By Ann Weller Dahl
When asked to tell something about myself, I usually share that I have studied, written, and lectured on the life and writing of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the classic Little House series of semi-autobiographical novels. Almost always, the response from the inquirer is this: “Oh, I loved those books as a child.” I have no doubt that many of you could make the same statement, but actually know very little about the author herself. Let’s remedy that right now!
Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born February 7, 1867 near Pepin, Wisconsin on the Mississippi River. She was the second of four daughters of Charles and Caroline Ingalls. A fifth child, Charles Frederick, died at only nine months and is not included in the Little House books.
The Little House books indicate that Pa’s “restless feet” caused the family to move many times and that Laura was a bright student who became a teacher. We know that at 18 Laura married fellow homesteader Almanzo Wilder. The couple’s first four years of marriage were mostly difficult; after experiencing the joy of Baby Rose’s arrival, they endured the death of a baby boy, severe illnesses, a fire in their home, and poor crops that, coupled with the doctor’s bills, created major debt.
What most readers don’t know is what happened in Wilder’s life between 1889, the year in which when the final book’s story ends, and 1932, when Wilder was 65 years old and her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, was published.
In 1894, after leaving their home in De Smet, South Dakota in search of job opportunities and a better environment for Almanzo’s health, the young Wilder family moved to Mansfield, Missouri in “The Land of the Big Red Apple.” In Mansfield, they bought and gradually enlarged and improved a farm they named “Rocky Ridge.” Wilder was very much a partner in the endeavor, becoming especially well-regarded for her flock of Leghorn hens that were said to produce eggs in the winter when no one else was getting eggs from their flocks. She was often invited to speak at farmers’ meetings in the region.
At one such meeting the editor of The Missouri Ruralist, a weekly farm publication, heard her paper. (Someone else read it because she was too busy to attend in person!) He was so impressed by her writing style that he invited her to write for his paper. Therefore, beginning at age 44 and for the next 15 years, Wilder wrote occasional and then bi-weekly columns for The Missouri Ruralist, eventually becoming its home editor. She also wrote other short articles appeared in regional and national magazines and newspapers.
Around 1930, at the urging of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who was by then a famous journalist and novelist, Wilder began to record her family’s early history by writing her autobiography. Later, with substantial changes and additions, this autobiography morphed into the first novel Little House in the Big Woods and the rest of the series.
Wilder was also very active in her community. She founded several women’s organizations for sociability and the exchange of ideas, and often spoke on literary topics herself. She was associated with the Missouri Home Development Association and helped organize the Mansfield Farm Loan Association, where she served as secretary-treasurer. Wilder was also instrumental in establishing a county library.
I urge you to read more about Laura Ingalls Wilder, one of America’s cherished childhood authors, and to peruse her autobiography or one of the many excellent biographies her life has inspired.
About the Author
Ann Weller Dahl taught for 31 years at Calvert School in Baltimore and wrote detailed reading guides to the Little House books for its homeschooling division. She has traveled to the home sites multiple times and presents lectures and workshops at a variety of venues, including the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in Iowa and at several of the biennial scholarly lectures on Wilder held in the Midwest.
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Readers, we want to hear from you! Who is your favorite childhood author? What biography would you recommend about your favorite author’s life?