The Conflicted Ozarks

I did not realize how brutal the Civil War was in Missouri

Again it has been months since I posted to this blog. My apologies to followers.

Quick update on my book: I completed an ugly draft of chapter 8 this last summer, and my research trip to Missouri and Kansas meant I was able to fill in missing pieces of chapters 2, 6, and 7. That means that I have now completed drafts of chapters 1 through 8, so I will need to write chapters 9, 10, and 11 and edit the whole when I am on sabbatical next spring. I have some hopes of accomplishing this. This fall, much of my time has been taken up with teaching a new upper-level history course at Trinity and my administrative duties.

During the last few weeks, however, I have had the opportunity to read the second volume of Brooks Blevins’s A History of the Ozarks: The Conflicted Ozarks. Based on the most recent historical research, the book was mind expanding for my understanding of the region. It is a densely-written book with an incredible amount of detail. The overall contours of the history have expanded my understanding of Wright County, Missouri, where Laura and Almanzo Wilder settled in 1894.

Blevins begins by describing the population of the Ozark Uplift, from eastern Oklahoma to northwestern Arkansas and southern Missouri. The whites of the region were a mixture of westerners, midwesterners, and southerners. The region had fewer slaves per capita than the south, though the existence of slavery colored life everywhere and for everyone. The central chapters of the book describes how society in the Ozark Mountains were destroyed by the Civil War. During the first two years of the war, both Union and Confederate armies marched across the region, living off the land by confiscating foodstuffs and livestock and fighting several major battles. Once the regular armies had moved on, state militias, irregular military units, and what we might call gangs today ranged through the region, attacking opponents, destroying property, and at times displacing entire populations. After the war ended, Reconstruction took different forms in Arkansas, which was occupied by the U. S. army, and Missouri, which was not. In both areas, however, freed slaves worked to find ways to support their families and former slaveowners found new ways of organizing their farms. Bloodshed continued across the region during reconstruction, involving the Ku Klux Klan in Arkansas and vigilantes known as Bald Knobbers in parts of southwestern Missouri. Open violence had largely ended by the middle of the 1870s, but spectacular reports of Bald Knobber lynchings and reprisals were reported in newspapers until 1888.

The last chapter of the book is titled “Reconstructing Society and the Economy in the Ozarks.” It describes how the building of railroads, the development of mining and timbering, and the founding of public schools and educational institutions connected many towns and families to the rest of the country, both economically and culturally. However, areas bypassed by the railroads and further from natural resources remained less prosperous and less “civilized.” In an Epilogue, Blevins argues that these areas and the vigilante action that occurred there became fascinating to Americans in urban areas during the late nineteenth century. Ultimately, the residents of this other world were immortalized by Harold Bell Wright’s The Shepherd of the Hills, published in 1907. The cultural term “Ozarks,” not referring to the town of Ozark or to the Ozark Mountains, appeared in print for the first time in the New York Times in 1887. The term became used for the “backward” portions of the region, much as the term “Appalachia” was used during the same period. These characterizations flattened out the more complex realities of the region for decades to come. In the third volume of the history, which is set to be released in November, Blevins promises to provide a more complex portrait of the region’s past and present.

Reading this book was mind-expanding for me. I did not realize how brutal the Civil War was in Missouri and Northern Arkansas, despite my appreciation of the movie Ride With the Devil (1999) which is set in Missouri during the war. I also learned several things that will be useful for my work on Laura Ingalls Wilder:

  • Wright County and Mansfield, Missouri, are in the Central Plateau of the Ozark uplift. (p. 8)
  • The first railroad that went through Mansfield was the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Memphis, sometimes known as the KC, FC & M. It built east from Springfield to Willow Springs in 1881 and 1882. (196)
  • Railroads made money from selling land along their routes, and they relied on population to use their services. In areas where there was lead, zinc, iron, or large stands of trees, mining and timber paid the freight. This was not the case in the central plateau, so “the KC, FS & M eventually turned to promotion to generate profitable shipping, dubbing the country between Springfield and Thayer the ‘Land of the Big Red Apple’…” (196) This slogan will probably be familiar to Wilder readers familiar with the advertising that brought Almanzo and Laura to Mansfield in 1894. The KC, FS & M was bought out by the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad in 1901.
  • Laura and Almanzo lived in an area served by a railroad line and therefore more prosperous than many areas, some of them not far from the town of Mansfield. Blevins concludes: “The result of these factors in the decades after the war and Reconstruction was the gradual development of a divergent society in the Ozarks, one of haves and have-nots. While the farms and towns of the Springfield Plain and the river valleys and the rail lines prospered in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, those in other less-advantageous areas stagnated or declined…” (235)

Blevins’s interest is almost completely in the direction of military, economic, and social history. Churches are mentioned only a few times in the book: as a key feature of community for slaves (23-24), when the U. S. War Department allowed Northern Denominations of Christian churches to seize the property of Southern Congregations during the War (148), and when figures were connected with particular churches.

Still, the book is expansive, detailed, and will reward the careful reader. I believe that the observations I outlined above will enrich my chapters about the Wilders’ time in Mansfield, including providing important context for their farm operations, Almanzo’s work in town (which was mostly related to the railroad), and Laura’s work with the Mansfield Farm Loan Association.

Thanks for reading.

Links:

Trinity Christian College – https://www.trnty.edu/

Brooks Blevins, A History of the Ozarks:

Volume 1, The Old Ozarks

Volume 2, The Conflicted Ozarks

Volume 3, The Ozarkers

Independence, Kansas

It had taken a long time to get here

When I did my research trip to Missouri two weeks ago, I took a day to drive to Independence, Kansas, and the Little House on the Prairie Museum. This was the last of the places that Laura Ingalls Wilder had lived in the Midwest that I wanted to visit while writing my book.

After spending a day and a half in the State Historical Society of Missouri office in Rolla (discussed in my post last week), I drove to Joplin, Missouri, and stayed overnight, and then finished the trip to Independence the next morning. I was surprised by how quickly I left the rolling hills of the Ozark mountains and entered the flat plains of southeastern Kansas, and it occurred almost at the moment when I drove out of Missouri. It was nice to be off interstate highways, although I did have to pay attention to the road to dodge small turtles who occasionally were slowly making their way across my lane. I drove through the town of Independence and arrived at the Little House on the Prairie Museum in the middle of the morning.

I was welcomed by the donkeys in the pasture next to the barn (it was striking how loud they were) and then by Rhonda Stephen in the Welcome Center / Gift Shop. This property was where the Ingalls family lived in 1869 and 1870, when Laura was 2-3 years old. It was also where Laura’s younger sister Carrie was born. The site was immortalized in the third Little House book, Little House on the Prairie. Unfortunately, unlike De Smet, South Dakota, and Mansfield, Missouri, this site does not have an actual house where Laura lived; the log cabin here was just a replica. The Museum has also moved a historic Post Office from Wayside, Kansas, and a one-room schoolhouse from Sunnyside, Kansas, to the property; both are from the late 1800s. The farmhouse on the property, now used as the gift shop, was built in the late 1880s as well. But none of these structures has a direct connection to the Ingalls family.

There is, however, a hand dug well on the property, which was probably dug by Charles Ingalls and one of his neighbors. The existence of this well helped researchers during the 1960s decide that this was where the Ingalls family lived, since the first legal land filings were in 1871, after the Ingalls had left the area to move back to Wisconsin. I sat a bit in the back yard to look at the hand dug well with rocks around it. I thought I should stay a while, since it had taken a long time to get here. A long time in several different senses: First, the site is over 650 miles from my home, and I had done the trip by driving six hours to Rolla, then three hours to Joplin, then two hours to the site. Second, I had been planning to visit this site since I began my work on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s faith in 2016. Third, I’ve actually been reading and thinking about Laura since 1995. Finally, it must have taken the Ingalls family an incredibly long time to travel to this place. Google maps says that it is almost 650 miles from Pepin, Wisconsin.

The well has been filled with concrete, so one can’t look down into it. But one can imagine. The space surrounding the homestead is no longer that empty; U. S. Route 75 is visible in the distance, and there are other roads and trees in most directions. The land behind the property has folds and gullies; there are flat fields in front. Obviously, much has changed in the 150 years since the Ingalls family moved away. It was good to be there, looking at something that Charles Ingalls had made, and thinking about the passage of time.

In the hour I had been there, several older couples and one family with young children had arrived. So after a second brief conversation with Rhonda, I headed back to Independence. I wanted to find out if there were churches in the area when the Wilders were living there. So I went to the Independence Historical Museum. Sylvia Augustine is the Coordinator there, and she brought out a Montgomery County History published in 1995 that had information about the first churches founded in Independence. It turns out that Roman Catholic missionaries had reached out to the Osage in previous decades, and they established a mission station in Independence in 1869. Father John Schoenmakers was taking the sacraments to Catholic settlers that year and the next. A group of Methodists also began meeting for worship in Independence several times a month in 1869. As the white population of both Independence and the land around it increased, more churches were planted; by the time the Ingalls left the area, there were Baptist and Presbyterian congregations meeting in Independence. It does not appear that the Ingalls had any contact with these groups. I was grateful for Sylvia’s assistance.

On my way out of town, I pulled off U. S. Route 160 to a county road with an incredibly scenic bridge over the Verdigris River. I took some pictures of the river, and some of the bridge. I then continued east between fields of pastureland and corn, back towards Missouri. I had appointments at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield the next morning, which I will describe in my next post.

Thanks again to my institution, Trinity Christian College, for funding my travel. Thanks to all of you for reading.

Links:

My post about research in Rolla last week

Little House on the Prairie Museum

Independence Historical Museum and Art Center

Trinity Christian College

Mansfield Methodist Episcopal Church

Organized Sunday with a Good Membership

Last week, I did my research trip to Missouri and Kansas. This trip generated many insights for my book, and it will provide material for my next several blog posts.

Monday and Tuesday, May 24 and 25, I visited the State Historical Society of Missouri office in Rolla. It is housed in the Wilson Library at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, or Missouri S&T. This school was previously called the University of Missouri at Rolla, and before that it was the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy. The State Historical Society of Missouri has collections at universities around the state: Cape Girardeau, Columbia, Kansas City, Rolla, St. Louis, and Springfield. Materials at any location can be sent to any of the others. I requested some reels of microfilm be sent from the University of Missouri at Columbia to Rolla so that I could look at them. They were for the Mansfield Mail from 1895 to 1906 and the Mansfield Mirror from 1923 to 1936. Both were weekly newspapers published in Mansfield.

Katie Seale in the Rolla office kindly obtained the microfilm before I arrived. Once I was there, she taught me to use the microfilm reader, which was a scanner connected to a desktop computer. The technology was incredibly good, especially compared to the microfilm readers and printers used by historians for decades. It was able to make even very dark microfilm images readable. The system also allowed me to scan portions of a page of the newspaper and paste them directly into my notes. After several hours, I was in a groove, and in the two days I had looked at all the issues of the Mansfield Mail and had made some headway in the Mirror.

I was mainly looking for places where the local newspapers mentioned one of the churches in the town, other Christian activities, or the Wilders. I was not disappointed. In fact, it was the first issue I looked at that included a description of the founding of the Mansfield Methodist Episcopal Church, where the Wilders eventually settled. I reproduce that article in full:

The Methodists

Organized Sunday with a Good Membership

The Revival

               The revival held in the C. P. Church by Rev. Worthen resulted in much good in the interest aroused, the crowds that attended and in the enlivening of religious interest in the city, and, especially, in the organization of a Methodist Episcopal Church in our midst. The number of conversions were twenty-three and number of accessions to the M. E. church was twenty-six.

               Organization of the church was effected on Sunday, last, by Rev. E. G. Cattermole officiating, assisted by Revs. Rowden and Worthen. The organization starts out with twenty-six members, while twelve or fifteen more will come in soon. The new church will be in the Rev. Mr. Cattermole’s charge until Conference meets, which will be in March, when its future supervision will be determined.

               Rev. Worthen did a good work here and should have credit, we presume, for the most of the work, as he labored incessantly and without compensation. He is, in fact, an able minister and could do much good if he would learn not to antagonize every interest and every body not directly in conformity with his views, and berate them in language strangely in contrast with the doctrines of the Bible. Nothing can be gained by making enemies in church work; but everything may be gained by making friends and by persuasion. Nevertheless, the work accomplished here was a good work and just credit should be given for it, although enemies were made for the church by the bitterness of the language used by Rev. Worthen; but our people should remember that this was not the fault of our new church or of our home church people, but of an outside individual. (Mansfield Mail, 22 February 1895)

This is a striking article for a couple reasons. First, it sets the origin of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Mansfield in February 1895. The Mansfield United Methodist Church histories that I had read previously say that the church was founded in 1899. The first church building was completed in 1899, but according to this news story, it appears that the congregation was founded four years earlier. However, I’m still wondering about the entry Laura wrote about Mansfield in her diary of her family’s trip from DeSmet, South Dakota to Mansfield on August 30, 1894: “There is a Methodist Church and a Presbyterian.” (On the Way Home: The Diary of a Trip from South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894, with a setting by Rose Wilder Lane [New York: Harper and Row, 1962], p. 74). This suggests that there was already a Methodist church in existence the previous year. Perhaps I will be able to access Methodist Church district records that will shed light on when exactly the Mansfield Methodist Episcopal Church was founded.

In addition, it is fascinating that the author of this article combines straightforward reporting about the revival and its results with what might be seen as editorial comments about the pastors involved. This kind of editorializing was not uncommon during the late nineteenth century. It does indicate that some pastors emphasized their denomination’s doctrines instead of beliefs that all Christians share. It is unclear, obviously, whether the author’s assessment of the pastor’s actions was shared by others who committed to the new church. I think that Laura Ingalls Wilder would probably have resonated with the newspaper reporter’s attitude.

Another item provided regularly in these local newspapers is the schedule for full worship services led by the pastor at each church in Mansfield. There was some shifting over time, but it appears that there were “preaching” services either one or two times a month at the Methodist Church. In some years, it was the first and third Sunday mornings, during others it was the third and fourth, and sometimes it was just the third. This was because the pastor assigned by the Bishop served more than one church.

I believe that I now have an almost complete listing of pastors who served the Mansfield Methodist Church between 1895 and 1935. At least it is more complete than any list I have seen. They were:

E. G. Cattermole, 1895

J. S. Meracle, 1897

T. P. Leckliter, 1898

C. F. Tippen 1899

W. H. Yount or Yaunt, 1899-1900, 1903-1904

John J. Frazier, 1904

B. D. Jones, 1908-1909

B. E. Niblack, 1912-1913

J. J. Wolfe, 1913-1914

J. W. Needham, 1914-1915

Guy Willis Holmes, 1916-1919

Thomas E. Prall, 1919-1920

A. J. Graves, 1920-1921

Clyde E. Little, 1921-1922

W. A. Gray, 1922-1923

M. O. Morris, 1923-1924

George A. Wells, 1924-1926

C. C. Van Zant, 1927-1929

William A. Dahlem, 1929-1931

J. E. Owen, 1930-1931

Andrew C. Runge, 1931-1932

D. S. Frazier, 1932-1933

Holley Day, 1933-1936 (maybe longer)

Pastors normally only served for one year and then were assigned elsewhere. It appears that by the late 1920s and 1930s, however, it was more common for a pastor to serve multiple years.

As far as considering the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I’m gathering answers to basic questions about the Methodist Church in Mansfield—when was it founded? When did they meet for worship? Who was the pastor?—in hopes that they will contribute to answering other questions: What was spiritual formation like for members of a church in a small town like Mansfield, where a pastor came to preach just once or twice a month, and where he served just one year and then moved on? Did the Wilders attend Sunday School, which was held weekly? The newspapers report on events sponsored by the Methodist Church Ladies Aid Society, and they regularly give the program for Epworth League and Christian Endeavor meetings for young people. It doesn’t seem that Laura was very active in the Ladies Aid. When Laura’s name appears in the newspaper, it is usually 1) as an official in the Mansfield chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star or in 2) relation to activities of two women’s clubs, the Justamere Club in Mansfield and the Athenian Club which had members in both Mansfield and Hartville. She also served as the Secretary-Treasurer of the Mansfield chapter of the National Farm Loan Association.

Many thanks to my institution, Trinity Christian College, for funding my travel. More about other things I learned on the research trip in future posts. Thanks for reading.

Links:

State Historical Society of Missouri

Missouri University of Science and Technology

Trinity Christian College

The Methodist Church in Missouri, 1798-1939

Three different Methodist denominations

The spring academic term at Trinity is over. We were able to hold two in-person commencement ceremonies in a local minor-league ballpark for our 2020 and 2021 graduates. Though it was cold, it didn’t rain. My daughter was a 2020 graduate and got to walk across the stage with her friends.

That was two weeks ago. Last week we had a variety of end-of-year meetings. This week my schedule opened up a bit, so I have been able to return to work on the book. Trinity has provided funding for me to travel next week to the State Historical Society of Missouri and look at newspapers from Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura and Almanzo Wilder lived from 1894 to the end of their lives. I will be looking for information about the churches in that town, particularly the Methodist Church, where the Wilders worshipped.

In preparation for the trip, this week I read Frank Tucker’s The Methodist Church in Missouri, 1798-1939: A Brief History. The book was published in 1966. It is an institutional church history, describing the origins and growth of what eventually became the three different Methodist denominations in Missouri during the early twentieth century: The Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS), and the Methodist Protestant Church (MPC). Tucker places the growth and development of these churches in two contexts: 1) events in Missouri, including early growth of white population in the state, the Civil War, and reforms during the early 20th century, and 2) developments in the denominations nationally. The book ends with the merger of the three denominations to become The Methodist Church in 1939.

Tucker’s book does not mention Mansfield, and it only briefly refers to the spread of Methodism in the Ozarks more generally. But reading the book taught me a lot about Methodism and reminded me of a lot I had previously learned about Missouri’s history. Some particular things:

  • Terminology: Methodist denominations are governed by a General Conference which meets every four years. Smaller geographic areas are governed by an Annual Conference, and still smaller areas have a Quarterly Conference. Ministers are appointed annually to particular churches by the Bishop of the area.
  • Divisions: The MPC left he MEC in the 1830s because of disagreements about governance: how leaders of Quarterly Conferences were chosen and whether lay leaders could be members of Annual and General Conferences. The greater disruption to Missouri Methodism came when the MECS split from the MEC in the 1840s because of disagreements about slavery. Annual Conferences were allowed to choose whether to stay with the MEC or leave with the MECS; the Missouri Annual Conference voted to join the MECS. However, some churches in Missouri then voted to remain in the MEC. As a result, for almost 100 years, churches in Missouri belonged to one of three different Methodist denominations. Since Missouri was a border state, it had much more diversity among the three groups than, say, Minnesota, where most Methodists were MEC, or Alabama, where nearly all Methodists were MECS.
  • The Border War, Bleeding Kansas, and the Civil War: The 1850s and 1860s were terrible years for Missourians. The MEC and MECS both founded churches in Kansas, and there were Methodists among both the Bushwhackers and the Jayhawkers, both before and during the war. Some MECS churches were occupied by pastors from the MEC. The MPC also divided over slavery.
  • Ministries: After the Civil War, as Missouri’s population grew and experienced more prosperity, Methodist churches initiated additional ministries. Sunday Schools became more widespread and organized. Epworth Leagues were started to provide young people in their teens and twenties with leisure activities and opportunities for spiritual growth. Methodist denominations founded colleges, hospitals, and training schools for nurses. Methodists also participated in the late-nineteenth century explosion of world missions.
  • Race: Before the Civil war, there were African-American members in all three denominations. After the war, Black Methodists left the MECS after the Civil War to form the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, which later was renamed the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. In the MEC, blacks had their own churches, pastors, districts, and annual conferences.
  • Reunion: During the decades surrounding the Civil War, there was competition and even conflict among churches in the MEC, MECS, and MPC. By the late 1800s, however, animosity had cooled. The three denominations collaborated on a hymnal in 1904, and there were calls from the Annual Conferences in Missouri for the denominations to merge. The merger was finalized in a uniting General Conference in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1939.

The Missouri United Methodist Archives (MUMA) is located in the library at Central Methodist University in Fayette, in north central Missouri. Central Methodist is the sole remaining institution of higher education founded by Methodists in the 1800s. John Finley, the Archivist at MUMA, has been very helpful in sending me information from the Archives about the Methodist Church in Mansfield. Apparently it was part of the MEC. Finley suggests that this would have been more congenial to Laura and Almanzo since the MEC was dominant in the upper Midwest where they were from. So perhaps there were similarities as well as regional and cultural differences between the Methodist Church in Mansfield and the one in Walnut Grove, Minnesota that Laura attended for at least a year as a child.

Tucker’s book provided me with state-level and denominational context for Methodist churches in Missouri. As a work of church history that focuses on church leaders and institutional activities, however, it doesn’t ask or answer questions that a social historian might ask, like: What was it like to be a member or pastor in a church that was part of the MEC in a state that was dominated by the MECS? In a small town like Mansfield during the early 1900s, where a pastor came to preach just once a month, did members feel connected to the Methodist practice of circuit riding in the late 1700s and early 1800s? Or was it just a fact of life, since all churches in Mansfield at the time—Baptist, Christian, Methodist, and Presbyterian—only had preaching once a month? As is often the case, historical work is about struggling with the questions, not finding the answer.

I’m looking forward to being back in Missouri for research next week. Thanks for reading.

Picture credit: I scanned the front of the dust jacket of the book.

Links:

Trinity Christian College

Trinity Christian College Commencement

The State Historical Society of Missouri

The Methodist Church in Missouri, 1798-1939: A Brief History

The Missouri United Methodist Archives

Back After a Long Time

There are always multiple stories

My last blog post was last June. I guess that some description of what I’ve been doing during the last nine months would be in order. Several observations:

Like many Americans, my life was dramatically changed and my view of the world was unbelievably altered by the events of 2020 and early 2021, including covid-19 lockdowns, ongoing virus restrictions, protests following the death of George Floyd, rioting and violence that followed some of those protests, the United States presidential election, doubts and accusations of election fraud, and the attack on the U. S. Capitol. Also like many Americans, these public events’ influence on me was complicated by personal, family, and work-related developments.

I can’t remember if I mentioned last spring that my mother died on February 3. My father, brother, and I buried her five days later and we planned a memorial service in Western Pennsylvania in the middle of March, which of course was postponed because of covid. It was ultimately held in mid-June. My father moved in with my family in August, then moved to a nearby apartment in early October. Last December, my family did not travel to eastern Pennsylvania to celebrate Christmas with my wife’s extended family. We have lived in Chicagoland eighteen years, and this was just the second time that we had not returned to PA for the holiday.

Last fall, my institution, Trinity Christian College, was completely online. A couple hundred students lived on campus, but all courses were online courses. I taught a new course in our just-approved Foundations curriculum. In October, Trinity also had its ten-year visit by a team representing the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), our regional accreditor. As an Academic Dean, I was lined up for multiple meetings on zoom with different members of the team. The week before the visit was set to begin, I came down with symptoms and tested positive for covid. It was a mild case and I attended all of the meetings from home. This semester, Trinity is holding classes in-person with a remote option. I teach in a classroom and also run a zoom session with students who must quarantine or who have chosen to not come to campus. I am again teaching a completely new course, and it’s a writing course, not solely a history course. My work as an Academic Dean is complicated by the realities that many of my colleagues are not on campus, that spring break was cancelled, and everyone has email fatigue.

In the midst of these developments, my research has taken a back seat. It is my hope to return soon to concentrated work on my book, “On the Pilgrim Way”: The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The manuscript is due to Eerdmans Publishers in August 2022. I have received a summer research grant from Trinity to work on it this summer. The college has also graciously approved a sabbatical for me in the spring of 2022. The time for the final push to complete the work is nearly here.

I do think that the events of the last twelve months—the response to covid-19, protests about racial injustice, the death of my mother—have made me think differently about my writing and my teaching. The cumulative effect of these events has impressed on me the incredible difficulty of understanding another person’s life. The virus affected people’s lives and livelihoods very differently, and therefore different people in my family, church, and workplace developed very different ideas about governmental action. The killing of George Floyd and the protests (and, at times, violence) that followed opened my eyes to new understandings of the experiences of my African American neighbors and colleagues. My ideas about how to understand my mother’s life have changed and shifted.

There are always multiple stories that can be told to make sense of the incomplete and fragmentary information we have about the world. In many ways, we ultimately are guessing from the evidence that we have. This is especially the case when one is trying to tell the story of someone else’s life. I have realized that my view of my mother’s life had been colored by the last few years when she was in very bad physical health. It is only as the months since her death have passed that I have been able to get a longer perspective on who she was and what she was like. The picture at the top of the page is of my mother and me on my wedding day, November 28, 1992. I have inherited more than just her nose and her smile.

This has humbled me as I have thought about the attempt to understand the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Biographers have interpreted her life in strikingly different ways. Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires asserts that Wilder was haunted by the privations and difficulties she experienced as a child and created a myth to deal with them. John Miller and others argue that Laura was shaped by difficulties but persevered due to inner strength, a balanced worldview, and trust in God. What she did not enjoy in life she accepted and made the best of, and she sought to teach others how to love life as a farmer’s wife.

As I think about my biography of Laura, I most would like to avoid taking a side in the cultural and partisan shouting matches of our time. I do not want to make Laura a champion of one side or the other. This is perhaps made easier because it is not always easy to define her by twenty-first century political categories. For instance, her love of nature, animals, and wild landscape is attractive to those on the political left, while her acceptance of traditional family roles and the attractiveness of her vision of the nuclear family is attractive to those on the political right. I hope to be able to describe her as accurately as possible from her point of view, that of a rural woman raised in the upper Midwest during the late nineteenth century who lived most of her adult life in the border south in the early twentieth century.

The last twelve months have also made me think hard about my teaching. I’ve been teaching history full-time for almost twenty years, and I’m much less optimistic about anyone’s ability to tell simple stories about what we can learn from the past. Historians with different backgrounds and worldviews write completely different stories about the past based on the same events and evidence. This includes Ph.D.-educated historians, though we are all historians, using stories to make sense of our own lives, the shape of our communities, and the history of our country. In both public forums and private conversations, we tell selective stories to support our ideas, our political positions, and the way that we live our lives. At one extreme, stories suggest that the way people lived in the past was all wrong, and that our job is to correct those wrongs or to forget about them. At the other extreme, stories are told to call us to ways of life in the past that were superior to today. Neither extreme is completely correct, but both often convey some aspects of the truth.

As a result, I am more and more drawn to ways that history might help people to understand others. I hope that studying history will enable students to understand people in the past who don’t think the way they do, and that therefore they will become better able to understand people in the present who don’t think the way they do. Finally, I hope that students will embrace an understanding of the past that is complicated and not easily fit into the extreme political categories of the early twenty-first century.

I guess I hope that people who read my book (and this blog) will come to better understand these things as well.

I understand that there’s a lot of aspiration (“I hope…”) here. Perhaps I can post some more content soon. Thanks for reading.

Links:

Trinity Christian College

My blog post on Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires

Blog posts on John Miller – Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, “Midwestern Dreams or Nightmares,” A Personal Appreciation

Mansfield Press and Mansfield Mirror

Local newspapers, the Methodist Church, and Faith formation

Greetings. Once upon a time, I did weekly blog posts. Now I’m glad when they are monthly. But these are trying times…

The last several weeks, I’ve been avoiding thinking about preparing for fall by working on my book, “On the Pilgrim Way”: The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’ve been writing chapter 7 (of 11). The draft is almost complete. As July begins, I’m going to have to make the pivot to class preparation for the highly uncertain fall and spring of 2020-2021.

Chapter 7 addresses the years 1911 to 1924 in Laura’s life. Laura and Almanzo were living on Rocky Ridge, their farm about a mile outside of Mansfield, Missouri. These were the years that Laura wrote articles and columns for the Missouri Ruralist, a regional farm newspaper. Laura was in her forties and fifties, and even as she first had cultivated an audience for her writing, she was also at the height of her participation in community affairs in Mansfield. She was regularly an officer in the Mansfield chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, the auxiliary to the Masonic Lodge which allowed female members. She was also a founding member and regular attender of two women’s clubs. One was the Athenians, mostly women from Hartville, the county seat of Wright County and about ten miles north of Mansfield, but with five members from Mansfield. The Justamere club was founded in 1919 by and for women from Mansfield; Laura wrote the club song, “We are All Friends.” During World War I, she volunteered for the local chapter of the Red Cross and she and Almanzo contributed to the Liberty Bond drive. She was active in local Democratic Party politics and helped to found the Mansfield Farm Loan Association, which received funds from the Federal Government and made loans to farmers. She was elected Secretary Treasurer for the Association every year from 1917 to 1928.

How do I know about these activities? Well, most of them are reported in biographies of Laura. But I got to read about all of these things when I looked at the copies of two local newspapers that have been digitized and made available by the Chronicling America program of the Library of Congress. The Mansfield Press is available from 1908 to 1909. The Mansfield Mirror is available from 1912 to 1922.

Authors like John Miller and Caroline Fraser have gone through these papers before me and relate what they say about Laura and Almanzo. I worked through them in order to see what they say about Christian organizations in Mansfield, and especially about the Mansfield Methodist Church, where the Wilders attended most of their adult lives, though they never officially became members. Here are some things that I learned:

  • When Laura and Almanzo moved to Mansfield in 1894, she wrote in her diary that “There is everything here already that one could want though we must do our worshipping without a Congregational church. There is a Methodist church and a Presbyterian.” (On the Way Home, 74) The Methodist church was actually a Methodist Episcopal (or M. E.) Church, and the Presbyterian Church was a Cumberland Presbyterian (or C. P.) Church. In 1909 a Baptist congregation was formed, and a Church of Christ was founded in 1913.
  • The Methodist Church building had been built in 1899, and it was a center of activity in the Mansfield Community. It housed dinners sponsored by the Methodist Ladies Aid Society, graduation services for the local high school, and at times civic events like Memorial Day or July 4 observances, especially if it was rainy—otherwise they were held outside.
  • None of the churches in Mansfield had pastors who served the church there full time—all of them were shared with churches in other small nearby towns. As a result, none of the churches had worship services with a sermon every week. By the middle of the 1910s, the Church of Christ had preaching (this is how the newspaper describes it) the first Sunday of each month, the Baptist church had preaching the second Sunday, the Methodist Church had preaching the third Sunday, and the Presbyterian Church had preaching the fourth Sunday. Sunday school was held in all the churches every Sunday.
  • The Methodist Church in Mansfield was part of the St. Louis Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The M. E. denomination was hierarchical, which meant that the leaders of the conference assigned ministers to the churches every fall for one year terms. At times a pastor might be returned to a church or set of churches for two or even three years, but most of the men that served Mansfield and other churches in small towns were only there for one year before being moved to another pastorate.
  • My far the most colorful pastor of the Mansfield Methodist Church was the Rev. Guy Willis Holmes, who served there from 1916 to 1919. He is described in the newspaper as “an earnest and forceful preacher” and “a live-wire.” He must have been an electrifying speaker and a persuasive organizer. After only six months in the area, he was giving the commencement speech at multiple high schools, had helped to start a boy scout troop, and had conducted revival services that resulted in 22 conversions. But he came into his own during World War I, when he recruited a company for the Missouri National Guard, Chaired the County Council of Defense, and was named the Federal Food Aid Administrator for Wright County. Holmes was an outlier in that he served for three years. Subsequent pastors never quite lived up to his legacy.

I’ve been thinking about how these realities might have formed the Wilders and their faith. What might it have meant that there was only a worship service with preaching at the Methodist Church once a month? I don’t know if Almanzo and Laura went to Sunday School on the other weeks or not. Furthermore, what might it have meant for their church that it often had a pastor who was only there for one year and then moved on? Could a pastor really get to know many people in the church if he was only in town one weekend a month for one year? Finally, what did Laura and Almanzo think of Rev. Holmes and his striking career as pastor and war worker? For most of 1918, in his role as Food Administrator, Holmes published rules for farmers, stores, and individuals in the newspaper. Staples like flour and sugar were rationed and their prices were fixed, farmers had to market their wheat immediately when it was harvested, and threshing machine owners had to provide weekly reports. It is clear that the Wilders opposed what they saw as Federal Government overreach during the New Deal. I don’t know if they resented the U. S. Food Administration’s rules and regulations during the Great War.

As always, I’m working through these things as I write the book. Thanks for reading.

Quote is from Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Way Home: The Diary of a Trip from South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894, with a setting by Rose Wilder Lane (New York: Harper, 1962).

Links:

Chronicling America at the Library of Congress

For more on Laura and the Eastern Star and other community activities, you can check out Teresa Lynn’s Little Lodges on the Prairie: Freemasonry & Laura Ingalls Wilder (Austin: Tranquility Press, 2014).

The Coca-Cola ad is from the January 8, 1920 edition of the Mansfield Mirror.

The Long Winter and the Coronavirus

This book probably read differently when it was released in 1940.

I wrote a first draft of this on Friday, May 1. The next day I learned that John Miller had died and I immediately began work on my tribute to him. My time since then has been dominated by videoconference meetings for my work at Trinity, and I wasn’t able to get back to this until yesterday. The piece seems dated now, since the weather is warmer, some states have reopen their economies, and there are more arguments in the states that haven’t. School is also now out for many American children. But I thought that I would edit and post it anyway.

I have remarked to members of my family and others that things read differently when one is living under a stay-at-home order. The book of Philippians in the New Testament reads differently when you think about the fact that the Apostle Paul wrote it while under house arrest in Rome. Other parts of the Bible also sound different given the reality in which we are living. Little House in the Big Woods sounded different when I read it several weeks ago. Yesterday I decided to read The Long Winter.

When I blogged about The Long Winter four years ago in February 2016 (it is hard to believe I’ve been doing this so long), I marveled at the tightness of the narrative in the book. Some glimpses at its artistry:

  • The first chapters describe Laura and Pa cutting and stacking the hay that saves their life later in the book by providing fuel for their fire.
  • Multiple events early in the book foreshadow the crisis that is to come, including the thickness of a muskrat’s house, a warning from an older Native American, an early blizzard, and Pa’s and Laura’s premonitions of disaster. A brooding malice is depicted as lurking behind even fine weather.
  • The description of peril when the schoolchildren have to walk home in a blizzard is gripping.
  • The depictions of privation are vivid. The Ingalls family goes to bed early to save coal and kerosene, eats the same food again and again, and eventually must spend all their time just grinding grain and twisting hay to get enough food and fuel to survive.
  • The structure of the book is relentless: first there is no meat, then no coal, then no kerosene. Hopes are pinned on the arrival of the next train again, and again, and again. Then on page 213, Pa says “I hate to tell you… The train isn’t coming.” That chapter ends “The wheat and the potatoes were not enough.” (224) Later, Laura asks, “Ma, will we starve?” (243)
  • The narrative reaches its nadir when Pa’s fingers are too cold to play the fiddle, the activity that has always rallied the family’s spirits in earlier books.

I find the book to be incredibly effective fiction, even for adults, especially those with families.

I can imagine that this book read differently when it was released in 1940. The generation that had lived through the Great Depression and read it for the first time during the Second World War understood peril and privation in ways that our generation does not. Or perhaps not until now. Peril has been brought home to us in media reports and stories from acquaintances about the coronavirus. Privation may be coming, for the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs or even for society more broadly.

Interesting comparisons in the book to our current situation:

  • In the first half of the book, Ma serves as the voice of naïve optimism in the face of realities that she would rather not face. She repeatedly says that surely, now there will be good weather for a while. Pa and Laura are more realistic interpreters of reality; they understand that it will remain bad for quite some time.
  • Before the situation becomes dire, the school-age children continue their studies from home. Their motivation is primarily internal, although Ma is a driving force as well. Their concern is to not fall behind their classmates.
  • The book also speaks for the enduring value of the arts. One chapter gives examples of how literature can inspire courage, especially poetry. Throughout the book, music is a source of inspiration, comfort, and hope.

Christianity and faith are depicted in many ways. In the first chapter, Pa explains to Laura that God tells muskrats when to build houses with thicker walls. Scripture is quoted three different times: Psalm 55:6, Psalm 23, and Proverbs 16:18. Laura’s schoolteacher opens the day by reading Psalm 23. Bedtime prayers are mentioned four different times. To pass the time during a blizzard, Mary, Laura, and Carrie have a contest to see how many Bible verses they have memorized. When the mail is anticipated, we are told that Ma looks forward to receiving church papers (probably the Christian Advance). The Ingalls family receives a letter and later a Christmas barrel from Reverend Alden’s church in Minnesota. Carrie gazes at a Sunday school card with a picture of the Good Shepherd. Laura and Mary pray for the safety of Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland during their trip to locate food for the starving town. The family sings portions of at least ten different hymns. Finally, at the end of the book, as the family sits down to a loaded table for a belated Christmas dinner in April, Pa thanks God for his bounty. All in all, the book is by far the Little House book that mentions faith and Christianity the most.

This is where the original post came to an end. It does feel like the world has moved on from where it was when I wrote this. The weather is warmer, the daily number of new cases of COVID-19 and deaths have dropped significantly. Many in Illinois are talking about reopening soon—some to celebrate the idea, some to condemn it. It’s too bad that the COVID crisis can’t end the way that it did in The Long Winter: quickly and neatly. Less than twenty-five pages after Laura hears the chinook blowing, the train has arrived, the cupboards are filled, God has been thanked, and the book has concluded.

Thanks much for reading.

[Page numbers are from the 1953 edition of the book: Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Long Winter, illustrated by Garth Williams, revised edition (New York: Harper and Row, 1953)—the edition with the snowball fight on the front that gives an entirely incorrect feel for the contents of the book…]

Links:

Trinity Christian College

Tribute to John Miller

Original post on The Long Winter from 2016

 

John E. Miller, 1945-2020

John Miller passed away last Friday. John was an excellent historian, a prolific writer, and a kind and good man. There have been a number of biographies and tributes to his accomplishments online (links are at the bottom of this page), including his contributions to South Dakota History and Laura Ingalls Wilder studies. This is the story of what he meant to my life and career, in five accounts of how he went out of his way to help me with my research:

One. During the mid-1990s, I was in graduate school at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and writing about Laura Ingalls Wilder. In the course of my research, I contacted the two most prominent living experts on Wilder: William (Bill) Anderson in Michigan and John Miller in South Dakota. Both wrote back, and this started an email correspondence that has lasted to this day.

At the time, I was making the mental transition that most make when they have read the Little House books and then do research on Wilder’s life: one must realize that not everything in the novels is exactly how it happened. The Little House books are so straightforward and sound so authoritative that one comes to believe that this must have been exactly how it was. By the 1990s, however, through the work of Anderson, Donald Zochert, and others, it had become clear that this was not the case. The world of those who love the Little House books had also been rocked by the publication of The Ghost in the Little House by William Holtz. Holtz argued that most of what we love about the Little House books had been provided by Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane—Rose was, in effect, a ghost-writer for the series.

John Miller encouraged me as I waded into these interpretive waters. He was writing a biography of Laura for the University of Missouri Press (in the series as Holtz’s book), and he assured me that he had looked at the original manuscripts of the Little House Books and thought that they were a collaboration, not that Rose was a ghost writer. There was nothing in it for John to write long emails answering questions about Wilder and Midwestern history for a student in Pennsylvania. He was busy with his teaching at South Dakota State University and writing Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder. But his help and encouragement enabled me to finish my Master’s degree and get accepted to the Ph. D. program at the University of Iowa.

Two. In the summer of 2000, the Organization of American Historians held a regional conference in Ames, Iowa on the history of the Midwest. Both John and I presented papers at the conference. My paper was on Midwestern farm newspapers, the topic of my dissertation, and their recommendations for the rural church. John’s paper was on Midwestern small-town boys who had gone on to influence national life, including Johnny Carson and Ronald Reagan (this research led later to Small Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys who Shaped America).

When I found out that John was going to be at the conference, I asked if he would read my dissertation prospectus and give me comments on it. I was hoping to defend it before my dissertation committee that fall, and I knew that John would give me good recommendations. John said to send it and we’d have dinner together at the conference to talk about it. I don’t remember exactly what advice he gave, but I know that it included both encouragement and constructive criticism. Again, there really was nothing in it for him to read a fifty page document and prepare a list of comments, questions, and suggestions for a graduate student at another institution. But he did exactly that for me.

Three. Early in 2010, I saw an announcement that the first LauraPalooza Conference was going to be held in Mankato, Minnesota, that summer , and that both Bill and John would be speaking at it. My institution, Trinity Christian College, provided me funding to attend. I went so I could see John, meet Bill, and hear what people were saying. I was in the middle of a book project, hoping to get a publisher to accept a memoir I was editing by a woman from Iowa who homesteaded in Wyoming during the 1910s.

LauraPalooza has since been held four more times. It is partially an academic conference and partially a fan celebration of everything Little House: books, television series, historical sites, and memorabilia. The last day of the conference, most of the sessions were dedicated to craft, homeschooling, and educational uses of the Little House books. So John suggested that he and I go to downtown Mankato to find some used bookstores. He drove and we talked about my book and the several research projects he was working on at the time. He then decided that we should go to a small publisher (I think it was Minnesota Heritage Publishing) to see if there was an editor there that we could talk to about my book and one of his (there wasn’t). Then we went out to lunch together. We talked about history, the Midwest, our teaching, and politics. John had gone from being mainly a mentor to being a good friend.

Four. I got back in touch with John after my book Almost Pioneers had been published and I had decided that my next project would be about Wilder. We saw each other twice in 2017, the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Laura’s birth in 1867. The first time was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, at a conference sponsored by the South Dakota State Historical Society. The second was in Springfield, Missouri, at LauraPalooza 2017. He spoke at both conferences; I just spoke at the second. In 2018, I did a research trip to the upper Midwest, stopping in Burr Oak, Iowa, Pepin, Wisconsin, Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and De Smet, South Dakota. The night before I went to De Smet, I stayed with John and his wife Kathy in Brookings. We talked late into the night.

The next morning, I followed him to De Smet and he took me to the church building that Charles Ingalls had helped build, and to the De Smet News, where he introduced me to the editor. We then went to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, where he introduced me to the director. John and I then sat reading materials from their archives all morning. I was looking for material about Laura’s faith. I can’t remember what he was looking for, but he was thinking he might write another article about Laura sometime. He left before lunch to go home for a church meeting. I stayed a bit longer, took the tour of the homes in De Smet, and visited the Ingalls Homestead. I greatly appreciated the time that he took to help me with my research, even though he was busy.

Five. In the fall of 2018, John suggested that he and Bill Anderson and I do a panel at the 2019 Midwestern History Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Bill said that we should all tell our stories about how we came to write about Laura. Thus was born “‘Everyone Has a Wilder Story:’ Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Midwest, and Historical Research.” I have never had such a good time in a session at a conference. Bill has told me several times that he is concerned that I will not find enough information to write a biography of Laura that pays particular attention to her faith. John never doubted that I would be able to do it. He encouraged me in my project at every step. This conference was the last time that I saw John. I thought that when I was done with my manuscript, that I would be able to ask John to read it and let me know what he thought. Now I won’t be able to.

John was a historian, a teacher, a scholar, a husband, a father, a churchman, and a good man. To me, he was both a mentor and a good friend. It is a blessing that he published so much; we still have some access to keen mind and gracious spirit. I trust that I will see him again someday. Right now, I am very sad that he is gone.

Thanks for reading.

Links:

My blog entries that mention John or his work on Laura

John’s Amazon Page

John’s Obituary

Tributes: Argus-Leader, South Dakota Magazine, Capital Journal, South Dakota Governors (1), South Dakota Governors (2)

Duquesne University

The University of Iowa Department of History

LauraPalooza 2010, LauraPalooza 2012, LauraPalooza 2015, LauraPalooza 2017, LauraPalooza 2019

Trinity Christian College

Minnesota Heritage Publishing

South Dakota State Historical Society 2017 History Conference

2019 Midwestern History Conference

 

The Big Woods and COVID-19

“She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.” (95)

It was just over a month ago when the administration of Trinity Christian College, where I work, announced that due to COVID-19, courses for the rest of the spring semester would be conducted online, all of the resident students had to move home, and all spring events on campus (athletic, theater, music, art, etc.) were canceled. It was Thursday, March 12. The announcement came at noon, and the Chaplain’s office quickly organized a final worship service that afternoon as a way for students, faculty members, and staff members to communally grieve the losses that confronted us and express our trust in God and our Lord Jesus Christ. I found my daughter, who is a senior at Trinity, and she put her head on my shoulder and we cried together. That event now seems like a long time ago.

The next week, the Governor of Illinois issued a stay-at-home order. I moved enough out of my office to teach and do my work as an Academic Dean from home. My oldest son was sent home from his college in Pennsylvania to finish the semester online, and plans were underway for my two sons who are in high school to begin online classes. So my four children and I are now all doing online education. So far the bandwidth has held out. My wife is also at home because her work as a nanny and a volunteer at a thrift store both were suspended. Everyday life at my home during the last month has been transformed completely. Now is now.

I would not want to put my losses up against others who have lost a lot more. I am able to work from home and receive a paycheck. Although they have lost paying jobs at their schools, several of my children work at a local greenhouse which is still open, so they can still make some money for college. And there have been compensations. There are six people at the table every day for dinner. My wife has been baking large loaves of delicious homemade bread that we’ve been toasting and covering with the apple butter she made and canned last fall. There is more time for board games in the evening. We have popped corn and watched movies together. There are livestream services on Sunday morning and evening, and Sunday School, Youth Group, and mid-week Bible studies online.

Several weeks into the online, stay-at-home version of life and work, Bill Anderson (William Anderson, author and probably the greatest living authority on Laura Ingalls Wilder) emailed me a link for a New Yorker article that mentions Little House in the Big Woods in relation to the author and her family’s entry into quarantine in London. Margaret Mead, a long-time author for the New Yorker, she speaks of how her husband, her son, and her three stepsons, had all loved the book when they were children. Mead read the book out loud to her son again, and they decided to grow some vegetables in their window boxes. She ends by describing her stepson who lives in rural upstate New York with his partner and their son.

Last week, I got an email from a librarian at the Christian college I attended in Pennsylvania (and where two of our sons will be attending this fall). It included a link to a blog entry from a young Christian woman reflecting on the importance of stories when confronting new realities, like COVID-19. She specifically mentions the Little House books and the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien.

In between these emails, I was contacted by Jared Burkholder, a historian at a Christian college in Indiana. He is teaching an online course on the History of the American West and wondered if we could record an interview about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books that he could have his students watch. I said I’d be glad to do so. We recorded the interview this past Monday, using Zoom. It was a lot of fun.

One of the questions he asked me about concerned reasons for the persistent popularity of the Little House books. I thought about the New Yorker author and the Christian blogger and said that I thought that the books combine two features that are often seen as appealing to either the cultural right or the cultural left: an incredibly attractive vision of family life and loving depictions of wilderness and the natural world. Cultural conservatives are often drawn to the Little House books’ depictions of the nuclear family. Pa represents the male head of household and the provider; Ma is the civilizer of the home. Together they support their children, and the books describe how real girls and young women feel when confronted with real challenges in growing up. Cultural liberals and environmentalists are drawn to the books’ detailed and evocative descriptions of wilderness, wild animals, and the landscape of the American west. And in fact, both of these things transcend cultural (and political) categories. Mead, who I would think leans to the left, appreciates Big Woods’s description of a happy home. I lean to the right and love the Little House books’ description of the physical environment, animals, and nature. The result is that the books continue to speak to tens of thousands of people.

So I decided to read Little House in the Big Woods yesterday and think about what it might say to the world in which I live today, the world shaped by COVID-19. It was especially appropriate for me to do it yesterday morning, because an April storm had caused several inches of snow to fall in Chicagoland. I immediately identified with the events in Chapter 7, “The Sugar Snow,” except we don’t have any real maple syrup in the house. I was again amazed at the book’s detailed descriptions of how food was prepared and preserved, its depictions of how young children feel and act, and its vision of how a family could feel they had everything they need, even as they have so much less than we do today. This is the accomplishment of the collaboration between Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane: many people today, 150 years after the events depicted and almost 100 years after the words were written, can identify with the stories. When I’ve been surprised by the usefulness of an online tool during the last several weeks, I’ve found myself thinking—like Pa did of the mechanical thresher in Chapter 12, “That machine’s a great invention!” (91) The very next chapter (the last of the book) depicts Pa’s love for natural beauty and wildlife as being so great that he is unable to shoot the deer or bear that walked into the clearing where he was hunting to bring home meat for his family. When he tells Ma and the girls, Laura says “I’m glad you didn’t shoot them!” and Mary adds “We can eat bread and butter.” (94) I agreed.

As a historian, I know that the world that is created in Little House in the Big Woods was not exactly how it was for Laura Ingalls Wilder during the years that she and her family lived in the log cabin outside of Pepin, Wisconsin. They had relatives and neighbors much nearer than the book suggests.  But ultimately, Little House in the Big Woods is a book of stories, and stories can teach even when they are not historically accurate.

I may try to read The Long Winter next week as a different way into the COVID-19 quarantine experience.

I realize that this entry has been mostly about me. Thanks for reading anyway.

(Quotes and page numbers are from Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Little House Books, edited by Caroline Fraser, Volume I (New York: Library of America, 2012).

Links:

Trinity Christian College, where I work.

Geneva College, where two of my sons will attend next fall, Lord-willing

Margaret Mead, “Returning Once More to a Little House in the Big Woods,” New Yorker, March 4, 2020.

Venia “On Stories and Facing a Quarantine,” Sola Gratia, April 3,

Midwestern Dreams or Nightmares?

Greetings and Happy New Year! The new semester is underway at Trinity Christian College. I hope that everyone reading this had a blessed Christmas and a good start to 2020.

It was just over four years ago, on January 4, 2016, that I posted my first entry on this blog. Since then, I have posted over sixty more. Thanks to everyone who has commented or sent me observations about my research.

You may have heard that John Miller has published an extended review of Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (2017). The title is “Midwestern Dreams or Nightmares?: An Appreciation and Critique of Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” It’s the first article in the Fall 2019-Spring 2020 issue of Middle West Review, an academic journal published by the University of Nebraska Press. Miller has written three books about Wilder: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town (1994), about De Smet during the late 1800s, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend (1998), a full biography that concentrates on Wilder’s adult life, and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane: Authorship, Place, Time, and Culture (2008), a collection of essays. He is eminently qualified to provide what he calls “a more balanced account of Prairie Fires than has generally been accorded it.” (2) (Full disclosure: Miller discussed this article with me while he was writing it, and he shared an early draft with me for my comments.)

Miller praises many aspects of Fraser’s book. He notes that it is well-written and that it provides an incredible number of details about Wilder’s life and her historical context. Its over 500 pages of text and 85 pages of notes make it by far the largest biography of Wilder yet published. He is in agreement with the amount of space Fraser devotes to understanding the life and work of Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane, and he is in general agreement with Fraser’s interpretation of Lane’s life and character. He argues that the historical contexts Fraser provides in the book are often insightful, and the speculations that Fraser makes when facts are not available are often good, helpful, or plausible.

However, Miller disagrees with what he sees as two of the most important assertions made in the book:

  1. Fraser describes Wilder’s early life as unremittingly difficult and argues that Wilder deliberately shaped the Little House books to recast her childhood in a positive light.
  2. Fraser argues that agriculture in eastern South Dakota was “economically unsound” and “ecologically disastrous.” (24)

In his description of these lines of argument, Miller uses examples from several speeches that Fraser delivered in Sioux Falls and Brookings, South Dakota, as well as a number of quotes and accounts from the book. In both cases, he finds these assertions unsupported, concluding that “Fraser has, in her major lines of argument, stepped beyond the bounds of reliable history.” (29)

In the first case, Miller argues that it is impossible to determine exactly how the Ingalls family experienced their years moving from Wisconsin, to Kansas, to Wisconsin, to Minnesota, to Iowa, to Minnesota, and to South Dakota. When he died, Laura’s father Charles Ingalls did not have much real estate or money in the bank. However, Miller notes that he had occupied many positions of public trust in De Smet, and that his wife Caroline and his daughter Mary enjoyed a comfortable home, the friendship of neighbors, and the respect of fellow church members, lodge members, and other townspeople. Furthermore, Laura’s recollections of her childhood in the Missouri Ruralist were not negative but happy. He argues that two key documents used by Fraser to substantiate the idea that Wilder remembered her childhood negatively are selectively quoted and misunderstood. He ends by asserting that the best way to understand rural women´s lives during the late 1800s is to recognize that they experienced both hardships and joys, and that while some resented their isolation, others embraced its beauty and relative opportunity. Miller clearly sees Wilder as belonging to the second group.

Miller also takes issue with Fraser´s characterization of agriculture in southeastern Dakota Territory. The article first disputes the reasons Prairie Fires gives for why the Great Dakota Boom began in 1878. However, Miller is more concerned about Fraser’s assertion that the region around De Smet was part of the Great Plains that should never have been settled the way it was during the late nineteenth century. He notes that Prairie Fires uses the terms “prairie” and “plains” interchangeably, and while it leans on John Wesley Powell’s 1877 warning about agriculture west of 100 degrees of longitude, De Smet is actually 120 miles east of that line. He asserts that the region was farmed successfully by some during the late 1800s, that it recovered after the dry years of the early 1900s, and that it remains productive for some farmers today.

Miller’s experience with Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist columns and his knowledge of South Dakota agriculture stands him in good stead in both of these critiques. Both appear persuasive to me today.

I’ve gone back to my blog entry on Fraser’s book, and it is much more positive than Miller’s review. I also wrote a review of the book for the Annals of Iowa in 2018, and it is similarly positive. In both pieces, I praised the painstaking research that went into writing the book and the details about Wilder and Lane’s lives that it provides. My main critique in the Annals piece is of Fraser’s tone when describing people who lived in small towns and rural areas in the past, especially those who opposed government support for those in financial need. At the time, I didn’t identify Fraser’s characterization of Wilder’s childhood as completely negative. I may have been focusing on the many details that I was eagerly noting for my own research on Wilder. I also didn’t have the background in South Dakota agriculture to argue against her characterization of the South Dakota boom as an agricultural disaster.

I also wonder if part of the reason that I didn’t see all that Miller saw in the book is that he had the benefit of Fraser’s speeches in shaping how he engaged the book. About five pages of the review are devoted to descriptions and quotations from those talks. Book talks are often more forceful in making an argument than a book itself. A book is much longer, can be more nuanced, and an argument can be obscured by the details. I’m thinking that hearing Fraser speak multiple times may have crystalized things for him.

One thing that Miller and I agree on is that Prairie Fires could have engaged Wilder’s Christianity more. My blog entry included the following: “there is not a lot of attention to Laura and Rose’s faith in the body of the book… Laura and Rose’s religious outlook is not really primary to Fraser’s understanding of the two women.” Miller’s article puts it this way: “a greater emphasis upon the central importance of her religious beliefs and attitudes would help better to explain the woman’s generally sunny disposition and proclivity for interpreting setbacks and negative happenings in a positive light.” (10)

Miller does value much of what Fraser has done in Prairie Fires. I appreciate the good things about the book as well. But Miller worries that Fraser’s incorrect assertions will be what readers remember, especially those who don’t know much about Wilder. I’d recommend his article as a counterpoint to Fraser’s interpretation of Wilder’s life and times.

Thanks much for reading.

Page number citations are from: John E. Miller, “Midwestern Dreams or Nightmares: An Appreciation and Critique of Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls WilderMiddle West Review 6(1-2)(Fall 2019-Spring 2020), 1-36.

How might you be able to read Miller’s article? Several possibilities:

  • If you are a college student or live near a college or university, see if the library has access to it, either in hardcopy or online – you can check the catalog or go to/call the reference desk.
  • A public library may be able to get a copy of the article through interlibrary loan channels.
  • Buy a copy of the issue of the issue of the journal for $46 at this site.

Links:

Publisher’s site and picture credit: Middle West Review.

Trinity Christian College

Publisher’s Site for Prairie Fires

Publisher’s page for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town

My blog entry on Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder

Publisher’s page for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane: Authorship, Place, Time, and Culture

My blog entry on Prairie Fires

My review of Prairie Fires in The Annals of Iowa