July
9th 2013
Why they only need little houses on the prairie now: reproduction politics in South Dakota

Posted under: American history, childhood, Gender, the body, women's history

Charles Ingalls (1836-1902), hipster

You might have wondered why I found myself driving across South Dakota recently.  I’ve heard for years about the DeSmet annual Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, in which the townspeople put on a play based on one of the Little House series of books.  Unsurprisingly, their play rotation focus on the books set partially or completely in DeSmet–By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter and Little Town on the Prairie.  This year’s production was Little Town, and I have to say that I was impressed.  The talent is mostly local, with the major roles played by high school or college students.  Local younger children and adults played some of the smaller roles.  The permanently installed stage sets, lights, and sound are not small-town at all, and the setting on the South Dakota prairie is beautiful and memorable.  The show was timed so that complete darkness finally fell just as the play ended, so the mosquitoes held off until the curtain call.  I strongly and enthusiastically recommend a visit.

My only criticism?  I don’t mind seeing a high schooler play Charles Ingalls, but he really should try to cultivate Pa’s crazy ugly hipster beard.  They’re back in style these days.

Those of you who know the books will remember that DeSmet is the place where the Ingalls family finally settled after Pa’s restless and relentlessly unsuccessful attempts at homesteading in Wisconsin, Kansas, and Minnesota.  The family only found financial stability when Pa took a job with the railroad that brought them out to South Dakota, and then stayed in DeSmet to work in town.  Then as now, the fantasy of self-sufficiency was just that–a fantasy.  Cities and towns are much stronger engines for economic growth, and having a daughter’s salary and a day job can sure insulate you from those summers when gophers get your corn and locusts strip your wheat.

The family’s fortunes were vastly improved once Pa cooled his itchy feet.  Still, it’s worth noting that although Charles and Caroline Ingalls had four daughters live to adulthood and old age (Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace) and three of them married (all but Mary), only one daughter had any children.  Laura gave birth to two children, but only her daughter Rose survived infancy.  Rose gave birth to a son who died as an infant during her brief and apparently unhappy marriage.  She never had any more children.  Why were the Ingalls girls and their one granddaughter so reproductively unsuccessful?  In the famous books, Laura portrayed the moves the family made as grand adventures orchestrated by a fun-loving trickster of a father, but I wonder if their peripatetic childhood and chronic economic insecurity were also experienced as traumatic by the girls, and if it contributed to their reproductive conservativism.  Laura only becomes a schoolteacher so that she can help pay to send Mary to the college for the blind–maybe the sighted Ingalls girls saw the vulnerability of large families and so took measures to avoid having large families themselves.

Life on the prairie in 1890 left one pretty vulnerable, especially in the case of illness or disability, as Laura documents in her books when she writes about Mary’s blindness and her husband Almanzo Wilder’s health crises in The First Four Years.  Now that was a book I just didn’t get when I was a child, and I think it’s the weakest of the entire series.  I just wanted more stories about the morning-glory covered dugout house and the lovely plum tree that grew at Plum Creek, more buttermilk and vanity cakes, and definitely more stories about that wretched Nellie Oleson and how Laura lured her into a leech-infested swimming hole!  Enough of the stories about scarlet fever, diptheria, and paralysis!  (I was only seven or eight, after all.)

Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968)

The only granddaughter, Rose, grew up to be a strikingly independent “New Woman” and a popular writer who helped her mother shape the Little House series.  Although she died without heirs and thus was the end of the line for the direct descendants of Charles and Caroline, she undoubtedly made them famous and would ensure that they lived on in history and public memory for generations.  You don’t need a lot of grandchildren, as it turns out, just a grandchild who can help tell your story well and publicize it, too.  (What if she had merely married and had children?  Would she have had the time to develop her talents and to work with her mother on her books?)

In moving their family to South Dakota in the 1870s, Charles and Caroline Ingalls were part of the post-Civil War wave of white American and European immigrant migration to the U.S. West.  The U.S. American population of South Dakota exploded from barely 5,000 in 1860 to nearly 329,000 in 1890, a tremendous rate of growth.  The state continued to grow at a steady rather than geometric clip up to the 1930s, when the population stagnated and continued to stall for the rest of the century.  Perhaps Carrie (b. 1870), Grace (b. 1877), and Laura (b. 1867, and had her children in South Dakota, but later relocated to Missouri) were not traumatized at all by their childhoods but merely reflective of these larger population patterns once the postwar boom was over.  In any case, the stagnation of prairie populations leads me to my last observation.

As I drove every which way across South Dakota and Nebraska, passing through towns that announced their populations in the very low four digits, very high three digits, and in one case, 117 (!) I saw dozens of signs reminding me that “life is a precious gift” and “abortion stops a beating heart,” and similar sentiments.  It occurred to me that it’s probably easier to hate abortion when you’ve watched your town’s population shrink and nearly zero-out for the past four generations, and then some.  It probably seems easier and less complicated to hate abortion instead of raging against agribusiness, global captialism, or the frayed social safety net.

How much easier would the Ingalls’s lives have been with the benefit of Social Security for Pa and Ma, SSDI for Mary, and disability insurance for Almanzo, let alone national health care for all of them?  Maybe Carrie, Grace, and Laura would have had more children.

(Photo source; I did not take this picture and I have no idea if it’s of a sign in South Dakota or not, but it’s representative of what I saw there.  Most were more sentimental and depicted adorable fetuses in uteri, or babies.  But like this one, most signs I saw were clearly handmade and homegrown.)

30 Comments »

30 Responses to “Why they only need little houses on the prairie now: reproduction politics in South Dakota”

  1. Perpetua on 09 Jul 2013 at 8:14 am #

    At least they left the dead baby out of the books! I don’t mean that to sound flippant. For those who don’t know, Ma had a son who died somewhere between the Big Woods and Indian Country.

    It’s hard to imagine the children not having been traumatized by the winter they almost starved to death. The Long Winter is a pretty grim book, and I always wondered about the role that starvation might have played on their long term reproductive health. (I find the scenes with the Wilders chowing down on their lavish meals while the Ingalls are starving to death positively chilling.)

    My ancestors were part of that population boom you mentioned. We have letters from one of my great grandmothers freaking out about the Sioux uprising that resulted in Wounded Knee (1890). They came from central Europe and they farmed. The next generation benefited greatly from Depression era service programs like the CCC and from their service in the military during WWII (thanks to the GI Bill, they went to college and in a few instances, postgraduate school). They left the farm, though my family was a rare one that stayed in the area. Economically depressed and population losing towns on the great prairie were my childhood playgrounds. Upward mobility provided by the war meant abandoning family farms, and the lack of economic opportunity in the flats (shout out to yesterday). Of course that’s not the entire story – I’m sure there’s more to say about crowding out family farms and the advent of agribusiness.

  2. koshembos on 09 Jul 2013 at 8:19 am #

    A rough observation of the US tells me that most small places are conservative and larger places, i.e. cities, are more liberal. Crudely, when a conservative and, mostly, religious person views the word, abortion is way closer than social security and agribusiness.

  3. Nicoleandmaggie on 09 Jul 2013 at 8:28 am #

    I have a lot to say on this subject… but I should probably finish copy editing the paper to send out instead of blogging about it. It’s crazy how history decides to repeat itself. Too bad history often sucks.

  4. Indyanna on 09 Jul 2013 at 9:32 am #

    I didn’t read any of this series, for whatever reason, but I did stumble on O.E. Rolvaag’s _Giants in the Earth_ in the school library in ninth or probably tenth grade, and was quite swept into it. Also set in the Dakota Territory in the approximate same period. As an Easterner, I was very taken for a long stretch by the western ecological transition from the woodlands to the grasslands and what that was about. Sleeping one night in somebody’s side-woodlot on the edge of Fargo while hitch-hiking pretty much ended that. The complex ethnicities of the settlement of what Nineteenth Century maps still called the “Great American Desart” would have been beyond my analytic reach then; especially since I wouldn’t have known what the word “ethnicity” meant. But the relationship between Ingalls and Oleson seem to resonate with it. The literature coming out of that moment was pretty stark and compelling.

  5. Comradde PhysioProffe on 09 Jul 2013 at 10:02 am #

    That fetus looks like it’s in a gondola in the Swiss alps.

  6. Northern Barbarian on 09 Jul 2013 at 11:47 am #

    As a Wisconsin child, the “Little House” books more or less taught me to read: my mother would read a chapter aloud every night, until she discovered that I had already read two chapters ahead!

    A note on Rose Wilder Lane, though: You ask “How much easier would the Ingalls’s lives have been with the benefit of Social Security for Pa and Ma, SSDI for Mary, and disability insurance for Almanzo, let alone national health care for all of them?” In fact, Lane became a radical libertarian who refused to accept Social Security benefits in the 1930s. She hob-nobbed with Ayn Rand until they fell out (Rand fell out with all of her allies, eventually). There has been much speculation about Lane’s role in shaping the Little House books, including how much she exaggerated rugged individualism and sturdy pioneer purity to propagate her own political views. I don’t know if anyone has explored the origins of Lane’s harsh politics, but it would be fascinating to see if there’s a connection between that and the hardships her mother went through.

    Welcome back!

  7. Historiann on 09 Jul 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    Thanks, N.B. & everyone. On Lane’s politics: I know she became wildly libertarian, and I think those views are evident in the books, which also wildly overstate the degree to which the Ingalls family was self-sufficient. But, even she can’t deny that it’s the building of the transcontinental RR that is the economic engine that saves the family, although that’s not how she tells the story, of course.

    The interesting thing about the mother-daughter collaboration is that nothing the two women wrote or published alone was nearly as compelling as the Little House series. So clearly, it was the combination of Laura’s stories and Rose’s storytelling abilities that made the series so compelling.

    Perpetua: I know what you mean about the abundance on the farm table in Farmer Boy versus the starvation in The Long Winter. I haven’t read FB for nearly 40 years, but I think I’ll take another look at it.

    FWIW, there has been a recent boom in serious scholarship on the Ingalls family and the book series. I especially enjoyed Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s impact on American Culture (2008) by Anita Clair Fellman, which explores the books’ resurgent popularity alongside the rise of the New Right in the 1970s and 1980s. (If you recall, Ronald Reagan enjoyed watching a Little House TV rerun and going to bed early during his presidency). She goes into RWL’s politics in her review of All Things Laura.

    On the lighter side, but still very smart & wickedly funny, is Wendy McClure’s recent book, The Wilder Life (2011), in which she explores her lifelong fascination with the books and LIW while traveling to all public history sites associated with the Ingalls and the Wilder families (Pepin, Wisc.; Missouri; Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, MO; Walnut Creek, MN; someplace in IA; DeSmet, SD, and the Wilder home in Burke, NY, among other stops.)

  8. Undine on 09 Jul 2013 at 5:12 pm #

    I’m glad you mentioned Fellman. She goes into some detail about the myth of individualism that Rose and LIW both emphasized in the books. Mary went to college in Iowa not because Pa sold a calf but because the state of South Dakota paid for her to go, SD not having its own school for the blind. A newlywed couple and their born-suspiciously-early baby lived with the family during the Long Winter (which LIW called The Hard Winter until her publisher dissuaded her). By the time the books were written, as you say, both were eager to distance themselves from any government aid and omitted that from the books as well.

  9. Tenured Radical on 09 Jul 2013 at 8:10 pm #

    Great post and welcome back. The Jennifer Burns bio of Ayn Rand also has Rose as a major player. I think one of the reasons the books work so well for girls is that the hardships are explained away so successfully by the parents. Having grown up partly in the Mountain West, I knew that when Mary lost her eyesight she was just fucked. But re. fertility: Linda Gordon’s The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, where people who live near copper mines were unable to carry children to term, has made me wonder how many settlers were being inadvertently poisoned by their water and other industrial by products by the 1870s and 1880s, and whether it affected fertility.

  10. Susan on 10 Jul 2013 at 1:18 am #

    Fascinating post. I read a few of the books, but was never obsessive, as several girls i have known have been. Following up on TR, i think there is also a romance to the challenges (how would I manage) that is particularly attractive to relatively sheltered urban/suburban girls.

  11. Perpetua on 10 Jul 2013 at 4:41 am #

    H: I was actually thinking of the Wilder boys in The Long Winter itself – it’s their first winter there, and Pa takes seed from them, which Almanzo has tried to hide from the starving townspeople. They invite him for dinner and they have a ton of food, because they are recently arrived. But yes, the bounty of Farmer Boy is astonishing in comparison to the constant want endured by the Ingallses (post Big Woods). (The Long Winter is *very* libertarian – see the scene where the store owner jacks up the price of the grain, and then is shamed into offering it for free. No body will take anything for free, even when they are dying.)

  12. Historiann on 10 Jul 2013 at 7:21 am #

    Great point about fertility & poisoning. I would think that SD was more agricultural than mining–maybe Montana would yield some interesting data re: the fertility of mining towns?

  13. Nicoleandmaggie on 10 Jul 2013 at 7:49 am #

    @Historiann, TR-
    I was just reading a book chapter that has decade maps by county of fertility in the 19th century: http://www2.binghamton.edu/history/docs/Haines_and_Hacker_Spatial_Aspects_Fertility.pdf

    The data are not great on 19th century fertility outside of Massachusetts and a few other small areas that have records.

    The Barker Hypothesis (the idea that prenatal and early life conditions influence life later on) has been really popular recently in my field since Doug Almond wrote his paper on the long term effects of the 1918 flu, so I’ve been seeing a lot of papers that show the effects of this kind of stuff on old ages and on the next generation– even some biologists explaining how environment can cause genes to change(!)

    Werner Troesken has a very good book (and some papers) on the effects of lead poisoning in the US.

    (I got my paper submitted yesterday, but I should get back to my 20th/21st century work today.)

  14. Lyndsay on 10 Jul 2013 at 9:20 am #

    Nicoleandmaggie, it’s not that bad conditions conditions cause genes to change (DNA *can* be changed but this tends to raise your risk of cancer) but the molecules attached to genes which control whether they are “on” or “off” change. I’ve been enjoying reading The Epigenetics Revolution which details how the epigenome (all the molecules and proteins attached to genes) make identical twins different, makes bees with the same DNA be queens or workers, etc. It does seem environmental conditions when young can affect the epigenome and sometimes this can even be transferred to our children and grand-children.

    About Little House, I’ve loved it for a long time and have also enjoyed reading commentaries and critisisms about it. I can only imagine if all the books were written like The First Four Years. They would be less interesting to children but might be more realistic. I wonder how Rose’s opinions would differ if she lived today. The books have various good examples of how people viewpoints are influenced by their experiences and the time in which they live.

  15. withneedle on 10 Jul 2013 at 9:46 am #

    To be fair, I never quite understood the degree to which, for all his faults, Charles Ingalls knew what he as doing as a homesteader until my book group read a book written by Rachel Calof, a woman who was one of the first Jewish homesteaders in North Dakota:

    http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?products_id=20945

    I had known about the libertarian inflection of the Little House books, and I still think the family would have been better off if Charles Ingalls had had a longer attention span, but reading about what life as a homesteader was like for city dwellers who had zero experience of any kind of rural life, never mind Dakota Territory in winter, was eyeopening for me.

  16. Historiann on 10 Jul 2013 at 10:08 am #

    Well, he sure learned how to build houses, since he built (by my count) at least four of them! (Big Woods, Kansas, the one in Minnesota after the dugout house, and then one on the homestead outside DeSmet.)

    Ingalls had a lot of skills, but it seems like he would have been better off lucky rather than skilled. Or at least with better business judgment.

  17. Nicoleandmaggie on 10 Jul 2013 at 10:10 am #

    @Lyndsay, Yes, you’ve explained it more succinctly than I could have (which is why I didn’t try). Also, I think we have different definitions of “change”– perhaps you’re using the technical genetics version and I’m using it colloquially. The fact is that things like your height and so on can be influenced by whether or not your grandmother was gestating during a famine. Something we were taught was laughable in high school bio when studying Lamarckianism, but is a really busy area of study right now in both bio-science and social science.

  18. Historiann on 10 Jul 2013 at 10:20 am #

    The Ingalls family apparently believed that Carrie’s frailness and fragile health were due to her experience of The Long Winter when she was around 10. And in the book I’m writing now about a turn of the 18th C captive girl, I believe that her experience of chronic famine among the Wabanaki from ages 7-12 profoundly shaped the rest of her life. (She became a nun, so fertility isn’t at issue. However, while some of her fellow nuns mortified themselves by eating very little or only eating trashy food, she was never remembered for this particular “virtue.”)

    This reminds me of a story told by friend of mine. Her father was part of the D-Day invasion as a teenager. She & her brother, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, always wondered why her dad never took them camping. Her mother had to explain it to them: “Papa camped across France back in the war; he did enough camping there to last him the rest of his life.”

  19. Lyndsay on 10 Jul 2013 at 11:31 am #

    Yeah, I guess you could say the environment changes how our genes influence us. I just had to comment because I have a friend who tried to say we could change our genes through thought or something to get rid of HIV and she was sure we could change our actual DNA no matter how many times we tried to explain gene expression…

  20. Dr. Virago on 10 Jul 2013 at 11:42 am #

    OMG, yes, to your last comment, Historiann. My WWII vet father also hated camping for the same reasons. And the AC was always on in our house earlier in the summer than any other family’s AC. After the war, he was strictly an indooor kind of guy!

    But back to the LH books. It’s been about 18 years since I last read them and any scholarship on them, but I wrote a paper on them in grade school for a Western Lit class, and I recall (but my memory may be flawed here) noticing and arguing that it’s not too difficult to read against the grain of the libertarian independence theme, especially if you read the whole series back to back and concentrate on the portrayal of Pa. The books grow with Laura (and with the young reader — even the typeface changes) and with that growth comes a changing perception of Pa. He is the trickster-hero figure in the beginning — almost a Santa Claus — but our veiw of him gets closer (literally and figuratively — he’s absent much more in the earlier books) and more realistic as the books go on. And as he gets more three-dimensional, in creeps a subtle resistance to his romantic, go-it-on-your-own idealism that matches their move to the town and the way in which the transcontinental RR becomes the savior figure. Anyway, I always figured that as much as Rose imposed her ideals on the narrative, there was still something of the pragmatic Laura at work there, the grown-up who wondered if they wouldn’t have been better off if Pa hadn’t had a constant need for “elbow room.”

    And on that note, my great-great-grandmother was apparently the anti-Ma Ingalls. Her husband dragged her from eastern Massachusetts to western Massachusetts to Illinois to Kansas on various schemes for elbow room and success. And then he wanted to move to Texas. At that point they had six children, all in school or just starting their grown-up lives and helping out with the little ones, and she said hell no! (Well, probably not in those words.) He moved on to Texas without her and they eventually divorced (and he remarried, and had more kids), and from what I can tell, the family and the kids all did pretty well without him.

  21. David Parsons on 10 Jul 2013 at 12:40 pm #

    When I read _The Long Winter_ (twice; I read it myself and then I read it to my children when they were small) it struck me just how *un*libertarian it was. Rose may have been a glibertarian, but I don’t think Laura was at all (it’s pretty central to their survival that Charles Ingalls would just walk into the Wilder store periodically and outright steal grain, the men of De Smet did break into that boxcar to loot supplies, and the whole scene with the hotel owner being threatened into not being a famine profiteer strikes me as about as unlibertarian as you can get.)

  22. Northern Barbarian on 10 Jul 2013 at 2:10 pm #

    I just checked out Anita Fellman’s book and look forward to reading it!

  23. Leslie on 10 Jul 2013 at 7:07 pm #

    FWIW, the edition of “The First Four Years” I just re-read makes it sound as if it was a beginning draft for something LIW might have brought into line with the ther books, stylistically, had she lived to complete it.

    I recently read the entire series front to back, for the first time in at least 20 years. fascinating to read as an adult.

  24. truffula on 10 Jul 2013 at 8:13 pm #

    experience

    I knew an old woman (dead some years now) who had food and money, and a few other specific items, squirreled away all around her home. Her immediate family–who’d long endured this and other odd behaviors–just chalked it as crazy old lady. But she’d survived the Japanse occupation of her home in WWII and it seemed to me that the secret supplies were an ongoing response to that experience.

  25. Knitting Clio on 12 Jul 2013 at 9:40 am #

    This article from the New Yorker describes how Rose Wilder used the “Little House” books to advance an anti-New Deal political agenda:

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2009/08/10/090810crat_atlarge_thurman?currentPage=5

    The article ends with a quotation from Anita Clair Fellman’s book “Little House, Long Shadow;”

    “The popularity of the Little House books . . . helped create a constituency for politicians like Reagan who sought to unsettle the so-called liberal consensus established by New Deal politics.”

  26. Knitting Clio on 12 Jul 2013 at 9:41 am #

    P.S. The Wilders did rail against agribusiness by criticizing the AAA — which they saw favoring large farmers against small ones. They were dead on with that one.

  27. Kate on 15 Jul 2013 at 12:19 pm #

    What Dr. Virago says. I read these books obsessively, and still have large chunks of them memorized–particularly episodes that work with my own anti-authoritarian leanings (rocking the desk to protect Carrie and piss off the teacher). Whether it was my own mother pointing it out, or me figuring it out, Pa seemed like an idiot for putting up a house in Indian Country, planting crops when the Norwegians told him not to, ignoring the local animals during the incoming Long Winter, and Ma was always a racist stick-in-the-mud. That said, I still love those books. I still read them, with notations, to my boys. Add Louise Erdrich’s children’s books and you’ve got a great comparison/combo of books for kids.

  28. GlassPen on 16 Jul 2013 at 7:11 am #

    very interesting post and comments. I did not read the Little House books growing up, but a friend did insist on a detour to DeSmet and the dugout on Plum Creek about 20 years ago during a cross-country drive. (N.B.: if you have never spent time in South Dakota, put it on your vacation list…Americans should know their own backyard.) I still have a T-shirt that says:
    London
    Paris
    Rome
    DeSmet

  29. Hector_St_Clare on 19 Jul 2013 at 1:02 pm #

    Re: It occurred to me that it’s probably easier to hate abortion when you’ve watched your town’s population shrink and nearly zero-out for the past four generations, and then some. It probably seems easier and less complicated to hate abortion instead of raging against agribusiness, global captialism, or the frayed social safety net.

    I doubt declining populations have much to do with abortion opinions in South Dakota (though they may be a factor in the increasing pro-life sentiment in Russia). The reason that pro-lifers are pro-life, generally speaking, is that we don’t believe in killing innocent human persons, nor do we feel such killings (barring some unusual circumstances like medical emergencies) should be legal.

  30. Hector_St_Clare on 19 Jul 2013 at 1:31 pm #

    Well, to put it more precisely: concerns about population decline might be a valid reason to oppose abortion rights if all these other concerns (about innocent human life, etc.) didn’t apply. But since most pro-lifers *do* think abortion is the unjust killing of a baby, that’s naturally the argument we place most stress upon.

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