This Day In Literary History
On February 7th, 1867, the famous American children's book writer Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in Pepin, Wisconsin. She was born in a log cabin built by her father, Charles Ingalls. Many years later, a replica of the cabin would be built on the same plot of land and turned into a museum dedicated to Laura.
Laura grew up with her sisters Mary, Carrie, and Grace. Her baby brother, Charles Frederick, died in infancy. Laura's parents, Charles and Caroline, were pioneers with restless spirits. From Wisconsin, they moved West, first settling on the Kansas prairie in an area considered Indian territory.
A few years later, they would settle in a town that Laura would make famous - Walnut Grove, Minnesota. From there, they would stay with relatives in South Troy, Minnesota, then move on to Iowa, and ultimately, to South Dakota.
Charles Ingalls worked at many different jobs. In Walnut Grove, when he wasn't farming, he served as the town's butcher and its Justice of the Peace. In Iowa, he helped run a hotel. When he settled in South Dakota, he worked for the railroad.
As for Laura Ingalls, she first became a schoolteacher, landing her first teaching position two months before her 17th birthday. She taught in one-room schoolhouses. A year later, at the age of eighteen, Laura married her boyfriend Almanzo Wilder, who was ten years her senior. She bore him a daughter, Rose. She also had a son who died shortly after he was born.
Laura didn't care much for teaching, and employment opportunities for women were very limited at the time, so after she married, she devoted her time to building a home with her husband. After their daughter Rose was born, the couple's prospects seemed bright, but then they suffered several disasters.
First, Almanzo Wilder was stricken with a nearly fatal case of diphtheria. He survived, but was left partially paralyzed. He would regain almost full use of his legs, but walk with a cane for the rest of his life.
On top of that, Laura's newborn son died, the couple's home and barn burned down, and a severe drought destroyed their crops and left them in debt, unable to grow anything on their 300+ acres of land.
Laura Ingalls Wilder would chronicle these early hardships in The First Four Years, a long lost manuscript discovered after Rose Wilder's death in 1968 and published in 1971.
After staying with Almanzo's affluent parents in Spring Valley, Minnesota, the couple moved to Florida, hoping that the climate would be good for Almanzo's health. Instead, he and Laura couldn't stand the Southern heat and humidity - or the locals.
So, they moved to DeSmet, South Dakota, where Almanzo became a day laborer and Laura found work as a seamstress. The couple saved their money, and four years later, in 1894, they bought land in Mansfield, Missouri, which they christened the Rocky Ridge Farm.
It would take several years before the farm provided a decent income for the Wilders. At first, the only money they made came from selling firewood Almanzo had chopped while clearing out the land. So, he had to work at other jobs while Laura took in boarders and served food to railroad workers.
By 1910, the Rocky Ridge Farm had become a huge success. In addition to a wheat farm, it also served as a poultry farm and a dairy farm, and contained a huge and abundant apple orchard. The Wilder family was able to move out of their small rented home and into a ten-room dream farmhouse on their own land.
The following year, intrigued by her daughter Rose's budding writing career, Laura Ingalls Wilder, then 44 years old, decided to try her own hand at writing. She accepted an offer to submit an article to the Missouri Ruralist magazine. Her article would lead to an offer to write a column and work as an editor for the magazine.
Laura's column, As a Farm Woman Thinks, became a huge hit thanks in part to her expertise in farming and rural living. She was also well educated and well read, and concerned about what was going on in the world.
Though her column was popular, Laura never did make the leap to larger markets like her daughter, whose writings were being published by national magazines. But she was happy just writing her column.
By the late 1920s, Laura and Almanzo had scaled back their farm's operations considerably and were preparing to enjoy a comfortable retirement, having invested most of their savings in the stock market. Then, in September of 1929, the market crashed, wiping them out and ushering in the Great Depression.
The Wilders were left penniless and dependent on their daughter for support. Rose was able to support them with her writings, but Laura wanted to earn money writing as well. She also wanted to preserve her memories of a time long forgotten, when she was the young daughter of pioneers. So, she decided to write a children's novel based on her own childhood.
With Rose's blessing and help from her surviving sister Carrie, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her first book, When Grandma was a Little Girl, which would be published as Little House in the Big Woods in 1932. It won her the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award.
This book follows Laura at the age of five, and takes place when the Ingalls family was living in their log cabin in Pepin, Wisconsin. Laura begins learning her homesteading skills, everything from making butter, cheese, and maple syrup to preserving meat and harvesting the garden.
Little House in the Big Woods became a hit. Over the next decade, she would publish seven more books in the series, each chronicling a different period in her life. The most famous book was the third, Little House on the Prairie (1932), which found Laura and her family living in Kansas before being forced to move to Walnut Grove, Minnesota.
Laura Ingalls Wilder's memorable series of children's novels would win her Newbery Awards and bring her international fame. They also made the formerly penniless author a huge amount of money.
After her seventh book, These Happy Golden Years, was published in 1943, Laura quit writing fiction and devoted the rest of her years to writing about and promoting her libertarian philosophy. She died in February of 1957 - three days after her 90th birthday - of diabetes complications.
Some time after Laura's death, a controversy brewed about who really wrote the Little House series of children's novels. Some scholars believe that Laura's daughter Rose, who was a professional book editor and ghostwriter, actually wrote them. Others reject this theory completely.
Most believe that the truth lies in between. Rose Wilder had always served as her mother's editor, even back when Laura was writing her column for the Missouri Ruralist magazine. The stories told in the Little House novels were always Laura's, but Rose did edit her mother's original manuscripts and prepare them for publication.
Laura herself would probably say that her novels were a collaborative effort. She loved working with her daughter and trusted Rose's editing skills.
In September of 1974, a series premiered on American TV called Little House on the Prairie. Though it was named after the third book in Laura Ingalls Wilder's series and mostly based on the Ingalls family's time spent living in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, it would include elements from all of her books, including the time when Charles Ingalls helped run a hotel in Iowa.
Featuring executive producer, director, and head writer Michael Landon as Charles Ingalls and Melissa Gilbert as Laura, the Little House on the Prairie TV series would run for nine years and become one of the most popular and beloved TV series of all time.
Quote Of The Day
“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 simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.” - Laura Ingalls Wilder
Today's video features a reading of the first chapter Laura Ingalls Wilder's classic children's book, Little House on the Prairie. Enjoy!