How Laura Influenced My Life

Laura Ingalls Wilder was born near Pepin, Wisconsin on February 7, 1867 and died on February 10, 1957.  She is best known as the author of the “Little House” series.

I had not read or known of the Little House books until my girls were starting school.  My father was in the Air Force and we traveled with him throughout the US and also overseas.  It seems that any book that was “required” reading in a certain grade in one state was not required in another, so I missed a lot of children’s required reading material.  It was not until I was a teacher that I started reading some of these books.  I would slip into the school library and grab a bunch of books to read during lunch hour; in that way I “caught up” with a lot of great books I had never read.

But when we came back from Australia, with Joy starting 2nd grade, we bought land out on the South Dakota prairie and my mom mentioned “Little House on the Prairie.”  Shocked that I had not read them, she bought us the series and I started reading them to my girls.  They caught on to Laura and Mary quickly, playing them out on our prairie, even demanding night caps (that’s them in the photo).  When we had power outages or blizzards or other trials common to the prairie, we would compare our problems with Mary and Laura’s and feel better off.

I even used some of the recipes in the book in my cooking.  When the butter was white because the cow was eating hay instead of green grass, I would sometimes grate up a carrot and use the juice to color the butter, just like Ma did.

I enjoyed the books and re-read them myself often during the time I was reading them to the girls.

Dressed for work as a history interpreter at Historic Murphy's Landing

I started working for Historic Murphy’s Landing in the mid 90s (1990s) and quickly realized that if I wanted to have my foods, my thoughts, my “happenings” authentic, I needed to do research.  And who more to research but Laura Ingalls Wilder? Many of those who worked with me re-read the books; this time, not for pleasure but for historically accurate recipes and ways of living.  We all figured if Laura didn’t mention something, that didn’t mean she didn’t do it, but if she did mention something, then that was a valid resource for us to do the same thing.

The rule at Murphy’s Landing was that any “fact” that was found had to be verified by at least 1 other source.  Diaries and journals were exempt … if they were actual writings of someone in the past, then it was more than likely true.  Laura’s writings, although changed around for the children’s sake, were factual when it came to chores and cooking, cleaning, living.  She was very clear as to how she and her family lived, which made it easier for me to know how people thought and acted back in her time.

For instance, I know that Almanzo’s mother raised Merino sheep, sent the wool out for cleaning, spun the yarn and wove woolen material for coats and the men’s pants.  I used that in my demonstrations when questioned about spinning during my “time period” – the 1870s.

When my granddaughters started working with me at Historic Murphy’s Landing, I started reading them the Laura books and they were able to “get into” the stories, as I had been teaching them how to “live” back then.  They have become favorite books and we discuss them often; how did Laura feel during blizzards?  How do you feel during our blizzards?

I have the cookbook that is based on Laura’s recipes, “The Little House Cookbook.”  Last winter, Jessica (aged 11) was reading “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” and wanted to know how to make sour-dough biscuits; we got the recipe book out and Jessica made sour dough starter a few days before we made the biscuits, then she made the biscuits, which were very good (well, for sour-dough, which I really don’t like).

I also have “My Little House Crafts Book” and have made several items from that book.  I made a hood to help keep me warm on the cold days when I was walking from the office to “my” house to get ready for the day at Murphy’s.  I have helped the girls make items, too.  These crafts that we do, now, were not considered “crafts,” but were simple decorations for the home or clothing to make life easier.  We don’t have to embroider a pillow sham, we can purchase one, if we so chose to have one.  Jessica loves to make corn cob dolls; in fact, we are saving some corn cobs and husks for her to make some this fall.  Ashley loves to look through the book and chose a fiber craft to make when she’s demonstrating with me.

Even though I no longer work for Murphy’s Landing, I still do living history at several educational events, including 2 of Laura’s homes – Pepin, her birthplace, and Walnut Grove, which is only one of the many places that she lived before she met and married Almonzo in Des Smet, SD.  I have read many biographies about Laura and her family.  An interesting addition to my fascination with Laura and her family is that her sister, Carrie, moved to the Black Hills of South Dakota and was instrumental in starting the Keystone chapter of Eastern Star.  In the 1980s, I was a member of that chapter, so I had a slight connection with Laura through her sister and through Eastern Star!

I do need to mention the TV series of “Little House on the Prairie.”  I watched it for a while but soon decided that it would be on my do-not-watch, do-not-like list.  I was pretty sure that we avid Laura fans would be in trouble when I heard Michael Landon announce before the show even began that “my girls will NOT go barefoot to school!”  And sure enough, the show proved to break off the actual stories and stretch out to ridiculous heights. I will admit that the show taught family values and introduced thousands to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family and life; however, as a true Laura devotee, I was horrified at some of the story-lines that came about.  The Ingalls adopting a boy who ended up with a drug problem?

My daughter, Joy, often says, “Mom, get a life!” when I object to any historical stories showing the wrong clothing or having modern language, but in my mind, if you are going to teach history in any form, you should be careful to teach it RIGHT.

But, back to me and Laura — I have learned many things from her and her stories.  I have learned how to cook, live, work in the past.  I have blended my mind with hers to know how people thought.  I have learned that material items are not the important things in life; family, friends, love and faith – those are what are important.

Because of other fans of Laura, I have visited many of her home sites that fans have preserved.  I have become active in 2 festivals that celebrate her life.  I have made like-minded friends because of our admiration of her.

Thank you, Laura, for all you have done for me.  I know, without a doubt, that others have greatly benefited from your life as well.

Editor’s Note: Find lots of toys from yesteryear for your little ones – some that date back to Laura’s day – at Lehmans.com.

About cpthegreat

Connie (aka Spinning Grandma) lives on Ash Lane Farm in southwest Minnesota. She is an expert on spinning, weaving and knitting and a former history interpreter.

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