How the Little House Books Came to Be

Laura Ingalls Wilder did not have an easy life. Born on February 7, 1867 in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, she was the second daughter of Charles Ingalls, who had a “wandering foot” and was always wanting to move elsewhere. Her mother, Caroline, spent much of her married life wanting a permanent home. Of the five Ingalls children, only two were born in the same state. Older sister Mary was also born in Wisconsin, sister Carrie in Kansas, brother Freddie (who died in infancy) was born in Minnesota, and Grace in Iowa.

When Laura was two-years-old her family moved to the Kansas prairie and settled on land which was part of the Osage Indian reservation, and not open to homesteaders, so after two years the family returned to Wisconsin.

Three years later Laura and her family moved to Minnesota, where her father agreed to take over a homestead that came complete with a sod dug-out house built into a bank beside Plum Creek. Her Pa later built a house of store-bought lumber.

Right before the wheat crop could be harvested a plague of grasshoppers devoured every plant down to the ground. Before moving on the insects laid eggs in the soil, so there could be no crops the following year. Pa Ingalls agreed to become part owner of a hotel in Iowa, and he found someone willing to buy the farm.

The Iowa partnership was a disaster. They lived at the hotel, which was beside a saloon, and Laura was aware of drunken behavior, which included domestic violence and an accidental death. Both parents worked long hours, and Mary and Laura washed dishes and waited tables, but they didn’t earn enough money, so Pa rented a house at the edge of town and found work at a feed mill. They left the town in the middle of the night, for they were in debt and couldn’t pay what was owed.

The Ingalls returned to Minnesota and lived in Walnut Grove. Pa worked in a store, but money was tight so 12-year-old Laura was hired out to stay with local families to help with housework and child tending.

Laura’s oldest sister, Mary, took sick and became blind. Soon after Mary’s illness Pa’s sister, Laura’s Aunt Dorcia, came by. She was going to join her husband, who worked for a railroad extending rail lines westward. Pa was wanted as a bookkeeper and company store clerk, and would be paid a good salary. Ma agreed that he should go out to the Dakota territory, and she and the girls would follow when sent for.

Laura called the Ingalls’ second year in the Dakotas the Hard Winter. Record breaking cold temperatures and near-constant blizzards shut down train service, and settlers had to ration food, and burn twisted hay for heat. After that winter Pa wanted to head for Oregon, but Ma refused to move another time.

Though her parents’ traveling days had ended, Laura still have several moves ahead of her. At age 18 she married 28-year-old Almanzo Wilder, and she gave birth to daughter Rose (who would become a writer), and then an unnamed son who only lived 12 days. Many disasters came to the Wilder family, including Almanzo being stricken with rare complications of diphtheria, which left him needing a cane to walk. For a time they lived with Laura’s in-laws, then they briefly moved to Florida, in hopes that the weather would improve Almanzo’s health.

They returned to the Dakotas, and in 1894 they’d saved enough money to move to Missouri. They made a down payment on 40 acres of farmland, but there were lean years until they could buy more land, and diversify their farm income by planting an apple orchard, and raising chickens, dairy cows and goats.

From 1911 to 1924 Laura wrote a column for the Missouri Ruralist, and the Wilders were able to save for the day when they could stop working. Their daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, lived in the east and wrote for major magazines. In the late 1920s Rose convinced her parents to invest their money.

The 1929 Stock Market Crash wiped out all of the Wilders’ savings. Laura was 62, Almanzo 72, and they feared dying in poverty. But, off and on, Laura had been recording her memories of the Ingalls’ pioneering days, filling up several writing tablets with stories. Her daughter was a successful writer, could Rose find a publisher for an autobiography?

Rose took her mother’s handwritten memoir, rearranged and edited sections, then typed out a manuscript geared towards an adult audience. It was sent to numerous publishers, but no one was interested in it, though one editor suggested the first part of it might make a good children’s novel.

Laura’s life in Wisconsin was rewritten, with scenes of everyday life added to the major events recorded earlier. Harper & Brothers published the book as Little House in the Big Woods. The publisher thought a series of children’s books would be profitable, and so Laura’s life was made child-friendly, with most of the grim parts left out, though she insisted on telling of her sister’s blindness.

Steady book sales allowed Laura and Almanzo to live out their days in comfort, and Rose Wilder Lane also profited, for she wrote two best selling books, and numerous short stories, based on her mother’s memories. Almanzo was 92 when he died in 1949; Laura had just turned 90 when she died in 1957.

Today the fictionalized Ingalls stories are how many people view this country’s pioneer era. Historians consider Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels to be worthwhile aids in helping modern generations understand the past. (Anyone who’s read a history book tries to ignore the Little House on the Prairie television series, which strayed far from Laura’s books.)

Perhaps the classic Little House novels would have never been published if the Wilders hadn’t lost all of their money in the Stock Market Crash.