A Pioneer Farmer’s Stories Ring True After Century

By Annie Young

For me, there is no better way to recognize and celebrate Women’s History month than to pay homage to the iconic woman farmer, pioneer, and writer Laura Ingalls Wilder. As I write, the snow is falling again. I am stuck in the house, at the end of an unplowed road, again. Yet, I surely appreciate the hum of our heat pump, the steam from my hot shower, and the clothes dried to perfection in my electric dryer.

The pioneer life is often romanticized, as is farming. But the day-to-day reality of life without the modern conveniences we take for granted is stark. Farming also requires dedication, as well as sacrificing other conveniences for the sake of a life connected to the land. So instead of moaning about a March snowstorm, I snuggle in and reread my favorite books from childhood. Laura Ingalls Wilder is an inspiration for an aspiring farmer and writer.

I listen to my Farmer and our little one play outside in the snow and think about the simplicity of life for pioneers. Without the distraction of screens, families spent their time together playing and working. Mostly working! Even in the early books, Wilder describes the many chores she performed at an early age. Farming did not come easy for her father, Charles Ingalls—does it come easy for anyone? When Wilder married, she began farming with her husband Almanzo Wilder. The first several years of their marriage, as described in the First Four Years, they toiled together farming the rough plains in South Dakota. Drought, fire, illness, death, and debt were their harvest.

Eventually, they made their way to Mansfield, Missouri, where life and farming began to turn around for the young Wilder family. The Wilders were able to obtain a small farm and cabin. But to keep the farm, they had to find jobs off the farm—as do many modern farmers. By creating a diversified farming operation with dairy, poultry, and fruit trees, the Wilders ran a successful farm. They made a good life for themselves and their daughter, Rose.

Laura, a master farmer in her own right, was asked by local organizations to give lectures on poultry. She became a member of the Missouri Home Development Association and even organized farm women’s clubs in her region. Wilder wanted to help other farmers upgrade their practices and benefit from what she had learned through her experiences. In 1910 she was asked to give a speech to the Missouri Land Congress. These speeches paved a way for her next career move.

When Laura was forty-four years old, the Missouri Ruralist invited her to submit an article about farming. Thus began her writing career. She began a column called “As a Farm Woman Thinks,” through which she shared her experiences along with innovations and modernizations she brought to their small- scale farm.

Wilder wrote in a Ruralist article in 1911:

“There is a movement in the United States today, widespread and very far reaching in its consequences. People are seeking after a freer, healthier, and happier life. They are tired of the noise, dirt, bad air, and crowds of the cities, and are turning longing eyes toward the green slopes, wooded hills, pure running water and health giving breezes of the country . . . I am an advocate of the small farm and I want to tell you how an ideal home can be made on, and a good living made from, five acres of land.”

Her words ring true to us over a century later. As many historic women that we celebrate this month, we feel the reverberation of her efforts decades later. The number of small-scale farms, as the ones she goes on to describe, have grown sixty percent since 2002. The Department of Agriculture census shows that the number of women farmers have tripled in the last 30 years too.

Wilder’s popularity continues for generations of fans. Just this year her previously unpublished autobiography was printed. Pioneer Girl, The Annotated Autobiography has flown off the shelves and had fans waiting for another edition to be published. It is an adult read, offering glimpses into the sadness and reality of her life that was often brushed over in the children’s books. I also suggest reading The Little House Sampler that provides stories and articles written by Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. The photographs and images give insight into what happened after the Little House series ends. There is much to enjoy and celebrate in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s timeless work. I hope you have time without a spring snowstorm to enjoy it.