The Amazing Life Of “Little House On The Prairie’s” Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder was born on February 7, 1867, in Wisconsin. She is known for writing the Little House on the Prairie series of children’s books released from 1932 to 1943 that focused on a settler and pioneer family and were drawn from the author’s childhood experiences.

The books, of which there were originally eight, were adapted into a popular television show of the same name in the 1970s and early 1980s starring Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls and Michael Landon as her father, Charles Ingalls. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal was named after the author in 1954 and is given to those who have made “a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children”.

Meet The Original “Ma And Pa”

The photo above shows Charles and Caroline Ingalls, the original Ma and Pa you may know from the Little House books. The image was taken on their wedding day on Feb. 1, 1860. Charles Ingalls was 24 when he married Caroline Lake Quiner, who was 21.

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Charles was born in New York but raised in Campton Township near Elgin, Illinois. Caroline was a schoolteacher. The pair settled in Pepin County, Wisconsin. Their first daughter, Mary Amelia, was born in January 1865. Their second daughter, Laura, came along in 1867. Two years later, Charles, who was touched by a bit of wanderlust, moved the family to Missouri.

She Was Forced To Move From Place To Place

While living in a town near what is now known as Independence, Kansas, the Ingalls welcomed their third daughter, Carrie, in 1870. After Charles and Caroline determined that Kansas wasn’t welcoming settlers, they spent the next few years moving from state to state.

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The girls were similar to army brats of a later century. They lived in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. In 1877, Caroline gave birth to their fourth daughter, Grace Pearl. During that time, they were having difficulties financially. But Charles found a job in 1879 as a clerk and bookkeeper with a railroad in Dakota Territory. The next year they moved to De Smet, South Dakota.

At Only 15-Years-Old, Laura Was Already A Teacher

While spending time in South Dakota, the family encountered terrible winter storms. This experience would later become the basis for Wilder’s novel, The Long Winter. As a young teen, Laura fit in quite well in De Smet, which was a new yet growing town in South Dakota.

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Laura went to school and made many friends in the community. She also followed in the footsteps of her mother and earned her teaching certificate. In fact, Laura began teaching in 1882 at an age we would consider incredibly young – 15! She was two months shy of her 16th birthday when she became head of the class.

Her First Love Was 10 Years Older Than Her

Even though Laura was busy teaching children, she also had time for romance. An older man named Almanzo Wilder began courting the young woman. He was a homesteader whom Laura lovingly nicknamed “Manly.”

While he was 10 years older than she was, the two fell deeply in love with each other. Almanzo had such a crush on Laura that he would take her back and forth from De Smet where she lived to the town where she worked, which was 12 miles away. The couple made it official and wed in 1885. They settled on land Wilder had claimed and became farmers.

Diphtheria Left Her Family Devastated

Life wasn’t easy for the newlyweds and young homesteaders. The first few years after their wedding, they struggled to make a good life for themselves. Their first child, a daughter they named Rose, was born in 1886. In the meantime, they endured terrible weather, drought, and illnesses that drove them to poverty.

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Almanzo was hit the hardest. A young and vigorous man when they first met, he contracted diphtheria, a bacterial infection. (Today, babies receive vaccinations against the disease and it is very rare.) The illness rendered Almanzo partially paralyzed. As a result, he was unable to perform the duties that were necessary for wheat farmers.

A Son’s Death, A House Fire, And Numerous Other Tragedies

Just when they thought things were bad enough, things got worse in the summer of 1889. While Laura was caring for her three-year-old daughter and taking care of their home, she was also pregnant. In August she gave birth to her and Almanzo’s son, who died just two weeks later.

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What’s more, during the same month the Wilder’s house burned down, and they lost their crops due to drought. The family was suffering from a great personal loss. They lost their home and their only source of income. They decided to start over so they moved to Spring Valley, Minnesota, in 1890.

Life Slowly Improved But It Wasn’t Easy

The photo above shows the Ingalls family in 1891. From left to right are Caroline (Ma), Carrie, Laura, Charles (Pa), Grace, and Mary. Over the next two years, from 1890 to 1891, Laura, Almanzo and Rose took some time to rest and recuperate from their previous tragedies.

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A studio photographer took an image of the family. As you can see, Laura looks well rested and in good health. It appears that while she struggled as a wife and mother during the early years of her marriage, things got better after she and Almanzo moved to Minnesota to start over.

A Move To The Sunshine State Doesn’t Go As Planned

Although her husband was still having a difficult time, Laura helped him with his work to get by. They both also made sure to keep their eyes open for any opportunities that may come their way. In October 1891, the couple took their daughter Rose and moved to Florida (the couple is pictured above in the sunshine state).

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They believed the warm weather would improve Almanzo’s health and it would be a good place for farming. But sometimes even the best-laid plans don’t turn out exactly as you expect. Laura hated the state’s humidity and weather, so they returned to De Smet in August 1892.

It Took Them 20 Years To Rebuild A Life

The Wilders moved to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894. They bought undeveloped land just outside town using some savings and called it Rocky Ridge Farm (Almanzo is pictured showing off his apple trees in the orchard). They made money by selling firewood for 50 cents.

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It took seven years for the apple trees they planted to bear fruit. Laura’s mother- and father-in-law helped pay off the house they were renting, which helped them considerably. They eventually owned 200 acres of land, sold their home in town, and moved onto the farm. It took them about 20 years to create their successful poultry, dairy, and fruit farm.

Finally, The Hints Of A Writing Career

During her stint on the farm, Laura was also an active member of her community. She became involved in several clubs and advocated for regional farm associations. Considered an expert in poultry farming and rural living, she gave talks about the topics in her area.

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Her writing career was launched after she was asked to submit an article to the Missouri Ruralist in 1911. She became a permanent columnist and editor through the mid-1920s. She wrote about everything from home to family. In addition, she was paid by the local Farm Loan Association to help give small loans to local farmers.

Her Autobiography Was For Adult Readers Only

In the 1920s, Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who became a well-known writer, began encouraging her mother to pursue a writing career. In two articles published in Country Gentleman magazine, Laura described the interior of the farmhouse. In May 1930, Laura wrote her first book, Pioneer Girl.

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It was an autobiography geared towards adult readers that focused on growing up on the frontier. Rose was her mother’s editor on the book, and she also helped market it in New York City. While the manuscript didn’t sell, the book was a major success for one reason: it launched Laura’s career as a children’s author.

The Move To The Indian Reserve

It was 1869 when all the family moved to Kansas on the Osage Indian Reserve. It is there that Laura remembered seeing cattle drives through the open plains and meeting Indians. In only a years time, the family made a return to Wisconsin before heading to Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

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The image above shows a farm and the type of farming her family would have participated in while in Kansas when she was little. Doesn’t seem like too much work but unless you are a farmer then you don’t know how tough it could really turn out to be.

Little House In The Big Woods

The Wilders were doing well financially until the Great Depression and the stock market crash of 1929. They were able to keep their 200-acre farm, but they lost nearly all of their savings. It was during this time that Laura devoted more time to her writing.

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Two New York children’s book editors were drawn to her autobiography, which was originally called When Grandma Was a Little Girl. But it needed some alterations. Listening to their advice, Laura expanded the story and geared it towards children. Her daughter’s publishing connections also helped. In 1932, Harper & Brothers published Little House in the Big Woods.

Writing Is A Lifestyle

Laura and Almanzo both commanded respect in the town and surrounded area because of their great farming skills. Because of that agricultural career, Laura got her start in writing. As we said earlier, in 1911 Laura wrote a few articles about farm life for the Missouri Ruralist.

The images above are Laura documenting her travels from De Smet, South Dakota to Missouri. She documented that one time her horse so afraid of the railroad cars that it ran straight into some barbed wire. Laura’s daughter Rose was also a big influence on Laura’s writing career.

The Influence Of Rose

Getting inspiration from loved ones is one of the greatest feelings ever. Rose’s influence was very crucial to Laura’s early writing days. When Rose became a young adult, she had already blossomed into a prominent writer under the name Rose Wilder Lane. She was a huge help to her mother in different ways.

We know that she was her mother’s editor but she also helped Laura get her work published in two national magazines (McCall’s and Country Gentleman). Not all children are that helpful and outgoing so we know Laura was thankful.

Was Rose Her Mother’s Ghostwriter?

While Rose helped Laura publish her first book, Laura’s success also helped her daughter. Rose’s two most popular novels, Let the Hurricane Roar (1932) and Free Land (1938), were written around the same time that the Little House series made it into print.

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Rose’s books covered the same topics but were intended for an adult audience. Because of the similarities in subject matter, some think that Rose was in actuality her mother’s ghostwriter. Others think Rose transformed her mother’s rough drafts and turned them into the children’s books that everyone is familiar with today. Either way, diaries and handwritten manuscripts prove the two collaborated.

The Death Of Laura Ingalls Wilder

While Laura was writing her books, she and Almanzo continued to live at Rocky Ridge Farm. They sold most of the property but kept a few farm animals and spent their time gardening.

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It wasn’t uncommon for fans of the Little House books to drop by and meet the famous author who wrote them. Almanzo died in 1949 at the age of 92. Laura lived alone for the following eight years, but friends and neighbors made sure to look in on her. She died in her sleep in 1957, three days after turning 90 years old. She is buried alongside her husband and daughter.

West From Home: Letters Of Laura Ingalls Wilder

In 1974, Harper & Row published West From Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It features a collection of letters Laura sent to Almanzo in 1915. Laura traveled to San Francisco in 1915 to visit her daughter Rose and to write about the World’s Fair. At the time, Laura was 48 and her daughter was 28.

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This book is considered part of the Little House series by some people. It is essentially a diary of Laura and Almanzo’s 1894 move from South Dakota to Missouri. Daughter Rose presents the setting using her recollections from childhood. It was published the same year the TV show hit the air.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Legacy

Following the 1932 publication of Little House in the Big Woods, the books have stayed in print continuously and have been translated into 40 different languages. Laura received her first and smallest royalty check from Harper in 1932. It was for $500 (when adjusted for inflation, it would be $8,780 in today’s standards).

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Writing was a good business decision for the Wilders. For the first time in their 50 years of marriage, they had a steady income. The books allowed the Wilders to keep their farm, which suffered following the stock market crash of 1929. As a writer, Laura received many accolades and honors as well as a huge fan following.

South Dakota Ten Years Later

“I realized I had seen and lived it all – all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers and the towns,” she said. Ten years after getting a taste of Kansas, the family moved to De Smet, South Dakota and that is where Laura spent her childhood.

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Before the move, Mary had caught a fever that made her go blind so Laura started to take on the extra responsibility of tending to her sister. Laura’s father made a claim on some land just outside the city and tried to make a living from it as much as they could during the ’80s.

The Blizzards of South Dakota

When the second year came living in South Dakota, that is when the blizzards struck. The whole town was in survival mode. Their family ran out of wood and food so they had to resort to other measures. To produce flour, the family had to take turns grinding wheat in a coffee grinder! As if that wasn’t enough, they had to bring together tufts of hay tightly so they could burn it to generate heat.

Another desperate measure they had to resort to was Charles having to tie a string between the house and the barn so he wouldn’t get lost in the storm.

Too Smart For High School

Laura instantly stood out from her other classmates while she was in high school. She became the best scholar with ease. This might partly have to do with the fact that Caroline was a former school teacher so she made it a point that there was something in the house for the girls to read.

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Laura never got the chance to graduate from high school because De Smet didn’t have a full education program and because she gave herself to teaching like we mentioned earlier. She did walk away from school with a lifelong love of learning.

Teaching For The First Time Can Bring Romance?

When 1882 came around, Laura had landed her first teaching job close to De Smet. Every week, Almanzo Wilder would give her a ride in a buggy to and from school and the two started a friendship. When the chemistry is correct, friendships can turn into a budding romance and that is exactly what happened with these two.

They were married on Aug. 25, 1885. They had a good thing happen to them a year later when they had their first child together but soon after, they were plagued by a series of bad events.

What Was Special About Missouri?

“Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American History,” she said. It wasn’t until 1894 when Laura and Almanzo decided to move to Missouri. An advertisement that proclaimed Missouri was “The Land of the Big Red Apples” is what prompted the two to voyage away.

The image you see above is the one that got them wanting to leave. Due to experiencing more success here than they did in South Dakota, they decided to settle down there. It makes sense after everything they were put through.

In Need Of Support

As we said, the stock market crash of 1929 really put a huge dent on Laura and Almanzo’s life. Losing most of their life savings, Rose was put in a position to where she had to help her mother while on Rocky Ridge Farm. A great daughter through and through. Rose sounds like the person you can depend on when times get rough.

During this time, Laura had to write more and she wrote an autobiography that was never published. Publishers suggested that she write it in fiction and that was when the Little House series was created.

The Spectacular Rose Part 1

Rose Wilder Lane was born in De Smet, South Dakota. Like many kids, after high school, she went off on her own two feet to the Golden State San Francisco. It was there she married briefly and started her career as a writer. San Francisco is a great place to venture to when you want to dabble in the arts so it seems she knew what she was doing when she decided to go there.

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She used to call herself a socialist but by the ’30s after going to Europe and coming back to tend to her parents, she identified as a libertarian.

The Spectacular Rose Part 2

After you have the majority of the facts concerning the influence that Rose had on her mother’s life then you can deduce that without Rose then there is no telling how far Laura would have gone without her precious daughter. She wrote this in a post in 1935.

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“I am now a fundamentalist American; give me time and I will tell you why individualism, laissez faire and the slightly restrained anarchy of capitalism offer the best opportunities for the development of the human spirit,” Rose wrote. “Also I will tell you why the relative freedom of human spirit is better — and more productive, even in material ways — than the communist, Fascist, or any other rigidity organized for material ends.”

When The End Is Near

Laura’s books really skyrocketed after they were reprinted in 1953 with added artwork from Garth Williams. If you don’t know who that is, that is the person who did the art for the children’s books Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little.

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“I have thought that I would spend what is left of my life living, not writing about it, but a story keeps stirring in my mind and if it pesters me enough I may have to write it down,” Laura said. A great story teller cannot resist writing down a good story.

Did She Leave Something Behind?

Almanzo sadly happened to pass away before his lovely wife did at the age of 92. Once he passed Laura’s health started to decline as well. She ended up passing away eight years after her late husband in 1957, just three days after her ninetieth birthday.

Before her death, Laura was working on a project that was based on her struggles during her early years of marriage. However, she had no intentions of having it published. The manuscript was found in Rose’s belongings after her death in 1968 and was published in 1971 as The First Four Years.

The Legacy Left Behind

“The children send me their pictures, Christmas cards and presents, valentines, birthday cards and gifts,” Laura said. “I think I had letters from every state.” The stories told and realistic characters from Laura’s books are what brought her experience to the lives on countless children in the world. Laura left an impact for sure.

Not only does she have reading rooms, libraries and elementary schools named after her, you can still find her books on reading lists all over the country. That sounds impressive already but is only some of her legacy.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact

When the ’70s came around, Little House on the Prairie reached new levels thanks to the TV series that was loosely based on the books. You know you did something major when you get a TV show from it. Even if the TV show isn’t all that good, which wasn’t the case with this show.

And to make things even better, almost all the locations where Laura used to live have become National Historic Landmarks and tourist destinations! If she were alive today she would be proudly humbled by all of this!

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal

Although Laura Ingalls Wilder never received the famous Newbery Medal, she was a runner-up five times for the prestigious award, which is the number-one American Library Association (ALA) book award for children’s literature. But something even better came along for the celebrated children’s author. In 1954, the ALA created a lifetime achievement award for children’s writers and illustrators and named it after Wilder.

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She was the first recipient of the award. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal recognizes a living author or illustrator whose books, which are published in the United States, have made “a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children”.

Rose’s Impact

As much as Laura had an impact on lives, so did her daughter Rose. We have been giving praise to the daughter this whole time but she is well worth it. Rose and another author would publish books that could be the birth of the modern Libertarian movement. A liberal journalist in the ’30s by the name of John Chamberlain recalled the impact of the books.

“If it had been left to pusillanimous males probably nothing much would have happened,” he wrote. … Indeed, it was three women — Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand — who, with scornful side glances at the male business community, had decided to rekindle a faith in an older American philosophy.”

The TV Series

In 1974, NBC aired a two-hour movie pilot of Little House on the Prairie. It starred Michael Landon, Melissa Gilbert, and Karen Grassle and centered on a family living on a farm in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, in the 1870s and 1880s.

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Producer and NBC executive Ed Friendly heard about the story in the early 1970s and asked Michael Landon to direct the pilot movie. Landon said he would do it but only if he was cast as Charles Ingalls. It aired for nine seasons (its last season was titled Little House: A New Beginning after Landon and Grassle exited the program).

The Other Little House Books

Little House on the Prairie features the Ingalls leaving their cabin and traveling to Kansas Territory. Farmer Boy centers on Almanzo’s boyhood on a farm in New York. In On the Banks of Plum Creek, the Ingalls move to a farm near Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

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By the Shores of Silver Lake has the Ingalls selling their farm in Minnesota and moving to Dakota Territory. In The Long Winter, the family must survive with little food and no coal. In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura studies to become a teacher so she can help send her sister to a college for the blind. These Happy Golden Years focuses on Laura’s teaching and relationship with Almanzo.

The Final Volume In The Series

The Little House books were written for elementary school-age children. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote eight volumes about pioneering life based on her and her family’s experiences living on the American frontier in the 19th century.

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When her daughter Rose died in 1968, Rose’s literary executor Roger MacBride discovered The First Four Years. It centered on Laura and Almanzo’s early days of marriage. Laura wrote her books in pencil. It was published in manuscript form as is in 1971 without any editing by Rose or MacBride. No one knows if it was intended to be a stand-alone book or the ninth one in the series.

Inspired By Childhood

“The spirit of the frontier was one of humor and cheerfulness no matter what happened,” she said. “It shines through all the volumes of my children’s novel.” If you haven’t known by now when Laura drew inspiration from her childhood and wrote each volume from a different perspective of when she was young. (The only exception was her second book, Farmer Boy, which is actually about Almanzo’s childhood).

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Each book tells a story and even though they may be marked as fiction, they more non-fiction than some of the stuff we see in the news today.

The Different Stories Told

Like we said, each book is about a different time from Laura’s childhood. This is akin to how musicians make albums that revolve around a certain time in their life. It gives you a chance to get to know them better and on a personal level. We aren’t sure if that’s the goal that Laura wanted.

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Little House in the Big Woods outlines her time in Wisconsin. Little House on the Prairie talks about the family’s time in Kansas, where On the Banks of Plum Creek is about their stay in Minnesota.

Some Minor Changes Here And There

Yes, it is true that the main theme of the stories from Laura’s books were drawn from experiences of her childhood, she made a point to leave out some facts. And this is more so when the fictional part comes in because she would add fictional elements that were more appealing to the younger readers.

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Rose would continue to stay at the Rocky Ridge Farm while most of this was going on, playing the role of daughter editor and doing what she could to help get her mother’s books published. Rose even did some pioneer stories of her own.

Nothing Was The Same After 1932

As we touched on earlier, 1932 was the year Laura had her first book published (Little House in the Big Woods). She was sixty-five years old and it seemed all the troubles and hardships she had experienced were all behind her. The book was critically acclaimed and got tons of praise. That was the case for all of the books in the series.

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As you can see, everyone has a story to tell and some might even be worth documenting. Laura’s battles and life were able to make her become a national celebrity.