"The enormous lake stretched flat and smooth and white all the way to the edge of the gray sky. Wagon tracks went away across it, so far that you could not see where they went; they ended in nothing at all." -- Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder (February 7, 1867 — February 10, 1957) was an American author who wrote the Little House series of books based on her childhood in a pioneer family.
"A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.""But in the east the sky was pale and through the gray woods came lanterns with wagons and horses, bringing Grandpa and Grandma and aunts and uncles and cousins.""Every job is good if you do your best and work hard. A man who works hard stinks only to the ones that have nothing to do but smell.""Everything from the little house was in the wagon, except the beds and tables and chairs. They did not need to take these, because Pa could always make new ones.""Far worst of all, the fever had settled in Mary's eyes, and Mary was blind.""Her blue eyes were still beautiful, but they did not know what was before them, and Mary herself could never look through them again to tell Laura what she was thinking without saying a word.""Home is the nicest word there is.""If enough people think of a thing and work hard enough at it, I guess it's pretty nearly bound to happen, wind and weather permitting.""In the long winter evenings he talked to Ma about the Western country. In the West the land was level, and there were no trees. The grass grew thick and high.""It is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.""Mary and Carrie and baby Grace and Ma had all had scarlet fever. The Nelsons across the creek had had it too, so there had been no one to help Pa and Laura.""Once you begin being naughty, it is easier to go and on and on, and sooner or later something dreadful happens.""Pa did not like a country so old and worn out that the hunting was poor. He wanted to go west. For two years he had wanted to go west and take a homestead, but Ma did not want to leave the settled country.""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.""So Pa sold the little house. He sold the cow and calf. He made hickory bows and fastened them upright to the wagon box. Ma helped him stretch white canvas over them.""So they all went away from the little log house. The shutters were over the windows, so the little house could not see them go. It stayed there inside the log fence, behind the two big oak trees that in the summertime had made green roofs for Mary and Laura to play under.""Suffering passes, while love is eternal. That's a gift that you have received from God. Don't waste it.""The path that went by the little house had become a road. Almost every day Laura and Mary stopped their playing and stared in surprise at a wagon slowly creaking by on that road.""The trouble with organizing a thing is that pretty soon folks get to paying more attention to the organization than to what they're organized for.""There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no settlers. Only Indians lived there.""They drove a long way through the snowy woods, till they came to the town of Pepin. Mary and Laura had seen it once before, but it looked different now.""Wild animals would not stay in a country where there were so many people. Pa did not like to stay, either. He liked a country where the wild animals lived without being afraid."
Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born February 7, 1867, near the village of Pepin, in the "Big Woods" of Wisconsin, to Charles Phillip Ingalls and Caroline Lake Ingalls. She was the second of five children; her siblings were Mary Amelia, who went blind; Caroline Celestia, Charles Frederick, who died at nine months old, and Grace Pearl. Her birth site is commemorated by a period log cabin, the Little House Wayside. Her life here formed the basis for the book Little House in the Big Woods. (See the book entry for more information.)
A paternal ancestor was Edmund Ingalls born June 27, 1586 in Skirbeck, Lincolnshire, England. He died on September 16, 1648 in Lynn, Essex County, Massachusetts. She is also a descendant of the Delano family and Edmund Rice, a 1638 immigrant to Massachusetts Bay Colony.
In Laura's early childhood, her father settled on land not yet open for homesteading in what was then Indian Territory near Independence, Kansas--an experience that formed the basis of Ingalls' novel Little House on the Prairie. Within a few years, her father's restless spirit led them on various moves to a preemption claim in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, living with relatives near South Troy, Minnesota, and helping to run a hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa. After a move from Burr Oak back to Walnut Grove, where Charles Ingalls served as the town butcher and Justice of the Peace, Charles accepted a railroad job in the spring of 1879 which led him to eastern Dakota Territory, where he was joined by the family in the fall of 1879. Over the winter of 1879-1880, Charles landed a homestead, and called DeSmet, South Dakota, home for the rest of his, Caroline, and Mary's lives. After staying the cold winter of 1879—1880 in the Surveyor's House, the Ingalls family watched the town of DeSmet rise up from the prairie in 1880. The following winter, 1880—1881, one of the most severe on record in the Dakotas, was later described by Wilder in her book, The Long Winter. Once the family was settled in DeSmet, she attended school, made many friends, and met homesteader Almanzo Wilder (1857—1949), whom she later married. This time in her life is well documented in the Little House series of books.
Shortly before her sixteenth birthday, she accepted her first teaching position, teaching three terms in one-room schools, when not attending school herself in DeSmet. She later admitted that she did not particularly enjoy teaching, but felt the responsibility from a young age to help her family financially, and wage earning opportunities for females were limited. She stopped teaching when she married Almanzo Wilder, whom she called Manly, on August 25, 1885. Wilder had achieved a degree of prosperity on his homestead claim, owing to favorable weather in the early 1880s, and the couple's prospects seemed bright. She joined Almanzo in a new home on his claim north of De Smet and agreed to help him make the claim succeed. On December 5, 1886, she gave birth to Rose Wilder (1886—1968) and later, an unnamed son, who died shortly after birth in 1889.
The first few years of marriage held many trials. 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. This setback, among many others, began a series of disastrous events that included the death of their unnamed newborn son, the destruction of their home and barn by fire, and several years of severe drought that left them in debt, physically ill, and unable to earn a living from their of prairie land. The tales of their trials at farming can be found in The First Four Years, a manuscript that was discovered after Rose Wilder Lane's death. Published in 1971, it detailed the hard-fought first four years of marriage on the Dakota prairies.Around 1890, the Wilders left DeSmet and spent about a year resting at Wilder's parents' prosperous Spring Valley (Minnesota) farm before moving briefly to Westville, Florida. They sought Florida's climate to improve Wilder's health, but being used to living on the dry plains, he wilted in the heat and Southern humidity. In 1892, they returned to DeSmet and bought a small house (although later accounts by Lane mistakenly indicated it was rented). The Wilders received special permission to start their precocious daughter in school early and took jobs (Almanzo as a day laborer, Laura as a seamstress at a dressmaker's shop) to save enough money to once again start a farm.
In 1894, the hard-pressed young couple moved a final time to Mansfield, Missouri, using their savings to make a down payment on a piece of undeveloped property just outside of town. They named the place Rocky Ridge Farm. What began as about of thickly wooded, stone-covered hillside with a windowless log cabin, over the next 20 years evolved into a , relatively prosperous poultry, dairy, and fruit farm. The ramshackle log cabin was eventually replaced with an impressive 10-room farmhouse and outbuildings. The couple's climb to financial security was a slow process. Initially, the only income the farm produced was from wagonloads of firewood Almanzo sold for 50 cents in town, the result of the backbreaking work of clearing the trees and stones from land that slowly evolved into fertile fields and pastures. The apple trees did not begin to bear fruit for seven years. Barely able to eke out more than a subsistence living on the new farm, the Wilders decided to move into nearby Mansfield in the late 1890s and rent a small house. Almanzo found work as an oil salesman and general delivery man, while Laura took in boarders and served meals to local railroad workers.
Wilder's parents visited around this time, and presented to the couple, as a gift, the deed to the house they had been renting in Mansfield. This was the economic jump start they needed; they eventually sold the house in town and using the proceeds from the sale, were able to move back to the farm permanently, and to complete Rocky Ridge.
By 1910, Rocky Ridge Farm was established to the point where the Wilders returned there to focus their efforts on increasing the farm's productivity and output. The impressive 10-room farmhouse completed in 1912 stands as a testament to their labors and determination to carve a comfortable and attractive home from the land.
Having learned a hard lesson from focusing solely on wheat farming in South Dakota, the Wilders' Rocky Ridge Farm became a diversified poultry and dairy farm, with an abundant apple orchard. Wilder, always active in various clubs and an advocate for several regional farm associations, was recognized as an authority in poultry farming and rural living, which led to invitations to talk to groups around the region.
Following her daughter Rose Wilder Lane's developing writing career also inspired Wilder to do some writing of her own. An invitation to submit an article to the Missouri Ruralist in 1911 led to a permanent position as a columnist and editor with that publication ... a position she held until the mid-1920s. She also took a paid position with a Farm Loan Association, dispensing small loans to local farmers from her office in the farmhouse.
Her column in the Ruralist, "As a Farm Woman Thinks," introduced Mrs. A.J. Wilder to a loyal audience of rural Ozarkians, who enjoyed her regular columns, whose topics ranged from home and family to World War I and other world events, to the fascinating world travels of her daughter and her own thoughts on the increasing options offered to women during this era.
While the Wilders were never wealthy until the "Little House" series of books began to achieve popularity, the farming operation and Wilder's income from writing and the Farm Loan Association provided a stable enough living for the Wilders to finally place themselves in Mansfield middle-class society.
Wilder's fellow clubwomen were mostly the wives of business owners, doctors and lawyers, and her club activities took up much of the time that Lane encouraged her to use to develop a writing career for national magazines, as Lane had done. Wilder seemed unable or unwilling to make the leap from writing for the Missouri Ruralist to these higher-paying national markets. The few articles she was able to sell to national magazines were heavily edited by her daughter and placed solely through Lane's established publishing connections.
For much of the 1920s and 1930s, between long stints living abroad (including in her beloved adopted country of Albania), Lane lived with the Wilders at Rocky Ridge Farm. As her free-lance writing career flourished, she successfully invested in the booming stock market.
Her newfound financial freedom led her to increasingly assume responsibility for her aging parents' support, as well as providing for the college educations of several young people she "adopted," both in Albania and Mansfield. Lane also took over the farmhouse her parents had built and had a beautiful, modern stone cottage constructed for them as a gift. However, when Lane left the farm for good a few years later, the Wilders, homesick for the house they had built with their own hands, moved back to it, and finished their lives there. By the late 1920s, they had scaled back the farming operation considerably and Wilder had resigned from her positions with the Missouri Ruralist and the Farm Loan Association. Hired help was installed in the caretaker's house Lane had built on the property, to take care of the remaining farm work that Almanzo, now in his 70s, could no longer easily manage.
A comfortable and worry-free retirement seemed possible for the Wilders until the Stock Market Crash of 1929 wiped out the family's investments. The couple still owned the farm, but they had invested most of their hard-won savings with Lane's broker. Lane was faced with the grim prospect of selling enough of her writing in a depressed market to maintain the financial responsibilities she had assumed, and the Wilders became dependent on her as their primary source of support.
In 1930, Wilder asked her daughter's opinion about a biographical manuscript she had written about her pioneering childhood. The Great Depression, coupled with the death of her mother 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 had also renewed her interest in writing in the hope of generating some income. The first idea for the title of the first of the books was When Grandma was a Little Girl (later Little House in the Big Woods). After its success, Laura continued writing, given mental support and help in the form of her sister, Carrie, sharing her own memories.
Controversy surrounds Lane's exact role in what became her mother's famous "Little House" series of books. Some argue that Laura was an "untutored genius," relying on her daughter mainly for some early encouragement and her connections with publishers and literary agents. Others contend that Lane took each of her mother's unpolished rough drafts in hand and completely (and silently) transformed them into the series of books we know today. The truth most likely lies somewhere between these two positions — Wilder's writing career as a rural journalist and credible essayist began more than two decades before the "Little House" series, and Lane's formidable skills as an editor and ghostwriter are well-documented . But Lane's New York literary agent, George T. Bye, turned away the initial drafts, commenting that they lacked drama.
The existing evidence (including ongoing correspondence between the women concerning the development of the series, Lane's extensive personal diaries and Wilder's first person draft manuscripts) tends to reveal an ongoing joint collaboration. The conclusion can be drawn that Wilder's strengths as a compelling storyteller and Lane's considerable skills in dramatic pacing and literary structure contributed to an occasionally tense, but fruitful, collaboration between two talented and headstrong women.
It should be noted, however, that the family considered Laura the author with only minor help and advice from Lane. The late Herbert Ingalls for instance, a cousin to both women, visited the Mansfield home while Rose Lane was also visiting with Laura and Almanzo. According to Herbert's account of his visit, Laura was busy writing her second book but the family, including Rose, gave only passing attention to the project. Herbert recounted that the family was happy for Laura, but at that time no one realized how much of an impact her books would have, or how famous she would become. The family continues to maintain that Laura's writing was considered her own project, with Lane's contribution consisting of advice and counsel. In fact, the family reports that Laura sent her first manuscript to Lane's publisher, against Lane's wishes.
Whatever the extent of the collaboration, it seems to have worked both ways: two of Lane'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 re-told Ingalls and Wilder family tales in an adult format. 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. Simply stated: If Wilder had not written the books, they would not exist ... Lane had no interest in writing what she called "juveniles" ... but had Lane not edited the books, they might well have never been accepted for publication let alone become famous. Since the initial publication of "Little House in the Big Woods" in 1931, the books have been continually in print and have been translated into 40 different languages.
Whatever the collaboration personally represented to the mother and daughter was never publicly discussed, however. Wilder's first ... and smallest ... royalty check from Harper in 1932 was for $500 ... the equivalent of $8,000 in 2010 funds. 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. Various honors, huge amounts of fan mail and other accolades were granted to Laura Ingalls Wilder. The novels and short stories of Rose Wilder Lane during the 1930s also represented her creative and literary peak. Her name received top billing on the magazine covers where her fiction and articles appeared. The Saturday Evening Post paid her $30,000 in 1938 (approximately $450,000 in 2010 funds) to serialize her best-selling novel Free Land, while Let the Hurricane Roar saw an increasing and steady sale, augmented by a radio dramatization starring Helen Hayes. The book remains in print today as Young Pioneers.
Lane left Rocky Ridge Farm in the late 1930s, establishing homes in Harlingen, Texas, and Danbury, Connecticut. She eventually ceased fiction writing and spent the remainder of her life writing about and promoting her philosophies of personal freedom and liberty. She became one of the more influential American libertarians of the mid-twentieth century.
During these years, Wilder and her husband were frequently alone at Rocky Ridge Farm. Most of the surrounding area (including the property with the stone cottage Lane had built for them) had been sold off, but they still kept some farm animals, and tended their flower beds and vegetable gardens. Almost daily, carloads of fans would stop by, eager to meet "Laura" of the Little House books. The Wilders lived independently and without financial worries until Almanzo's death in 1949, at the age of 92. Wilder was grieved, but determined to remain independent and stay on the farm, despite Lane's requests that her mother come live with her permanently in Connecticut. For the next eight years, she lived alone, looked after by a circle of neighbors and friends who found it hard to believe their very own "Mrs. Wilder" was a world-famous author. She was a familiar figure in Mansfield, being brought into town regularly by her driver to run errands, attend church, or visit friends. She continued an active correspondence with her editors, many fans and friends during these years.
Throughout the 1950s, Lane usually returned to Missouri to spend the winter with her mother. Once, Wilder flew to Connecticut for a visit to Lane's home. In the fall of 1956, Lane went to Mansfield for Thanksgiving, and found her 89-year-old mother severely ill from undiagnosed diabetes and a weakening heart. Several weeks in the hospital seemed to improve the situation somewhat, and Wilder was able to return home on the day after Christmas. But she was very old and very ill, and declined rapidly after that point. Wilder had an extremely competitive spirit going all the way back to the schoolyard as a child, and she had remarked to many people that she wanted to live to be 90, "because Almanzo had". She succeeded. On February 10, 1957, just three days after her 90th birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder died in her sleep in her Mansfield farmhouse.
With Wilder's death in 1957, use of the Rocky Ridge Farmhouse reverted to the farmer who had earlier bought the surrounding land. 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 her mother, Lane 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 the family's belongings to help establish what became a popular museum that still draws thousands of visitors each year to Mansfield.
Lane inherited ownership of the "Little House" literary estate for her lifetime only, all rights reverting to the Mansfield library after her death, according to her mother's will. After her death in 1968, Lane's heir, Roger MacBride, gained control of the copyrights. MacBride was Lane's informally-adopted grandson, as well as her business agent, attorney, and heir. All of MacBride's actions carried Lane's apparent approval. In fact, at Lane's request, the copyrights to each of the "Little House" books, as well as those of Lane's own literary works, had been renewed in MacBride's name when the original copyrights expired during the decade between Wilder's and Lane's deaths.
Controversy did not come until after MacBride's death in 1995, when the Laura Ingalls Wilder Branch of the Wright County Library (which Wilder helped found) in Mansfield, Missouri, decided it was worth trying to recover the rights. The ensuing court case was settled in an undisclosed manner, but MacBride's heirs retained the rights. The library received enough to start work on a new building.
The popularity of the Little House series of books has grown phenomenally over the years, spawning a multimillion-dollar franchise of mass merchandising, additional spinoff book series (some written by MacBride and his daughter), and the long-running television show, starring Michael Landon. Laura Ingalls Wilder has been portrayed by Melissa Gilbert (1974-1984), Meredith Monroe (1997, 1998) and Kyle Chavarria (2005) in television series.
Wilder once said the reason she wrote her books in the first place was to preserve the stories of her childhood for today's children, to help them to understand how much America had changed during her lifetime.
Little House in the Big Woods (1932)
Farmer Boy (1933) - about her husband's childhood on a farm in New York
Little House on the Prairie (1935)
On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937), a Newbery Honor book
By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939), a Newbery Honor book
The Long Winter (1940), a Newbery Honor book
Little Town on the Prairie (1941), a Newbery Honor book
These Happy Golden Years (1943), a Newbery Honor book
On the Way Home (1962, published posthumously) - a diary of the Wilders' move from de Smet to Mansfield, Missouri, edited and added to by Rose Wilder Lane.
The First Four Years (1971, published posthumously)
West from Home (1974, published posthumously) - Wilder's letters to Almanzo while visiting Lane in San Francisco in 1915
The Road Back (Part of Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Journeys Across America, highlighting Laura's previously unpublished record of a 1931 trip with Almanzo to De Smet, South Dakota, and the Black Hills)
A Little House Sampler, with Rose Wilder Lane, edited by William Anderson
Writings from the Ozarks
Writings to Young Women (Volume One: On Wisdom and Virtues, Volume Two: On Life As a Pioneer Woman, Volume Three: As Told By Her Family, Friends, and Neighbors)
A Collection of Writings
Laura Ingalls Wilder & Rose Wilder Lane (Letters exchanged by Laura and Rose)
The Rediscovered Writings
Laura's Album (A Remembrance Scrapbook of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson)