Saturday, September 14, 2013

Laura Ingalls Wilder - at home in Iowa

Laura Ingalls Wilder - Prairie Girl

Laura Ingalls Wilder (February 7, 1867 – February 10, 1957) began her children's writing career when she was well into her 60s.  The books based on her life in Pepin, Wisconsin; Walnut Grove, Minnesota; Indian Territory (Kansas); and DeSmet, South Dakota have been the subject of numerous articles and titles.  William Anderson is a noted Wilder expert; but Iowa has its own expert in Sarah S. Uthoff who frequently writes about Wilder on her Trundlebed Tales site.

Laura Ingalls Wilder.jpg
Laura Ingalls Wilder's books were based on her childhood and early years on the prairie, her ages in various locations have been adjusted, and locations were moved or Laura depicted as being a different age than she really was.  This moving around of the facts completely left out the year-and-a-half or so (1876–1877) that Laura and her parental family lived in Burr Oak, Iowa.  But the family did live in Burr Oak and there is much to discover about the family's time there.  None of Wilder's published writings for children included the months spent in Burr Oak but she did write about life in Burr Oak (in a previously unpublished manuscript).  In Burr Oak, Pa Ingalls was to help run the tavern in town, and Ma was to fix meals for those who stopped to sleep in the facility, or who just happened by for a meal.  But the family was not paid for their work, and they were left to do much of the work themselves even though the agreement was "to help."  Disenchanted the Ingalls moved to an apartment two lots over, above a grocery store, and finally to a house at the edge of town.  It is that house, owned by a Mr. Bisby, where baby Gracie was born.  But when she was just a few months old, the family returned to Walnut Grove and eventually to DeSmet, South Dakota where Ma and Pa Ingalls lived for the rest of their lives.  When the family left Burr Oak, it was during the "time between two days" -- meaning they left in the middle of the night.  Pa could not pay the rent he owned the house owner.  The owner had threatened that Pa must pay before he left or he would have the sheriff hold his horses.  So Pa took his family and they left without being seen.  Indications are that Pa did make the debt right, but there is no absolute record of that.  Burr Oak is not the only connection between Iowa and the Ingalls family.  The family was living in South Dakota when Mary (Laura's sister) lost her sight as a teenager.  Mary was sent to Iowa where she attended school at the Iowa College for the Blind in Vinton. Information about Mary's days in Vinton may be found in an article "Vinton School for the Blind Mary Ingalls Era 1877-1889" on the Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind site.

Even though Laura Ingalls Wilder did not publish information about the Burr Oak community, the community and the directors at the Burr Oak Museum have researched and showcase the connection.  On a recent September day, a friend and I headed out to visit the Burr Oak Location.
 Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum • 3603 -- 236th Avenue • Burr Oak, Iowa 52101
The Burr Oak House (Masters Hotel) is on the west side of the street and the renovated and restored Burr Oak Savings Bank is on the east side.  Visitors to the center go to the old bank building first to pay for the museum admission and to visit the gift shop.  From there a museum tour guide is available to guide visitors through the hotel.  The approach to the side door is lined with prairie flowers, bursts of yellow, and coneflowers, as well as others that I could not identify.  After our visit to Burr Oak, and later in the weekend my friend brought, as a hostess gift, the yellow planter/flowers in the lower left corner of this collage.  Each time I see those flowers in my house, I think about something new that I heard or learned in Burr Oak.   The photo board to the left of the building was created by a local artist, Nancy Sojka who was inspired by the art work of Cheryl Harness

 Pa's fiddle is one of the most recognizable items - many children who read Laura Ingalls Wilder remember the scenes in which Pa is playing his fiddle.   For many years (including 1947)  Pa's fiddle was in Memorial Hall in the Museum of the State Historical Society at Pierre, South Dakota.  During an annual concert someone would use the fiddle to play the old songs Pa used to play.  Now the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri has acquired Pa's original fiddle and has it as part of their collection.  Over 127 songs are referenced in the Wilder books.  Several CD's have been produced showcasing Pa's fiddle music.

Since I enjoy having special dishes for special occasions I enjoyed seeing a place setting of the dishes Laura had at Rocky Ridge.  These dishes were certainly much fancier than the ones the family would have used in Burr Oak.  You will see later in a picture that the Burr Oak House (Masters Hotel) set the table for the evening meal with plain white plates and it seems tin cups were used for drinking.  Certainly not these beautiful china dishes used later in Laura's life after she married Almanzo and settled on their little farm, Rocky Ridge Farm, in Mansfield, Missouri. 

 At Rocky Ridge Laura also had this bread plate, decorated with heads of wheat and words circling the plate "Give us this day our daily bread."  In her book The First Four Years, Laura describes the plate as being oval but the plate exhibited at Rocky Ridge and a duplicate exhibited here is much rounder than what one would describe as oval.  In 2009 Cheryl Whitlock wrote an article "The Mystery of the Oval Glass Bread Plate" on her site Beyond Little House.  In that article she examines the mystery surrounding the oval description and the round plate on display.

 In addition to the quilt patterns which I found interesting, the lower left hand corner shows Laura's corncob doll.  It is simply a corn cob, with two black dots for eyes, wrapped in a white hankerchief type cloth.  Later she was given a coveted rag doll that she named Charlotte.

 One thing that I missed seeing during this trip that was on display the last time I was in Burr Oak is the "red work" that Laura and her mother and sister embroidered throughout their life.  In this picture you can see one example of the red work.  Red work was very popular in the 1880s (to about the 1920s but it is gaining a renewed popularity in this decade). Red cotton embroidery floss was often the only color available as other colors were only available in silk floss making it more expensive.  Patterns were stamped on muslin and an outline stitch (actually called the Kensington stitch for a girls school in England) was used to embroider the design onto the muslin.  Red work was used to decorate towels, pillow cases, scarves for dressers, luncheon cloths, and so forth.  Girls as young as 5 and 6 were taught to embroider red work.  Since Laura was born in 1867, it is doubtful if she would have been doing red work when she lived in Burr Oak as the family was in Burr Oak in the late 1870s, a full decade before the popularity of the fashionable "fanciwork" would have become popular.  Laura would likely have created some red work later in her teens, although I don't believe that has been documented.

Laura wrote her first book when she was in her late 60s.  An unpublished manuscript, Pioneer Girl, became the basis for her first children's book, Little House in the Big Woods, which drew from her original manuscript.  Later she drew from Pioneer Girl for the years that she wrote about in her continuing series.  In Pioneer Girl Wilder does speak of living in Iowa.  The South Dakota State Historical Society Press apparently has obtained the rights to that original manuscript and is preparing an annotated publication which hopefully will be released in 2014.  The historic society press has a website The Pioneer Girl Project, where questions surrounding the life of Wilder and notes about the progress of the book's publication are announced.  Of course there are dozens of other websites focusing on the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder - a search of the Internet will turn up many of them, along with Wilder's books as well as those researched and written by William Anderson who wrote his own biography of Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder (HarperCollins, 2000).  In 2002, Cynthia Rylant's book Old Town in the Green Groves: The Lost Little House Years (llustrated by Jim LaMarche) was published by HarperCollins.  The book was meant to fill in the gap of the years Laura did not write about but reviewers generally felt it lacked the intimacy with the times that Laura had in her written stories.  Old Town in the Green Groves seemed more fact reporting than storytelling.
Fans of all things Laura Ingalls Wilder will be eagerly awaiting the publication of Pioneer Girl.  And real fans will also not want to miss visiting Burr Oak, Iowa, one of Laura Ingalls Wilder's childhood homes.  Burr Oak's Laura Ingalls Wilder Park & Museum website is at‎.

Related blog posts:
McBookwords: Library of America - Laura Ingalls Wilder - December 3, 2012
McBookwords: Laura Ingall's Wilder's Birthday - February 6, 2011; Updated as Re-Thinking LIW's books - February 7, 2015.  Includes Laura's recipe for Gingerbread.
McBookwords: Laura Ingalls Wilder - Happy Birthday - February 7, 2009  Includes links to Laura's Gingerbread Recipe.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Iowa and Anne Frank

Anne Frank is well known to readers and historians. Annelise "Anne" Marie Frank  was born on the twelfth of June in 1929 and before she turned 16 she was a victim of Hitler and his regime that aspired to cleanse the world of Jews.  She is perhaps the most discussed Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  She and her family were German citizens.  But in 1933, when Anne was just 4 the family moved to Amsterdam.  That was the same year that the Nazis gained full control over Germany.  They had left in time -- but by 1940 Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands and by 1942 the family was forced into hiding.  They hid in some concealed rooms in the building where her father, Otto Frank, worked.  They lived there, inside the walls, for two more years before they were betrayed and sent to concentration camps.  Anne and her sister Margot's transfer to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp became their last -- both died of typhus in March 1945.  After the war, Anne's father returned to Amsterdam and found that her diary had been saved. The Diary of Anne Frank has been translated from Dutch into dozens of languages.  The diary itself came as a 13th birthday gift (12 June 1942) and she wrote in it until the family's discovery on 1 August 1944.
In 1939, before the invasion of Amsterdam by the Germans, Anne and her sister, Margot, were paired with pen pals in America.  The pen pals were two girls in Iowa.  Anne only wrote two letters -- and only one is still in existence.  Anne corresponded with Juanita Wagner; Margot with Juanita's older sister, Betty.  The war quickly interrupted what might have been a firm friendship.  As it was Anne's life quickly became one marked by the realities of war and Juanita's remained one of innocence in the relatively safety of Iowa.  Juanita and Betty were unaware of their pen pals' fate, and really had not even realized that their pen pals were Jewish, until Betty sent a letter to Margot after the war and received a letter back from Otto explaining the dire fate of his family.  That letter was lost over the years and through many moves. Susan Goldman Rubin has written a book exploring and contrasting the lives of these two would be friends, and budding pen pals.  Life in war-torn Amsterdam and Iowa could not have been more different.  Searching for Anne Frank: Letters from Amsterdam to Iowa (Harry N. Abrams, 2003) follows the two pairs of sisters from prewar to their lives (and in the case of the Franks, their deaths) during and after the war.  The pen pal connection may be slight but the book does give readers a great deal of information about the war years in the Netherlands and Germany, and on the homefront, in Iowa.  The letters were sold in 1988, for $165,000 and were to be donated by the winning bidder, to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.  The letters went on display at the center's new Beit Hashoah - Museum of Tolerance - when it was completed in late 1989.
Anne Frank is not only well-known in Holocaust literature but she represents an industry that perpetuates her story and the knowledge of the atrocities that occurred during World War II. 

Sadly Rubin's book, Searching for Anne Frank: Letters from Amsterdam to Iowa,  is no longer in print, but that does not lessen the bit of Iowa that touched the life of Anne Frank.  More about the Iowa sisters can be found in a Quad City Times article (Anne Frank's Iowa Pen Pal Tells Her Story) published in April 2012 when Susan Goldman Rubin visited the German American Heritage Center in Davenport, Iowa and the Bettendorf Public Library to talk about the sisters and to promote her picture book,  The Anne Frank Case: Simon Wiesenthal’s Search for Truth (Illustrated by Bill Farnsworth; Holiday House, 2010).  The Anne Frank Case is only one of the focuses in this book, as Rubin tells much about the life of Simon Wiesenthal who himself is a Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter.  In 1958 he set out to find the Gestapo officer who had arrested Anne Frank and her family.  An article that appeared in the Palimpsest (Winter, 1995) also provides some insight into the Wagner sisters and their teacher Ms. Birdie Mathews that set up the pen pal exchange.  Juanita Wagner Hiltgen was living in Redlands, California when she died in 2001.  Betty Anne Wagner was living in Burbank, California when she died in August of 2012, at the age of 86.  Her "adopted" niece wrote a tribute to Betty in a blog entry at AdnreaV Photography.  The entry includes several pictures of Betty in later life as well as an earlier one of her on a tractor in Iowa. 
Anne Frank was only brushed for a moment with her connection to Iowa, but like others before her -- Iowa briefly became a part of a life of a historically significant person.

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Moment in Iowa History: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker - and the Iowa Connection

Dr. Mary Walker became the first (and to this date, the only) woman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.   She was a woman before her time and among her many achievements she was well known for always wearing pants.  Cheryl Harness introduces us to this incredible woman from history and shares her unconventional path to the Medal of Honor.  Harness's book serves to introduce young and old to this remarkable woman -- a woman who has Iowa Connections. 
Harness, Cheryl.  Mary Walker Wears the Pants: The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero. Illustrated by Carlo Molinari. Albert Whitman, 2013.  

Mary Edwards Walker (November 26, 1832 – February 21, 1919)

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was among those who worked for women's right to vote in the years leading up to the granting of women’s suffrage.  She was among the very unconventional women of her time, one of the first American feminists, and she supported abolition, prohibition, as well as, the right of women to vote.  She was one of the first women doctors in the country and she wore pants! She served as a Union soldier (in a modified uniform) during the Civil War, as a doctor.  She became the only woman, to this day, to earn the the Medal of Honor. 
Mary Edwards Walker was born in Oswego, New York.  Her mother taught school and Walker’s father was a country doctor and farmer who encouraged education for his five daughters: Mary, Aurora, Luna, Vesta, and Cynthia, and their one son, Alvah.   The girls’  often helped in the fields and their parents believed that the tight corsets and otherwise restrictive garments women generally wore in those days were unnecessary and hampered women’s ability to move about and do what was needed. As an adult Mary became an avid supporter of the issue of dress reform led by Amelia Bloomer.  Bloomer defended the right of women to wear Turkish pantaloons – or “bloomers” as the bloused trousers came to be called.  Eventually Mary Walker adapted the practice of wearing full men’s evening dress to lecture on Women’s Rights.
At the age of twenty-one (1855) Mary, graduated from Syracuse Medical College.  She was the only female in her medical class and had spent three semesters (13 weeks each) in the study of medicine.  Mary Edwards Walker is the second American woman to earn a medical degree (the first, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell earned a degree in 1849).  The following year (1856) Walker married a fellow physician, Albert Miller.  Both bride and groom wore a suit and top hat and Mary Walker continued to use her birth name.  The two physicians established a medical practice in Rome, NY but the practice failed as few were ready to accept a female doctor.  

The Iowa Connection

This period of time is when Dr. Mary Edward Waker became part of Iowa’s history.  Dr. Walker separated from her husband after just four years of marriage (due, reportedly, to his unfaithfulness). In 1860, Walker became an active promoter of dress reform but before accepting a formal role in the organization working for reform, she wanted to finalize her divorce from Miller. New York’s laws required a five-year waiting period.  So in the summer of 1860, Walker traveled to Iowa and stayed with a family friend in Delhi, hoping to take advantage of Iowa’s more lenient divorce laws and to avoid New York’s waiting period.  The friend, Judge Albert E. House, was a former resident of Oswego and was willing to host her and to advise her on Iowa law. While in Iowa she briefly attended the relatively newly established Bowen Collegiate Institute (later Lenox College) in Hopkinton, Iowa. She protested that the college advertised that a student could study German at their institute but when she arrived the school had no German instructor.  Dr. Walker did attend the institute, however, until she was suspended when she refused to quit the all-male debate society.  Many of the male members supported her efforts and her protests of unequal rights.  Her protest efforts resulted in many supporters in the Delhi-Hopkinton community but eventually her protests led to her full expulsion from the Institute. While she waited for her divorce, she was privileged to work with a local physician, Dr. Cunningham.  Back in New York state, a long-time attorney friend, B.F. Chapman, learned of her efforts to obtain a divorce under the new laws in the state of Iowa.  Chapman sent her a five-page brief. The brief detailed cases that made clear New York state would not recognize out-of-state divorces.  Walker trusted Chapman and so she returned to Rome, NY the following summer without the divorce. That ended her physical connection to Iowa however, in the following years there would be at least one other connection to Iowa.

Civil War and the Medal of Honor

When the Civil War broke out Mary Walker attempted to join the Union Army.  She was denied an official role so she volunteered in various field hospitals and positions.  Eventually she was appointed to official Army duties.  She always wore two pistols on her side, and dressed in a modified uniform – reportedly designed by a Mrs. Littlejohn of Delhi, Iowa (Leonard 246).  She treated many soldiers and sometimes crossed Confederate lines to treat civilians.  Some suggest that during this time she also served as a Union spy.  Whatever the case, in 1864, she was captured and held prisoner in Richmond until she, along with other Union doctors, was exchanged for 17 Confederate surgeons.
After her release back to the 52nd Ohio Infantry she spent the remainder of the war practicing at a Louisville female prison and an orphan's asylum in Tennessee.  She was awarded a military pension ($8.50, later raised to $20) but it was less than some widow’s pensions.
On November 11, 1865, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson, in recognition of her contributions during the war.  She was the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, her country's highest military award.  The award was rescinded in 1917 when the “rules” were changed, but Dr. Walker refused to give up the medal and wore it every day, the rest of her life.  Sixty years later, President Jimmy Carter restored the medal to her.
After the war she continued to campaign for the right of women to vote, and entered the political arena by becoming a candidate for Congress (1890) and for a U.S. Senate seat  (1892).  She has been honored with a United States Postage Stamp (1982) and inducted into the Seneca Falls (NY) Women’s Hall of Fame.


Graf, Mercedes. A Woman of Honor: Dr. Mary E. Walker and the Civil War. Thomas Publications, 2001.
Harris, Sharon.  Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919. Rutgers University Press, 2009.
Leonard, Elizabeth.  Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War.  W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.
Snyder, Charles McCool. Dr. Mary Walker: the Little Lady in Pants. Arno Press, 1974.
The History of Delaware County, Iowa: Containing a History of the County, Its Cities, Towns, &c., a Biographical Directory of Its Citizens, War Record of Its Volunteers ... History of the Northwest, History of Iowa, Map of Delaware County, Constitution of the United States.  Western historical Company, 1878.
Walker, Dale L. Mary Edwards Walker: Above and Beyond.  Macmillan, 2005.

(This article originally published on the blog at McBookwords:All things literacy — Authors, Books, Connections . . . (Jun 06, 2013)