Volume VII, No. 2, Winter 1979
by Kathy Long
Finally! After all of the restless wandering in search of better land, opportunities and success, Laura, her husband, Almanzo, and their seven year old daughter, Rose, had come to the right place--their last little home in the Ozarks--the Land of the Big Red Apple. This was the slogan that was filling pioneer minds everywhere with dreams of a better life.
Free of the dreaded South Dakota winters and hoping for an end to their financial struggles, they were determined to make this final journey to their little house on Rocky Ridge Farm where they would spend the rest of their lives.
Mansfield, Missouri, would soon also prove to be the land of happiness, of fulfillment and of success for the Wilders. Almanzo took great pride in his flourishing crops, his beautiful Morgans and his herd of milk goats. Laura was just as successful as an ambitious farmwife and an active participant in community clubs and organizations. However, the activities of them both somehow seemed only the background for Laura's writing career begun late in life at the age of sixty-five. The peaceful surroundings of Rocky Ridge Farm provided the inspiration for Laura to expand her talents as the author of eight famous "Little House" books in which she revealed both the delightful and tragic experiences of growing up in Dakota territory. Life on the Ozark farm might have prompted Rose to develop her own successful writing career, which began long before her mother began writing.
The change of lifestyle in the Ozarks was definitely welcome, although Laura and Almanzo never anticipated such success. Only a few years before, Laura was living at home enjoying the company of Ma and Pa, her three sisters, Mary, Carrie and Grace, and obtaining her first teaching job at a small, rural school in South Dakota.
She began teaching at fifteen. Almost a student herself, she had no experience at handling a classroom. A friend of Laura's, Emogene Fuge, remembered Laura telling her of one of the first problems she had encountered while staying at a pupil's home during her first teaching term. "Before she and Almanzo were married, she went off down to this little place and lived with some horrible people that treated her terrible. One night this woman had a knife up over Laura and scared her almost out of her wits. There was only a sheet between them and this woman was practically ready to poke a butcher knife in her. She was just sort of a demented soul."
In the third year of teaching, Laura became interested in a twenty-eight year old neighbor, Almanzo Wilder. "She met him in a hay field," said Mrs. Cleo Long, one of Laura's correspondents. "Her Pa had sent her and her sister Mary to town to buy a sickle for the mower, and they decided rather than to go the long way around, they'd cut through the grass to take the short way home. They saw two boys hauling hay, and one of them, Almanzo, hollered at her. That was the beginning."
Laura and Almanzo were married August 15, 1885. Laura, born February 7, 1867, was approximately ten years younger but the age difference never seemed to concern the devoted couple.
Almanzo was born to James and Angeline Day Wilder February 13, 1857, near Malone, New York. When he became of age, the challenge of the pioneer life brought him to South Dakota.
Struggling through the first few years together on Almanzo's tree claim, the Wilders gained confidence to overcome almost any problems. While trying to make a living by raising chickens and cattle and tending fruit orchards and wheat fields, they suffered the devastation of their crops by drought, hail and even grasshopper infestation. Mrs. Fuge said, "South Dakota was a hard-to-live-with place. The winters were hard and the summers hot, and land was hard to plow. Once they tolerated five straight years of drought."
In 1886, Rose's birth on December 5, brought them much happiness, but two years later they suffered heartbreak when their twelve-day-old son died of convulsions. Laura carried the tiny body to the cemetery southwest of town where he was laid to rest without ever being named.
Even this loss did not end their hardships. In 1891, their house burned down when Rose accidentally ignited it while kindling a fire in the cook stove. Only the furniture in the front room, bedroom and pantry was saved. Later, Almanzo's barn full of hay and grain burned. Also that year, Laura and Almanzo's lives were threatened with a bout of diptheria. Anxious to keep up his daily farm chores, before being fully recovered Almanzo returned to his farm work, had a relapse and suffered a stroke of paralysis which left him with a crippled foot and a weakened spirit.
In need of a physical and emotional rest, the Wilders visited Almanzo's parents in Spring Valley, Minnesota. They continued their travels to Florida and temporarily settled in a small village near the coast where Laura quickly became ill from the dampness. Laura wrote, "There, with our little daughter Rose, we went to live in the piney woods of Florida where the trees always murmur, where the butterflies are enormous, where plants that eat insects grow in moist places and alligators inhabit the slowly moving waters of the rivers. But at that time and at that place a Yankee woman was more of a curiosity than any of these."
Where could they go next? They had no home left in De Smet, South Dakota and no money to go elsewhere. Since they had no encouraging promises for a better future in the Dakotas, they began to search for opportunities elsewhere. The Frisco Railroad advertising Missouri as the "Land of the Big Red Apple" inspired new hope. This broadcast must have seemed the solution to their problems which were aggravated by a financial panic throughout the United States.
In desperation, the Wilders returned to De Smet temporarily to earn more money. Almanzo earned their living by working at carpentry, driving teams, clerking in a store and other available odd jobs. While Rose attended a rural school, Laura held a job as a seamstress until she saved one hundred dollars--enough to purchase a reasonable plot of land in the Ozarks.
The Wilders departed from De Smet on July 17, 1894, accompanied throughout the trip by their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Cooley, and their sons. With little living space for the long journey ahead, Laura, Almanzo and Rose climbed onto a crowded two-seat hack. The hack was covered with a black oilcloth so that it resembled a covered wagon, and projecting from the back was a coop full of Laura's chickens. Fifty-five days and 650 miles later, the two families arrived August 31st in Mansfield where both eventually settled.
Along the trail Almanzo sold and traded asbestos fire mats. Several of their neighboring campers could hardly believe that such a splendid material would resist flame. Laura kept busy with her diary, telling of friends made, new places visited, weather and crop conditions, and her own personal observations which were later compiled in her last book, On The Way Home.
Upon reaching Mansfield, the Wilders camped in the public park for a few days. They soon found one mile east of Mansfield's town square forty acres of rough and rocky soil surrounding a small cabin that their hundred dollars would buy. Just before signing the papers finalizing the change of ownership, Laura couldn't find the precious hundred dollar bill that she had so carefully guarded in her small lap desk throughout their travel. After searching for a few agonizing days, she found the bill hidden in a crack in the lap desk.
They quickly set up housekeeping in the little windowless one-room log cabin, set on a five-acre clearing otherwise surrounded by wooded land. A year-round spring and 400 heeled-in apple trees were also included in the original purchase.
By trading work with neighbors, as everyone did in rural areas, they built a log hen house and a stable during the first year. Almanzo soon cleared a few more acres, with Laura handling one end of a crosscut saw. The cleared trees furnished them with plenty of fuel, fence rails and posts. The rest, sold for firewood at seventy-five cents per wagon load in Mansfield, provided a little needed income.
Such opportunities for making even a small amount of money were quite welcomed in those days when a family's income came mostly from its land and hard work. The Wilders found that getting enough cash even to pay the yearly taxes on their land was difficult. Laura was forced to sell her very own colt to pay the taxes which came due soon after they came to Mansfield.
In the spring of that first year, they planted their first crop. Even Rose helped to plant corn and picked huckleberries and blackberries for the family's pies and to sell in Mansfield for ten cents per gallon. The family sold eggs, potatoes, and after the second summer when they purchased a cow, they sold Laura's homemade butter. For a time Laura cooked for railroad officials and Mr. Craig, the banker.
In 1897, after a few years in the little log cabin, Almanzo, as always with Laura's help, built a one-room frame house. This room eventually earned the award as the Ozarks' most modern farm kitchen.
As they were able to afford them, the Wilders gradually added nine more rooms, completing the house in 1912. Adjacent to the kitchen was a combined dining and sitting room with a screened-in porch to the right. To the left was the south bedroom. Through the bedroom was a tiny study with large windows for Laura to enjoy the scenery while writing her books. The living room contained a large window seat to allow still more of the outdoors to spill into the home. 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. In fact, all of the oak was hand-planed and finished because there was no planing mill in Mansfield at that time. The parlor was accented by a simple, but beautiful fireplace, formed of three very large stones from Rocky Ridge Farm. In a little alcove in the parlor there was a small library to store Laura's and Rose's collection of books. Laura's formal dining room for entertaining guests later contained her sister Mary's organ, which was beautifully designed with fancy carving. Lastly, a storeroom and two more bedrooms were provided upstairs at the top of a tall, oak staircase featuring very narrow steps. All of the materials used in the construction of the house came from the farm, including the oak lumber and fieldstones for the foundation and chimney.
With the expansion of the house, also came the expansion of the farmland. Rocky Ridge Farm soon consisted of 200 acres, and with more land, Almanzo added to his stock. He raised hogs, sheep, Leghorn hens and Jersey cows, as well as his town-famous dairy goats and Morgans. He used to drive those horses through town so fast that one day the marshall warned him that he was exceeding the speed limit. Of course, in horse and buggy days there were no speed limits.
Almanzo fancied goats and he cared for many, valuing them all as named pets. Because of his earlier paralysis, Almanzo couldn't bend his leg to milk the goats, so he trained them to hop up on a little stool to ease the strain on that crippled foot.
Ruth Freeman, a close friend of Rose, said, "Because of Mr. Wilder's club foot, his shoes had to have a piece of leather inserted. He walked quite noisily on wooden boards, and I'm quite sure it bothered him, but he never complained. Almanzo always limped, and he made his own shoes because he could not buy a shoe to fit his deformed foot. He worked on the back porch and in the kitchen to make his shoes. A neighbor's cow got out one year and got into Almanzo's strawberry patch. Mr. Wilder made them bring him two quarts of milk every day all during the summer for not keeping the cow out of his strawberry patch."
Irene Lichty, presently the curator of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum, became acquainted with the Wilders in their last years at Rocky Ridge. Mrs. Lichty's mother and Laura, being the same age, soon became good friends. Unfortunately Almanzo died before she had a chance to know him very well. "I met him and heard stories about him, but a vivid memory of him is in driving a great big Chrysler, and as people sometimes do as they grow older, he'd gotten smaller, I think. He looked so little in that great big Chrysler."
The Horn Book magazine in 1943 carried this description of Almanzo. "The youngest Wilder is 86 now. His hair is not yet gray and he wears glasses only to read fine print. Although he cannot get automobile insurance because of his age, he drives the Chrysler car with Mrs. Wilder sitting beside him to backseat drive so he can enjoy the landscape without any worry."
In their later years the Wilders came into Mansfield every Wednesday to do their shopping and to visit the bank and post office. Almanzo enjoyed playing pool with friends every week.
Laura was loved by many friends and neighbors. Her Mansfield friends remembered her better than Almanzo, since she lived ten years past his death.
"She was a very, very beautiful little lady as long as she lived," remembers Mrs. Lichty. "It was her character, I think, that showed a whole lot. 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. She was tiny, of course. She was just five feet tall, and she had the appearance of being kind of round, not fat, but her face was kind of round."
"She always wore a hat," Mrs. Freeman recalled, "and it was a dressy hat--not just a plain sailor hat. Once Rose brought a bunch of hats, and her mother used to go through the box of hats, and maybe she'd take a rose or a feather off, and she always came out with a different hat on."
Rose described her mother in later years. "She's the serious wide-eyed girl now almost shyly hidden under a surface quickness and sparkle. 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. She has a charming voice, with changing tones and colors in it, and is sometimes witty or fanciful, but this is always a little startling; she is never talkative and usually speaks in a matter-of-fact way. Often she is silent almost all day long; she is completely self-reliant, is never lonely, has no need of companionship. She speaks only when she has something to say."
Mrs. Lichty agreed with this description. "Mrs. Wilder was not a stand-offish person at all, but she was shy. She was not the least bit aggressive. I've been in meetings with her when I was sure she knew the most of anyone there but said the least. She just didn't talk unless she felt that it was up to her to say something. Still, Laura did have a great concern and knowledge for current events," Mrs. Lichty said. "She kept up on things and read, of course. Rose wrote her voluminous letters about what was going on in the world, so she wasn't a person who spent her time reminiscing or thinking about the past too much."
Laura organized several farm women's clubs throughout southwestern Missouri and was active in several literary clubs. One of such literaries is the still-active Athenian Club of Hartville, which she helped organize in 1916. "At that time Mansfield did not have a literary club," explained Mrs. Fuge. "If you've read her books, you heard about literaries they had up in South Dakota in which the ladies read books and did stories. She brought that idea deep in her heart with her, and she found a group of ladies over in Hartville who were very anxious to organize such a club. They met on a Wednesday afternoon years ago. Mrs. Wilder would make the twelve mile trip from Mansfield to the meeting in a buggy. Generally Mr. Wilder drove her. They had their meetings in someone's home, and the ladies would review books or something literary. Athenians were people of culture, or reading and writing, so that was the name of the club. I listened to Laura talk a great many times. She was an active part of this club. When she was younger she came every month."
Her club activities kept pace with her own participation in the literary field. Laura gained writing experience by contributing to magazines and newspapers. Her first published article, as marked in her handwriting, was a letter to the editor of the De Smet paper telling their friends they had gotten as far as Lamar, Missouri. Another early publication appeared in Capper's Weekly and consisted of a short report of the death of a well known Mansfield resident. She continued to write for small publications until she had gained experience for greater writing opportunities. She was farm home editor of the Missouri Ruralist for twelve years, also conducting the Children's Department. She became poultry editor of the St. Louis Star, and several of her short story compositions were accepted by popular magazine publications such as McCalls, Christian Science Monitor and Youth's Companion. Her last magazine article, "Your Best Book Friends," was published when she was eighty-seven years old, in the March 1954 issue of Country Gentleman.
Laura's writing duties did not monopolize all her time. She was dairy maid, poultry raiser and a great cook, even though she was not fond of cooking and preferred a wood cook stove. Still, she always found plenty of time to explore nature with Almanzo. "The true way to live," Laura said, "is to enjoy every moment as it passes and surely it is in the everday things around us that the beauty of life lies."
The Wilders often took horseback and buggy rides over the hills around Mansfield. They knew every bird that came to the farm, fed quails through hard winters and during ice storms, and allowed no hunting, even of rabbits. Laura seemed to belong among animals. Someone had once jokingly commented that they believed she liked animals better than people. She was especially fond of horses and shared Almanzo's love for his Morgans.
Laura thoroughly enjoyed every part of nature as the uncovered windows in their farmhouse at Rocky Ridge indicated. Laura said, "I don't want curtains over my pictures. They're never the same for two hours together, and I like to watch them changing."
"She has windows everywhere," Rose said, "not only in her house, but in her mind."
Though Rose often recognized and admired characteristics in her mother, she was different and led a very different life. Her writing career often involved traveling over much of Europe and living an urban life. The discipline of her writing was also evident in her personality. Mrs. Lichty said, "If Rose told you something, you knew what she meant. If you wanted to think it was kind of brusque, you could think that, but it was just her way of saying things. There's so much of people saying one thing and meaning something else that I really welcomed it."
Rose also had a strong belief in individuality, probably influenced by her early training in a self-sufficient life. She did not accept the government's rationing cards during World War II, and instead, raised most of her food on a four-acre farm near her home in Danbury, Connecticut. She also stopped her fiction writing in order to reduce her taxes. She believed that people should live their lives by working hard on their own, with no dependence on the government.
In 1909, Rose married Gilette Lane of San Francisco. Laura said Rose had no children. Her marriage wasn't successful, ending in divorce in 1918.
Rose had learned telegraphy and was hired as a telegrapher in Kansas City. At one time during World War I, she went to Europe as a Red Cross worker and lived in Albania. Even in 1965 at the age of seventy-eight, she went to Vietnam as a correspondent for Woman's Day magazine.
For a time she sold real estate in San Francisco. Later she worked on the San Francisco Bulletin. A few of the other publications Rose wrote articles for were Sunset Magazine, Ladies Home Journal, Harper's, Saturday Evening Post and Good Housekeeping. She also wrote many biographies including those of Jack London, Henry Ford, Herbert Hoover and a close friend, Rose O'Neill, the creator of the Kewpie doll. She wrote a number of regional novels depicting Missouri Ozark life, including parts of On The Way Home, which was the setting of her mother's diary of their covered wagon journey to the Ozarks, published by Harper and Row in 1962.
Both Laura and Rose enjoyed needlework and had gathered a collection of American quilts and fancywork designs. These were published in The Collection of Early American Needlework by Simon and Shuster, 1963.
Rose's writing made her wealthy, and even though her parents didn't want to move, she built a lovely modern house for them a short distance from the Rocky Ridge farmhouse, just across the ravine and through the woods. Laura didn't see the house until it was completed. At Rose's request, they each took only one belonging from their farmhouse at Rocky Ridge. When they moved, Laura didn't like it because it wasn't home for her. One detail that was particularly upsetting to Laura was a safety railing installed around the bathtub. As soon as Rose returned to her home in the East, Laura and Almanzo moved back to the old farmhouse.
It was at Rocky Ridge in the 1930's that Laura first began her "Little House" books, and Rose may very well have been partially responsible for development and success of her talents.
Mrs. Lichty said, "Rose was in New York at that time, and Laura had received a letter from her, asking her mother to write down some of the stories that she had told her when she was a little girl. Rose said, 'I think it's too bad for those things to be lost.' Laura sent some to Rose, and before very long they came back from Harper and Son. Someone had written a little memorandum saying, 'These are good, but put some meat on them.' So Laura put some meat on, evidently, and had her first book in 1932, after reaching her sixty-fifth birthday."
Once Mrs. Lichty asked Laura, "How did it happen that when you were in your sixties that you would start writing a series of books?"
Laura said, "Well, I didn't start writing a series of books. I just started writing one."
The purpose of her books was to let children learn about the hardships of pioneers and life on the prairie and in the Big Woods. Laura wrote all of her books on old-fashioned 50-50 tablets in longhand, using both sides of the sheets to save paper. This was another trait that Rose said brought out the "Scotch and the hungry pioneer" in her.
After accepting the first book, The Little House In The Big Woods, the publishers decided they couldn't publish it unless she changed the girls' ages. She had to make them two years older than they actually were. The publishers argued that little girls at that age couldn't have been doing the farm work and chores as written about. They didn't understand that such household chores supplied their entertainment. Their play was doing what their mother was doing, because they had only homemade toys, and always there were many chores to do. Rose and her mother held out about the ages as long as possible, but to save the book, they finally did add two years to their ages. For that reason Laura left out two years between On The Banks Of Plum Creek and On The Shores Of Silver Lake to compensate for those years gained in the first book.
Later, when she and the publishers had a second disagreement, she threatened to take her books away from them, but by then the books were popular and were doing well financially. At that time Laura had considerable control and got her way, but with the first book, no one knew they would earn such fame.
1 cup brown sugar blended with 1/2 cup shortening.
1/2 cup molasses mixed well with this.
2 tsp. baking soda in 1 cup of boiling water. (Be sure cup is full of water after foam runs off into cake batter). Mix all well.
To 3 cups of flour add 1 tsp. each of the following spices: ginger, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, and 1/2 tsp. salt. Sift all into the mixture and mix well. Add lastly two well beaten eggs.
The mixture should be quite thin. Bake in a moderate oven for thirty minutes. Raisins or candied fruit may be added and a chocolate frosting adds to the goodness.
This gingerbread recipe was a favorite of the Ingalls family. Another was vanity cakes, which they relished at Christmas when no money was available for more expensive gifts.
Ma's Vanity Cakes
Fill a thick saucepan about half full of lard or cooking oil and put to heat. Beat up a large egg and slowly add 3 oz. of self-raising flour (Laura's Ma probably used plain flour with a pinch of salt and baking powder) beating all the time.
When the consistency is that of a stiff cake mixture drop teaspoon fulls on a floured board. Turn these over so they are floured on both sides and drop the little, pancake into the hot fat. They will cook in about two or three minutes.
Lift them out carefully, then let them cool and sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Laura and Mary liked these very much.
THE INGALLS FAMILY
Laura had always considered the subject of her "Little House" books "Pa's stories," even though they included the lives of the entire family. Pa's full name was Charles Philip Ingalls. He was born to Lansford and Laura Ingalls on January 11, 1835, at Cuba, New York. At Concord, Wisconsin, Charles met and married Caroline Lake Quiner on February 1, 1860. A true pioneer, his restless spirit and his search for better opportunities lead his family to many places. He finally settled in De Smet, South Dakota. From 1885 till his death, Pa did carpentry work and sold insurance. Laura's well-loved and cherished Pa died on the afternoon of June 8, 1902, at the age of 67, and was buried near Laura's unnamed baby in De Smet. Ma was born on December 12, 1839 in Wisconsin. She became well educated for that time and taught school before marrying. As written in "The Story of the Ingalls" by William Anderson, "The longing for roots and love of nice possessions were always put into second place when it came to pleasing her pioneering husband." Caroline Ingalls was active in the founding of De Smet Congregational Church of which Pa was a charter member. She and Mary, her oldest daughter, were very religious. In her twenty widowed years Caroline's life seemed to revolve around Mary, and she seldom left the home except to go to church. She died April 20, 1924 at the age of 84, and was buried beside her husband.
The Ingalls' eldest daughter, Mary Amelia, was born on January 10, 1865 near Pepin, Wisconsin. When the family had scarlet fever on Plum Creek, Mary suffered a relapse which caused her blindness. Charles and Caroline took her to Winton, Iowa, in 1881, to the Iowa State College for the Blind. Mary remained there for eight years, making very high academic grades. She was active in music in Sunday School and church, and although she never regained her sight, she helped her mother with the housework. Contrary to the TV series portrayal, Mary never married, but kept busy with her Braille books, sewing and music. After her mother's death, she lived with Grace. On October 20, 1928, she died of pneumonia while visiting Carrie at Keystone, South Dakota.
Laura's sister just younger than she, Caroline Celestia Ingalls, known as Carrie, was born on August 3, 1870, in Montgomery County, Kansas. After graduation, she worked in a De Smet store, and for many years she worked as a typesetter at the De Smet News. Carrie remained at home until her marriage, helping to support her mother and Mary. On August 1, 1921, she married David N. Swanzey, a mine owner of Keystone, South Dakota, and a widower with two children. Carrie ran a small newspaper at Keystone. She died a widow on June 2, 1946.
The youngest Ingalls daughter, and the last child born to Charles and Caroline, came on May 23, 1877 at Burr Oak, Iowa, and was named Grace Pearl. Grace had no remembrance of any land other than the prairies, so she once asked Laura, "What is a tree?" Laura answered her sister's question by painting three pictures on tin from her memories of towering trees, rushing streams and wooded hills. At twenty-four Grace married Nathan W. Dow, October 16, 1901, and established their home near Manchester, only seven miles from De Smet. They spent their later years in the Ingalls home where sixty-four-year-old Grace died in 1941.
She had begun with a goal of compiling her childhood experiences into one book to be entitled Pioneer Girl. However, in the process, Laura found it more effective to publish the material in separate books, elaborating on some of those happenings in her various homes in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and finally in Missouri.
After writing of her own childhood, Laura decided to write of Almanzo's boyhood. From listening to his experiences while growing up in upstate New York, she wrote Farmer Boy.
The last of Laura's books (published after her death) was about the Wilders' first years of marriage. She had called it The First Three Years And A Year Of Grace, but it was published under the title First Four Years.
Even after Laura's death, February 10, 1957, people were begging Rose to go on with her mother's stories, but Rose said no. She had only helped to edit Laura's manuscripts. They were her mother's stories and she couldn't go on with them.
Even before Laura became famous, she was nearly always willing to give talks encouraging farm women to become active in improving their farms and their way of life on the farm. Then as she became well known, she also rarely missed a chance to talk of her books and to autograph sets of the "Little House" series for her friends and fans. Various libraries asked her to make speeches and sign books for them.
Nava Austin, the local librarian, said, "One day Mrs. Wilder came to Mansfield's library. The children had been asking questions about her family and why she didn't write other books, so I had given her a list of questions that the children had asked me. She answered all of them." Laura loved children, and it surely filled her with delight to know that so many children read her books and were so interested and inquisitive about her childhood experiences. Mrs. Fuge also elaborated, "During reading period I nearly always read a Wilder book because those were the ones children liked best, even preceding the Little House On The Prairie television series. To me, they're all very exciting and down-to-earth. I grew up knowing about the things she wrote about. I think it was her idea that we should not let our young generation forget those things, and so I think it's wonderful."
However, children are not the only readers of the "Little House" books as Mrs. Lichty discovered. "While we were visiting one day, Mrs. Wilder asked me if I had read her books. I said, 'Well, no, Mrs. Wilder, they're children's books, aren't they?' How ashamed I've been of that since then, because they're far from children's books although she wrote them for children. All she said was, 'Well, you read them.' I have read them many times since then.
"As soon as the first book was published, Laura had more than a full-time job answering her fan mail every morning until she was no longer able," continued Mrs. Lichty. "Almanzo was very proud of his wife and didn't seem to resent the time consumed by her writing career. He always seemed to keep himself in the background."
Although the publicity and success were very exciting and rewarding for Laura, it also destroyed her privacy. She resented intrusion. Since she had no system of screening the public, many people went to her home just out of curiosity. She was very alert, observant, and not at all senile, but being nearly ninety years old, she didn't have enough energy to meet everyone, though she did value her friends and enjoyed visitors. Author Sinclair Lewis and his wife were thought to be her friends.
Laura's success as an author brought her wealth. Quite possibly, no one could have deserved such recognition more, not only because of her writing's wide appeal but because of her generosity. As long as she had something to give, she was happy to offer it to her less fortunate friends. Once after Laura began to get royalties from her book, she asked Mrs. Lichty, "Do you know any people in this area who need help?" Mrs. Lichty replied, "Well, no, we (she and her first husband) haven't lived here very long." Laura explained as if a confession, "Well, I have more money than anyone has a right to have."
"I'm sure she didn't have near as much money as lots of people have and want these days," said Mrs. Lichty, "Yet she thought that because the Lord had been kind to her, she ought to share, and she did."
Even so, Laura seemed to feel a tinge of regret at first that her achievements weren't recognized by Manfield's residents as they were by people all over the world. Of course, it is certainly not uncommon for such a situation to arise. It is often hard for nearby friends and neighbors to recognize outstanding achievements in someone so closely familiar to them, while that fame is obvious to strangers. Mrs. Austin feels that Mansfield residents are now very much appreciative of Laura, her writing talent, and her contributions to Mansfield.
However, Laura was pleased and honored by the dedication of Mansfield's library to her in 1953. Perhaps her greatest honor came in 1954 with the establishment of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, given every five years to any author who, over a period of years, has made a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children. Unable to attend the commemoration meeting which was in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Laura wrote, "When writing those memories of my long ago childhood, I had no idea they would be so well received, and it is a continual delight to me that they should be so well-loved."
Finally, in May of 1957, after Laura's death in February, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association was organized to preserve her home for people to love and enjoy the way she had. Sometime before her death, Lewis Lichty suggested that it be preserved for her friends and readers to remember her by. Mrs. Lichty briefly discussed the idea with Laura and later with Rose, who had answered, "Mother told me about it and she was real pleased." So the Lichtys felt that they had her consent and trust.
When the association had difficulties in getting tax-exemption status for the home, the Lichty's hesitantly wrote to President Eisenhower, telling him of the association's intentions. They explained that Mansfield was a small community which didn't have the money to operate such an undertaking, and that Mrs. Wilder was a very popular author. Mr. Eisenhower promptly answered their request for tax-exemption, and their first problem was solved.
After Mr. Lichty and two other residents acquired the charter--the last document needed--business preparations were well underway.
"There were two men in town who were quite good at raising money, and they got thirty-seven, one-hundred-dollar memberships," Mrs. Lichty said. This money provided the original financing of the home. The organization is now supported by the admission fee and contributions. There is no public financing.
The Garden Club of Mansfield took charge of cleaning and restoring the home. When it opened on a Sunday afternoon, in May 1957, five hundred people visited Laura's home which was left as undisturbed as possible. Even the calendar hung in its place on the kitchen wall, turned to February--the month of her birth and death.
Rose's heir later gave the association the museum building built beside the house to display the small figurines and delicate material that could not be safely preserved within Laura's home. Laura's daughter, Rose, was very cooperative and helpful in supplying the home and museum with Laura's and Almanzo's possessions. Even yet the association's acquisition committee is constantly searching for more of the Wilders' possessions to make the home more complete.
The museum's open season is from the first of May till the 15th of October, Monday through Saturday. It is closed throughout the winter season, however, because of the increased risk of a fire due to the wood heating. Many family and school groups visit the museum every year.
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum may have been the original plan for preserving memories of Laura, but the constant enthusiasm and research interest only begins there.
The television version of Little House On The Prairie has to be credited with exposing Laura's talents to still more people. Even so, Mrs. Lichty, as the curator of the home and museum, is not convinced that every aspect of the TV series was useful in giving viewers a correct impression of Laura's true childhood. "I know the television program has made some people more aware of this, and yet in some other ways, I wish it hadn't happened. We had the most wonderful relationship with all of our visitors before the television program. The people who came made the effort because they loved the books and Mrs. Wilder because of the books. We just never had any difficulty about anything. Now, there are disagreeable things happening. People come who have seen one or two of the episodes on television and they are disappointed because their preconceptions are not satisfied in reality."
"To me, the TV show is far away from Mrs. Wilder," said Mrs. Fuge. "It's a television series for modern people. In the beginning, some of the stories were very much like the way she talked to us, but after the first preview, I said very truthfully that Pa was not right. Who would have ever thought Michael Landon ever looked like Pa who had a big brown beard to run his hands through! Who would have ever thought they had that skinny old dog that they showed on television! It didn't give me my ideas of Jack, a bulldog."
Even considering all the hard work exerted to attempt a recreation of Laura's life for television, including the actors' features, the setting, and the individual textures of the Ingalls' personalities, there can never be a replacement for the real Laura Ingalls Wilder and her contributions to children's literature and life in the Ozarks.
"My husband used to say three good things came to the Ozarks in pretty early time," Mrs. Lichty recalled. "One was when Carnation Milk Company came into Ava, and farmers could sell their milk and make a profit. Another was when electricity was installed. He used to finish by saying, '...and the Wilders came.' They made a wonderful contribution here or wherever they were. Certainly they did a great deal for this part of the country."
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
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