continued writing. The close and often rocky collaboration between them continued, in person until 1935 when Rose permanently left Rocky Ridge Farm, and afterwards by correspondence.
The collaboration worked both ways: Two of Rose’s most successful novels, Let the Hurricane Roar (1932) and Free Land (1938), were written at the same time as the “Little House” series and basically retold Ingalls and Wilder family tales in an adult format. There has been some controversy over the years as to whether Rose was Laura’s ghostwriter.
The Little House book series, written for elementary-school age children, became an enduring, eight-volume record of early pioneering life of the 19th century based on the Ingalls family’s experiences on the American frontier. The First Four Years, about the Wilders’ early days of marriage, discovered, completely unedited by Rose, after her death, was first published in 1971 as the ninth volume.
Since the initial publication of Little House in the Big Woods in 1932, the books have been continuously in print and have been translated into 40 other languages. By the mid-1930s the royalties from the Little House books brought a steady and increasingly substantial income to the Wilders for the first time in their 50 years of marriage. The collaboration also brought the two writers at Rocky Ridge Farm the money they needed to recoup the loss of their investments in the stock market. Various honors, huge amounts of fan mail, and other accolades were bestowed on Laura.
Later life and death
For their remaining years, Laura and Almanzo moved back into the farmhouse. From 1935, Laura and Almanzo were alone at Rocky Ridge Farm where almost daily, carloads of fans stopped by, eager to meet “Laura” of the Little House books. They lived independently and without financial worries until Almanzo’s death at the farm in 1949 at age 92. Laura remained on the farm. For the next eight years, she lived alone, looked after by a circle of neighbors and friends. She continued an active correspondence with her editors, many fans, and friends during these years.
In autumn 1956, 89-year-old Laura was severely ill from undiagnosed diabetes and a weakening heart. She was hospitalized by Rose who had arrived for Thanksgiving, and was able to return home on the day after Christmas. But she declined rapidly from that point, and died in her sleep at home on February 10, 1957, three days after her ninetieth birthday. She was buried beside Almanzo at the Mansfield cemetery. Rose was buried next to them upon her death in 1968.
Following Laura’s death, the local townsfolk put together a non-profit corporation to purchase the house and its grounds, for use as a museum. After some wariness at the notion of seeing the house rather than the books themselves be a shrine to Laura, Rose came to believe that making a museum of it would draw long-lasting attention to the books. She donated the money needed to purchase the house and make it a museum, agreed to make significant contributions each year for its upkeep and also gave many of their belongings to help establish what became a popular museum that still draws thousands of visitors each year to Mansfield.
To see a list of all her works and her legacy, click here the source of the material above.