Courtesy Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum
Laura Ingalls Wilder
By Nicole Heisick
Beloved Literary Legend (1867-1957)
A pioneer family’s struggles and triumphs as they move from the Big Woods of Wisconsin to Indian Territory near Independence, Kansas, is one of the best known children’s stories since the series first started in 1932. The Little House on the Prairie series adorns the shelves of libraries, bookstores, and children’s bedrooms everywhere. Despite her enormous success, Laura Ingalls Wilder kept her life simple, as it had been throughout her childhood—the inspiration for her famous series.
Born February 7, 1867, Wilder’s childhood served as inspiration for her future career as a writer. Around the age of 16, Wilder accepted her first teaching job. She taught three terms in one-room schools, when she was not at school herself. Her career as a teacher ended when she married Almanzo Wilder on August 25, 1885. The first few years of their marriage were hard, with Almanzo battling a life-threatening bout of diphtheria and the couple losing their newborn son. They moved around a lot before finally settling on Missouri.
In 1894, Wilder’s family packed its belongings in a wagon and headed to the Missouri Ozarks, which they had learned about from advertising brochures and friends. They used their life’s savings to make a down payment on a piece of undeveloped property just east of Mansfield. On their 40-acre farm, they produced lumber, dairy, apples, strawberries, chickens, and other products. Work on the farm was rough, and profits were slow. Initially, the only income the farm brought was from wagonloads of firewood her husband sold in town. It took the apple trees seven years to bear fruit.
Barley able to make a living from the farm, the Wilders moved to the town of Mansfield, where they began renting a home in the late 1890s. There, her husband found work as an oil salesman and general deliveryman, while Wilder took in boarders and served meals to local railroad workers.
It was around this time that Laura’s parents bought the deed to the house that Laura and Almanzo were renting in town and gave it to the couple as a gift. Throughout time, the couple obtained nearly 200 acres and were able to sell the house and land in town, using the money to move back to the farm outside of Mansfield.
With the farmhouse completed in 1912, Wilder was able to turn her attention to her other interests, such as writing. Inspired by her daughter Rose Wilder Lane’s developing writing career, Wilder submitted an article to the Missouri Ruralist in 1911, which eventually led to a permanent position as a columnist and editor. In her column “As a Farm Woman Thinks,” Wilder wrote about home and family, about current events such as World War I, and about her daughter’s travels. She tracked women’s progress as their rights grew in this era.
In 1930, Wilder asked her daughter for an opinion about a book she had been working on: a biographical manuscript about her pioneering childhood. The motivation for writing this book, later titled Little House in the Big Woods, was prompted by memories of her childhood, which involved the death of her mother and sister, and the possibility of earning some income. In 1932, Little House in the Big Woods became her first published work.
By the time she finished her last one, These Happy Golden Years, 11 years later, she had become one of America’s best-loved children’s book writers. Her books went on to become the inspiration for a popular television show based on the series, Little House on the Prairie.
Wilder’s work has been brightening the lives of children for generations. Decades after her first works were published, they still continue to be among the most beloved children’s books.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re showcasing our Top 10 Women of Missouri, featured in the February 2012 of Missouri Life and selected by our panelists. To read our panelists’ bios, click here. For a full list of our 95 nominees for Top 10 Women of Missouri, click here. For more stories like this, subscribe to Missouri Life magazine.