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

 

Reconsidering Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I sat down to write this entry, I was shocked to realize that it has been five months since I have contributed anything to The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Actually, I wasn’t shocked. I knew that it has been a long time. But I have tried to keep doing some reading about Laura Ingalls Wilder. During this semester, that has meant reading a couple of essays in Reconsidering Laura Ingalls Wilder: Little House and Beyond each week. I finished the book yesterday.

Published by the University of Mississippi Press earlier this year, Reconsidering Laura Ingalls Wilder contains fifteen essays by scholars, and it presents some of the most recent academic scholarship on Wilder and the Little House books. Most of the authors are literature scholars; several have degrees in creative writing, American studies, women’s studies, and gender studies. There are no historians. Like most books of essays, I found some of the pieces to be stronger than others. Five stood out to me as providing particularly helpful examinations of Wilder’s writing:

  • Keri Holt and Christine Cooper-Rompato, “The Complicated Politics of Disability: Reading the Little House Books and Helen Keller.” The authors examine the Little House books’ depiction of Mary’s blindness, which is central to the later novels. They point out that the ways that the books depict Mary’s contributions to family life show her “individualism, self-sufficiency, and independence,” (35) which was a contrast to most other children’s books’ depictions of people with disabilities. These traits were also stressed by Helen Keller in her writing during the early twentieth century. Ironically, however, both Wilder and Keller stressed independence and distanced themselves from outside support; the Little House books do not mention that Dakota Territory paid for Mary’s tuition at the Iowa School for the Blind, and Keller often publicly refused monetary gifts and quietly accepted them later. I greatly appreciated Holt and Cooper-Rompato’s nuanced description of the complicated nature of these individuals’ lives and works.
  • Vera R. Foley, “Naked Horses on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Imagined Anglo-Indian Womanhood.” This essay provided a close reading of Laura’s interactions with horses in the Little House books and The First Four Years. Foley describes Laura as “a young girl caught between the influence of a genteel mother and an unstable frontier.” (51) The result, Foley argues, was that Laura embraced an outdoor, active femininity, not Ma’s domesticity. (49-50) A key part of how the books describe this process involves horses: from the Indians riding away on ponies at the end of Little House on the Prairie, to her racing with Lena across the plains in By The Shores of Silver Lake, to her courtship which is conducted almost exclusively on buggy and sleigh rides, to her riding of Trixy in the First Four Years. Fascinating.
  • Jenna Brack, “Her Own Baby: Dolls and Family in ‘Indians Ride Away.’” This essay presents the most multidimensional explanation of Laura’s shocking demand for a Native American baby at the end of Little House on the Prairie that I have read. You may not agree with her interpretation; I don’t agree with it completely. Unfortunately, it is impossible to describe in a short space.
  • Jericho Williams, “Breathing Literary Lives from the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Promises of Rural Women’s Education in the Little House Series.” This essay compares the description of Laura’s career as a teacher to depictions of teachers in Hamlin Garland’s Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly and Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. While the female protagonists in Garland and Cather’s books leave their small towns for success in urban areas, Wilder’s works reject the idea that “rural women lead inferior lives.” (134) Williams continues: “In Wilder’s view, rather than just a means for talented women to leave their hometowns, education is a multifaceted process that consists of learning rural arts and skills, living within one’s means, adapting to one’s environment, and assisting one’s family members and community.” (134) I think that this is an insightful statement about key aspects of Laura’s overall worldview, not just her view of education.
  • Christiane E. Farnan, “The Undergraduate American Studies Classroom: Teaching American Myths and Memories with Laura Ingalls Wilder.” Farnan has her college students read Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, and Little House on the Prairie in conversation with other classic books about farming and the frontier by Mary Rowlandson, Thomas Jefferson, Hector St. John Crevecoeur, Horace Greeley, Frederick Jackson Turner, James Agee and Walker Evans, and Henry Nash Smith. The essay asserts that her current students easily understand Big Woods and Farmer Boy as depictions of the agrarian ideal, but they often interpret Little House on the Prairie as a critique of Native American removal and agrarian occupation. Pa uproots his family, takes them into danger in many forms (the frozen lake, the high river, fire, wolves, hostile Native Americans), then abandons all of their work because of a rumor. Nobody is better at the end of the book. It was a reading that I hadn’t thought about before, and not one that I especially share, but I can see how her students come to it.

Unfortunately for my particular project, most of the authors ignore religion and faith. The one significant consideration is in Anna Thompson Hajdik’s “The Wilder Mystique: Antimodernism, Tourism, and Authenticity in Laura Ingalls Wilder Country,” a review of the development of some of the Wilder historic homesites and an examination of some of the sources of their appeal during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Hajdik notes the importance of the books to Christian homeschooling families and the Amish. The homeschooling connection has been mentioned by other authors (and I have numerous personal examples), but this is the first time I’ve read about the Amish. The citation for this observation was a personal conversation from 2006.

Reconsidering Laura Ingalls Wilder provides a number of fresh looks at the Little House books. I was pleasantly surprised that the authors are willing to consider the works on their own terms, not just condemn them for not living up to how people today would deal with the subject matter. It does not provide any new biographical or historical information about Wilder, but it does provide some new and interesting ways to approach Wilder’s work.

As always, thanks much for reading.

(All citations are from: Reconsidering Laura Ingalls Wilder: Little House and Beyond. Edited by Miranda A. Green-Barteet and Anne K. Phillips. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2019.)

Publisher’s site and picture credit: https://www.upress.state.ms.us/Books/R/Reconsidering-Laura-Ingalls-Wilder

 

The Good Neighbor

During the last several weeks, my wife and I have been reading The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, by Maxwell King. We read out loud to each other when we’re in the car or doing chores at home. I found out about the book in the alumni magazine from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where I received my M. A. in History. At Duquesne’s commencement this year, King and Rogers’s widow Joanne Rogers both received honorary doctorates. The book came out last year, and it’s the first full biography of Rogers.

I remember watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when I was growing up in Western Pennsylvania in the early 1970s. At some point, I decided that I was too old, that the show was too slow, and that I liked Sesame Street and The Electric Company better. I did not realize that Rogers and his program were key to the development of WQED in Pittsburgh and Public Broadcasting nationally. This book sets Rogers’s life in context of the national development of educational television for kids. It also provides evidence that for many children – often those going through difficult life situations – watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a transformative experience.

Rogers grew up in the small town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, east of Pittsburgh. He was the only child of a wealthy family, and he struggled with asthma and social awkwardness at school. So he often would go to his attic and play with puppets, writing elaborate scripts for puppet shows and performing them for his family. He also played the concert grand piano (!) that his grandmother bought for him. He got his B. A. in music, became a concert-level musician, and wrote an opera at Rollins College in Florida. After he graduated, he decided he wanted to work in broadcast television.

He began his career with NBC in New York City, then went to work for WQED, a public station in Pittsburgh. There he wrote and operated the puppets for The Children’s Corner for seven years. At the same time, he attended Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and became an ordained minister in the mainline Presbyterian Church with the call to serve the community through television. In 1963 he moved to Toronto and created Misterogers for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. He returned to Pittsburgh three years later and recreated the show for WQED. By the early 1970s, the show was broadcast nationally.

King’s book does an excellent job describing the influences on Rogers’ development, including his mother’s love, his father’s money, his grandparents’ encouragement, the outlet of music and puppetry, and the educational theory Benjamin Spock, Erik Erikson, and especially Margaret McFarland. King is also at pains to explain that Fred Rogers was in real life who he was on the television screen: a kind, encouraging man who cared about everyone he met. He especially cared about children. Born into a wealthy family, he never wanted for anything, but he was not pretentious. He was highly creative and had a perfectionist streak, which at times led him to become angry with coworkers and with his own two sons. Finally, he was intensely dedicated to friends, and he put off getting treatment for the ailment that eventually killed him—stomach cancer—because he did not want to back out on commitments he had previously made to others.

The author, Maxwell King, was a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer for almost 30 years, eventually serving as Editor. He was then President of the Heinz Endowments, directed the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, and most recently was President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation. Because he was writing the biography of a late twentieth century television celebrity, there are thousands of hours of shows and interviews, and reams of material to sift through. King’s training in journalism is evident, as he often allows his sources to tell the story: Fred himself, his wife Joanne, his coworkers, relatives, acquaintances, and fans of his work. However, this often means long sections of direct quotes, some of which repeat points made previously. While early chapters are chronological, later chapters are thematic, which also makes for quite a bit of repetition. Perhaps my wife and I noted this more because we were reading it out loud, but at the end of the book’s 360-plus pages of text, we thought that it might have been perhaps a 80-100 pages shorter.

There are some interesting comparisons between Fred Rogers and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Both created artistic works for children that had widespread influence almost immediately. Both used materials from their upbringing – Laura’s life story and Fred’s memory of his family’s neighborhood in small-town Latrobe. Both shared an upbringing and lifelong affiliation with the church, although Fred became a pastor and Laura never officially joined a congregation. The most striking difference between the two was the Rogers’s family’s wealth in comparison to the Ingalls’s family’s relative poverty.

I’ve been writing the chapter about Laura and Almanzo’s early years in Mansfield, Missouri, and that has brought me face to face with their daughter Rose Wilder Lane’s childhood. In fact, there might be more interesting comparisons between Fred Rogers and Rose Wilder Lane. Both were only children brought up in families with strong mother figures. Both were very artistic and creative individuals who followed their own paths. Ultimately, however, Fred was much more comfortable with who he was and a much more successful person. He never had to work for a living the way that Rose had to, and he didn’t face the difficulties or financial reverses that she faced. But I also think that his settled Christian faith provided ballast for the difficulties in life that he did face, and that kind of faith was one thing that Rose did not have for most of her adult life.

I certainly have a lot fewer sources for Laura’s life than King had for Fred’s, and I’m planning for my book to be much shorter than his. Caroline Fraser (Prairie Fires) has written the long and exhaustive book on Laura and Rose. I’m just hoping to tell their story in light of Laura’s faith commitments.

Thanks again for reading.

Picture credit: KHUT (CC0) at the Wikimedia Commons

Links:

Publisher’s site for The Good Neighbor

Duquesne’s May 2019 Commencement

Dr. Margaret McFarland

The Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College

Maxwell King

My blog entry on Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires

Homesteading the Plains

This month, I’ve been reading Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History, by Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo. I was able to finish it this week. The book was published in 2017 by the University of Nebraska Press. It is about the administration of the Homestead Act of 1862, which figures largely in the Little House books, especially the last four. The Homestead Act provided one hundred and sixty acres of land free from the Federal Government to anyone who would pay a small filing fee, build a house on the land, raise crops, and live there for five years.

The book begins with a fascinating paradox. In the popular imagination, the Homestead Act was an incredible success, providing ordinary people with access to free land and economic opportunity. In general, the works of authors such as Willa Cather, Elinore Pruitt Stewart, and Laura Ingalls Wilder depict its impact positively. (Stewart’s work was turned into the movie Heartland in 1979.) More recently, the Act has been praised by figures from both sides of the political spectrum; the book includes quotes from Barack Obama and George Will. (2-3) At the same time, academic historians normally see the Homestead Act as a failure. Scholars believe that 1) most homesteaders failed to prove up on their claims, 2) homesteading was full of fraud and corruption, and 3) homesteading caused Native American land dispossession. (13)

Which understanding of homesteading is correct?

The three authors of Homesteading the Plains attempt to answer this question, using several approaches. First, they examine the numbers in government reports used by previous history scholars to make their claims about the failure of the Homestead Act. Second, they investigate the way that the General Land Office enforced the provisions of the act. Third, and perhaps most importantly, they take advantage of the digitization of large numbers of homestead records and their free availability to researchers. Their team created a database of records for a study area of ten townships in two counties in Nebraska (five in each): Custer County in central part of the state and Dawes County in the northwest. A careful analysis of all of these sources enables them to consider the claims of scholars in detail.

By the end of the book, the authors recommend that scholars should revise their previous understanding of homesteading on pretty much all fronts:

– A majority of homesteaders did succeed in proving up and obtaining title to their land – by their estimate, between 56% and 69% of homesteaders between 1862 and 1880, and 55% of those between 1881 and 1900. (40)

– Scholars’ ideas about the frequency of fraud have been unduly influenced by anecdotes told by General Land Office administrators. Fraud was actually less than ten percent of claims – perhaps as low as 3.2%, no higher than 8.5%. (87) (Strikingly, the authors note that recent studies suggest that the incidence of fraud in the Medicare program averages about 8.3%.)

– In many states, homesteading was not part of the story of Native American land dispossession, because Indian land claims had been extinguished before large-scale homesteading began there. However, the authors admit that homesteading was deeply implicated in the western parts of North and South Dakota and the entire state of Oklahoma.

The authors also encourage scholars and those who write history textbooks to recognize the importance of the Homestead Act to the settlement of the west, to take note of what homesteading meant for women (both single women and widows), and to understand that homesteading always involved community building, not just individual effort.

I’ve been thinking about that 55% figure for success for homesteaders after 1881 and before 1900, because I’ve been working on the chapter in my book about Laura and Almanzo’s early years of marriage. Laura’s father, Charles Ingalls, was able to prove up on his homestead in 1886. However, Charles and his family moved to their house on Third Street in De Smet in 1887 and never again lived on the homestead. They sold their land outside of town in 1892. Almanzo Wilder also was able to prove up on his homestead, but debt, diphtheria, fire, and dry weather forced Laura and Almanzo off the farm and into town in 1890. How this happened is discussed in The First Four Years, the adult novel Laura wrote sometime in the 1930s but was not published until 1971, after she and her daughter Rose had passed away. Certainly, 55% is a majority of homesteaders, but it’s not an overwhelming majority. And those who did succeed in getting title to the land did not always stay on the farm.

The Homestead Act actually also comes in for a bit of abuse in the Little House books. The descriptions of how the Act works in the books set in Dakota Territory (especially By the Shores of Silver Lake, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years) is not always positive. Pa’s description of homesteading as a “bet” against the Federal Government and the necessity of Mrs. McKee’s living on the homestead when her husband must work in town to support the family are two examples. This makes me wonder if Laura and Rose had ever read descriptions of some of the reports from the General Land Office during the late 1800s and early 1900s, or even whether they were aware of the work of Fred Shannon, a historian during the 1930s and 1940s who wrote a number of the negative descriptions of homesteading that have been quoted by subsequent authors. This is akin to the wonderings of those who write about Wilder concerning how much exposure Laura and Rose had to the ideas of historian Frederick Jackson Turner and his frontier thesis.

These are individual stories and concerns however. As far as the book goes, I think that Edwards, Friefeld, and Wingo do a superb job of supporting their claims. I hope that other researchers can make use of the digitized homesteading records in ways to continue to help us understand the experience of farmers on the plains during the late 1800s, both individually and in the aggregate.

As always, thanks for following along.

(Page numbers are taken from Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo, Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History [Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2017].)

Links:

Homesteading the Plains

My blog entry for The First Four Years

2019 Midwestern History Conference

Last Thursday and Friday, I attended the Midwestern History Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I had a great time.

The conference was sponsored by the Midwestern History Association and hosted by the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University (GVSU). It was held at GVSU’s Pew Campus in downtown Grand Rapids.

I presented on a panel on Thursday morning titled “‘Everyone Has a Wilder Story:’ Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Midwest, and Historical Research.” It was a privilege to join Bill Anderson and John Miller. We each told the story of how we came to research and write about Laura Ingalls Wilder. Bill has been writing about Laura since the 1960s and has published over twenty-five books. I have previously mentioned four on this blog (links are at the end). John has written three books about Wilder and De Smet, South Dakota, including the most scholarly biography to date, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder. They included me, even though I did not read the Little House books when I was a child and I did not grow up in the Midwest. There were around fifteen attendees at our session, which was respectable, given the fact that there were nine other sessions going on at the same time. (I attended other sessions with only five people in the audience.) Discussion during the Q&A was also robust.

I used some of my presentation to reflect on “Everyone has a Wilder Story” in a second way. I think that many people today have a story that they tell about Wilder – about who she really was, and about how we should understand her life and respond to it today. This “Wilder story” guides how they read the Little House books and Wilder’s other writings, and it guides how they view her legacy. So I used my presentation to roll out some possible “Wilder stories,” some tentative ways of understanding Laura’s faith. I don’t think that any of these will come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog

– First, Laura was a committed Christian, attended Christian worship services, read the Bible, and prayed her entire life. She engaged in Christian practices that built her relationship with God and Jesus Christ.

– On the other hand, she never publicly identified with an individual body of believers – she never officially joined any church.

– On a third (?) hand, the original, handwritten manuscripts of the Little House books have more straightforward and positive descriptions of God, Christianity, and the church than appear in the published Little House books. These accounts were changed—most likely by her daughter Rose, who was agnostic when they were written—into the more negative depictions that appear in the published books.

– On a fourth (!) hand, Laura can probably not be understood as an Evangelical Christian. Her descriptions of God, Christianity, and church emphasize God’s power, His laws, and individual moral choices. Her writings almost never mention Christ, forgiveness of sins, or salvation.

It’s complicated. The more I engage the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the more I despair of having just one ‘Wilder story,’ or a simple way of describing her faith. But if I was to have to give an overarching narrative for Laura’s life, I might say that she believed that people do not live by bread alone. Bread is necessary, but faith, community, and family relationships are more important. There are ironies here, too. Her relationship to the church she attended and the community she lived in was often ambivalent. Her own relationship with her own daughter was marked by misunderstandings and, at times, open conflict. Yet in the midst of these difficulties, Laura and Rose together created, in the Little House books, an immensely attractive vision of human flourishing that influenced millions of Americans during the middle to late twentieth century.

Other highlights of the conference included Anna Lisa Cox’s plenary talk on Thursday night and a session I chaired on Friday about music in the Midwest. Many thanks to Trinity Christian College for a travel grant to go to the conference. Thanks also to David Zwart, who teaches at GVSU, for letting me crash at his place on Wednesday and Thursday night.

As always, thanks for following along.

Links:

2019 Midwestern History Conference

Hauenstein Center

Post on Bill Anderson’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography

Post on Bill Anderson’s The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Post on Bill Anderson’s Little House Sampler and Little House Reader

Post on John Miller’s Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder

Anna Lisa Cox

Trinity Christian College

David Zwart

 

Little Lodges on the Prairie

Those interested in the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder would be forgiven if they assumed that this blog had gone dormant. Indeed, it did go dormant during the spring semester here at Trinity Christian College. My work as an Academic Dean at Trinity meant that I was involved intimately with the work of developing a new structure for the Foundations (core) curriculum at the College and getting it approved by the faculty. The Foundations committee met nine times during the fall semester. It met eighteen times during the spring semester. I was involved in dozens of other meetings with key faculty members across campus. The proposed new Foundations curriculum was approved by the faculty this month. Between Foundations work, teaching, and my other duties as an Academic Dean, I spent no time at all with Laura Ingalls Wilder materials between December and May 15.

As a result, it has been a blessing to jump back into work on the project during the last several weeks. After a little bit of a slow start, I was able to pick up where I had left off early last fall on Chapter 4 of the book. I finished a draft of Chapter four last week. I’m hoping to write drafts of at least two more chapters this summer. I’m also presenting a paper, along with Bill Anderson and John Miller, at the Midwestern Historical Conference at the end of this week. I pulled my paper proposal from consideration for LauraPalooza to make the summer less hectic; I may be helping my parents move.

Last week I was also able to read Little Lodges on the Prairie: Freemasonry and Laura Ingalls Wilder by Teresa Lynn. I met Teresa at LauraPalooza in 2017. Her research on Laura’s family, the Freemasons, and the Order of the Eastern Star touches many of the same sources and themes that mine does. Full disclosure: Teresa then sent me a free copy of her book last year. I had been looking forward to having the time to read it. It’s a delightful book.

About the first third of the book describes the history of the Freemasons and the Eastern Star and explains how the Lodge and the Order are organized. This was incredibly helpful. I grew up in a conservative Presbyterian church in Western Pennsylvania, and in my church when “secret societies” like the Freemasons were talked about, the normal assumption was that membership in one of those organizations was incompatible with Christianity. I wasn’t taught that Freemasonry involved the worship of Satan, although I have subsequently known Christians who did believe that. I think it was that the leaders of our church suspected an organization where people never revealed to others what went on in meetings. The idea was also that our first allegiance should be to God and to the church, and Freemasonry interfered with that. At any rate, it was intriguing to learn about how local chapters and Grand Chapters (state organizations) work, about the various offices in both the Masonic Lodge and the Order of the Eastern Star, and about the values that undergird the work of both organizations. This section of the book filled in many blanks in my understanding, first and foremost that only men can become Freemasons, while both women and men can be members of the Eastern Star, although some offices in the Eastern Star are reserved for women.

After giving an introduction to Freemasonry and the Eastern Star, the book narrates Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, paying particular attention to the Lodges and chapters of the Eastern Star that touched it: in De Smet, South Dakota, in Keystone, South Dakota (where her sister Carrie lived much of her adult life), and in Mansfield, Missouri. Laura’s father, Charles Ingalls, petitioned to become a Mason in De Smet in 1885, several months after Laura’s marriage to Almanzo Wilder. In 1891, Laura’s mother and younger sister Carrie were charter members of the Eastern Star chapter in De Smet. Charles and Laura became members of the Eastern Star in 1893.

Laura and Almanzo moved to Mansfield in 1894, so it is there that most of their participation in the Lodge and Order occurred. Laura became a member of the Eastern Star chapter in Mansfield in 1897; Almanzo joined the Lodge in 1898 and the Eastern Star chapter in 1902. Between 1897 and 1931, when they demitted their membership (possibly to save money as the Depression deepened), Laura served as an officer over twenty-five times. She was Worthy Matron—essentially the President of the Chapter—three different times, attended Grand Chapter of Missouri meetings in Sedalia, Kansas City, and St. Louis, and even served as a district officer that visited other chapters and reported on their health to the Grand Chapter.

It is clear that Lynn has done her homework. She has read all of the chapter minutes for the De Smet, Keystone, and Mansfield Lodges and Eastern Star chapters for the years under study. She has also read the local newspapers—the De Smet News and the Mansfield Mirror—to supplement her chronology. The book reproduces sections of Lodge or Eastern Star Chapter minutes, newspaper articles, and pictures of the people being described. The narrative of Laura’s life follows that established by other biographers like Bill Anderson and John Miller. The book argues that the values of the Freemasons and Eastern Star—“family, faith, education, charity, courage, independence, patriotism, fortitude, and self-improvement” (272)—basically were Laura Ingalls Wilder’s values. It’s hard to disagree with this.

Teresa told me when we spoke in 2017 about a Watch Meeting that Laura had called on December 31, 1909. Here is how it is described in the book:

Watch meetings, also called watch night services, were first held by John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church. (The Wilders were attending the Methodist Church in Mansfield. Many other Chapter members were also Methodists.) The meetings generally included singing hymns, prayer, scripture reading, uplifting conversation, and reflection on the old year and resolutions for the new. The purpose of these meetings was to provide an alternative to the drunken parties often held on New Year’s Eve. (236)

This is fascinating, and I wouldn’t have known about it apart from Lynn’s research. It appears that there are a number of things about Laura’s life in Mansfield that we wouldn’t know apart from this book.

As I think about my project, I’m trying to understand Wilder’s formal membership in the Freemasons, the Eastern Star, and at least four other women’s clubs in Mansfield and Hartville, when she never officially became a member of any church. Previous biographers have noted that Laura and Almanzo never became a member of the Methodist Church in Mansfield. The more I study, the more indications I find that Laura never became a member of any church. For someone who went to church regularly her entire life, knew the Bible well, and prayed every night, I’m not exactly sure how to explain her refusal to formally join the body of Christ. I continue to think about what that might mean.

Thanks for reading.

(Quotes are from Teresa Lynn, Little Lodges on the Prairie: Freemasonry and Laura Ingalls Wilder (Austin, TX: Tranquility Press, 2014).

Links:

Trinity Christian College

Midwestern History Conference

LauraPalooza 2019

Little Lodges on the Prairie