The punishing blizzards of 1880-1881 stopped all trains through the Dakota Territory, and without this lifeline, settlers in the town of DeSmet were cut off from the world, facing starvation. Almanzo Wilder, although one of the few residents of DeSmet with an adequate supply of food for himself, undertook a blind dash on horseback across the frozen plains in search of a rumored store of grain. In the literary account of this episode, The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Almanzo rationalized his risky actions as a bid to preserve the grain he had stored up for spring planting. Nevertheless, Almanzo Wilder was probably the only DeSmet settler with the combination of endurance and horsemanship to succeed in this mission and keep the townspeople from starving to death.
Sometimes a combination of personal resilience and urgent circumstances converge to produce an act of bravery during a time of crisis. If Western lore is to be believed, the exploration and settlement of North America is punctuated with many such acts of bravery. A chosen few have become canonized alongside the Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett tales of legend and myth, but most stories go unsung. Almanzo Wilder’s story falls into neither category. He is not quite a household name, but his experiences have been shared by millions.
As the husband of Laura Ingalls Wilder, one of the most widely read and enduring authors of American pioneer literature, the real-life Almanzo Wilder is an unusual figure. For most of human history, a dominant paradigm had been one of dutiful wives overshadowed by famous husbands, but during the twentieth century, a collective understanding summed up by the cliché “behind every great man…” helped focus both popular and academic interest on the wives of presidents, the lovers of artists, etc., and elevated the “spouse of” to more than just footnote status. Today, as writers and scholars focus on noteworthy figures of recent history, that spouse, increasingly, is a man.
The publication in late 2006 of Leonard Woolf: A Biography is perhaps a milestone of a growing genre of study, the lives of the husbands of famous female authors. Claire Messud's New York Times Book Review explained that Leonard, the husband of Virginia Woolf, led a life interesting enough to be studied on its own merits. The question of whether being the spouse of someone famous makes a person worthy of public interest is moot in the age of tabloids and paparazzi; however, is there a litmus test to determine whether a person’s life is worthy of scholarly interest? And are we inclined to lower the bar because that person is a man?
At first glance, it seems that Almanzo Wilder’s life was doggedly ordinary. He farmed, bred horses, and built furniture. His personality was as modest as his means, as he did not appear to have any literary, artistic, or political aspirations. Would he fail the worthiness test on his own?
The question is a complex one, because it seems that the spirit of inquiry must eventually lead the scholar to ask, when examining the life of an accomplished figure, to what extent the environment and the people surrounding the subject influenced, contributed to, or perhaps even hindered that person’s accomplishments. In the case of Laura Ingalls Wilder, studies such as John E. Miller's reveal the extent of her interdependence, raising questions about how much credit for the success of the Little House series of books should go to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, an accomplished and well connected writer.
We can surmise that by the mores of the Midwestern United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Almanzo Wilder would have had plenty of latitude to enable or hinder his wife’s career. In the eighth “Little House” book, These Happy Golden Years, Almanzo accommodates Laura’s proto-feminist views by accepting the absence of the word “obey” from their wedding vows. Perhaps another subgenre of the literary biography is emerging: the analysis of great couples. After all, Almanzo Wilder was more than just a supportive husband; he became the second lead character in her bestselling series, and the main protagonist of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s second book, Farmer Boy.
Surprisingly, there has been virtually no focus on Almanzo Wilder’s life as anything other than that of a man hitched to Laura’s star, and very little on his literary role in her books. In fact, a search of major databases reveals no scholarly journal articles on Almanzo Wilder in full stored text, and only one on paper, the aptly titled “Farmer Boy: The Forgotten ‘Little House’ book,” an eight-page article in Utah State University’s Western American Literature written by Fred Erisman. As of this writing, the two remaining copies have gone to this writer and the archives of the Almanzo & Laura Ingalls Wilder Association.
There are more reasons to be surprised that so little has been written on the life of Almanzo Wilder: Almanzo’s boyhood farm is the only original “Little House” home still standing on its original site, and it is open to researchers, teachers, students, and the general public who want to observe first hand some of the facets of the rugged universe portrayed in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s nine-book series, the environment that shaped the character of many Americans’ pioneer forbearers. In addition, the popular television series, “Little House on the Prairie” ran for eight years, and a nine-episode movie serial is probably just a matter of time.
So much has been written on the life and works of Laura Ingalls Wilder that her own short books feel like CliffsNotes compared to all of the commentary. It is possible that Almanzo’s time has come, that it is “Manly” Wilder whose story is the next to be heard.
A Few Good Reasons
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, holds the papers of Rose Wilder Lane, including much of the primary material pertaining to the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Among this collection are twenty-four pages relating to Almanzo Wilder, seventeen of which are from a questionnaire drawn up by Lane for use in a book about homesteading, entitled Free Land. The other seven pages are notes for a book that was never written, a biography of Almanzo Wilder, tentatively entitled A Son of the Soil, according to Spencer Howard.
We cannot know for sure why Rose Wilder Lane never followed up on that project. One may speculate that Almanzo Wilder himself was reticent. The six pages of his own writing in this packet show him to be a man of few words; perhaps Ms. Lane thought the subject, in the end, not interesting enough. Based on what is known about her life, Lane may have become distracted from research and writing about her family by her fascination with libertarian politics.
Given the existence of these papers, the absence of a biography of Almanzo Wilder stands out as unfinished business. It may have been difficult for a writer as close to the subject as was Rose Wilder Lane, Almanzo’s own daughter, to find the extraordinary in what was ordinary to both of them. It is perhaps a job better left up to the unconnected outsider. In addition, as the decades have passed, and the collective memory of the rural farmer’s life grows more distant, the most mundane of everyday events becomes a point of curiosity for the modern reader. In the case of Farmer Boy, what was once merely an entertaining narrative about a year in the life of a young boy, may today serve as an anthropological document.
Erisman argues that Almanzo Wilder’s family story provides important information that helps to explain the background and behavior of the other settlers encountered in the rest of the series, particularly the Ingalls family. In Little Town on the Prairie, the seventh book of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series, the author points out that many of these migrants to the upper Midwest came recently from New York State, the setting of Farmer Boy. It is Farmer Boy that gives the “Little House” series something that other portraits of the frontier lack: A picture of the Old East that can help the reader to better understand the often baffling ways of the Old West.
In spite of the integral role of Almanzo Wilder’s story in the rest of the series, Erisman asserts that it has been given “short shrift” in the otherwise copious discussions about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. Erisman also argues that like the other “Little House” books, Farmer Boy has tremendous educational value, not only as supplemental material to history lessons but also as a current instructional guide for character-building. Erisman calls it “Wilder’s sense of one generation speaking to those to come, and her determination to transmit a national vision in a compelling combination of candor and myth that instills the possibility of continuing progress.”
Here is where Erisman touches on the best reason of all to study the real-life Almanzo Wilder: for the lessons that his generation can teach by example, as literary and historical role models, for young students today.
It is easy to figure out how and why the literary character of Laura Ingalls Wilder became so popular; Laura was a heroine for the times. With the tremendous emphasis placed by American society in the twentieth century on fostering independence and assertiveness in its daughters, Laura the character and Laura the author were both role models that teachers, parents, and girls had been looking for.
More recently, however, the imperative has reversed itself. One might argue that now it is Almanzo Wilder’s turn because boys need now what girls needed then. The “boy problem” has become an elephant in a one-room schoolhouse. From a Newsweek article entitled “The Trouble with Boys” to books with titles like The War Against Boys, Misreading Masculinity, and The Minds of Boys, educational pundits are sounding the alarm about a consistent and disturbing achievement gap between male and female students, particularly in reading.
How could a quiet farmer from an outmoded series of children’s books help stem this troubling tide? The idea may seem farfetched, but findings in educational research show how Almanzo Wilder – from Farmer Boy and the other “Little House” books, and the real person – could be the kind of educational tool that the situation demands.
First, it turns out that many young boys are picky about what they read. In an article entitled “But that’s a girl’s book!” Elizabeth Dutro observes that young boys are very sensitive about gender roles, a fact expressed through reading choices and attitudes about reading. Boys choose books with male protagonists performing “manly” tasks; in fact, there is a large segment of the young male population for whom gender stereotypes affect the retention of information. In a 1980 study, L.S. Liben and M.L. Signorella found that boys with strong gender-biased attitudes tend to recall images of male figures more readily than they do images of female figures. Interestingly, subjects were more likely to recall images of men performing traditionally “male” tasks than they were to recall images of anyone performing traditionally “female” or gender-neutral tasks.
One dilemma imbedded in these findings, at least for educators, includes the possibility that in order to reach boys on an intellectual level and get them interested in learning, we have to allow them to read sexist texts, or, at the very least, select for them books that will reinforce the same gender stereotypes associated with their low performance. Perhaps an ethical way to expose children to such material is through historical literature, those texts whose context is so obviously removed from the reader’s modern-day reality as to provide a buffer against negative behavior patterning. In this respect, Farmer Boy fits the bill by fitting into the gender-role schemata of young boys without reinforcing negative behaviors.
Teachers who have used Farmer Boy and the other Laura Ingalls Wilder books as educational tools are legion, and most have probably not read the studies cited here. More likely, they have recognized intuitively that Wilder’s books are full of life’s lessons. To reinforce these lessons, enterprising teachers have created numerous quizzes, activity sheets, crossword puzzles and the like. Many are available over the internet for use by any instructors who decide to incorporate the Little House books into their curricula, making this series that much more valuable and attractive to the educator.
The research of J.D. Wilhelm and M. Smith found that boys prefer fact-based text presented in story form, which is another way that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books fit the bill in reaching the underperforming young male reader. However, this idea raises yet another dilemma, one that can only be resolved by further research on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, Farmer Boy in particular.
Although the “Little House” books are based on true stories, the author chose to present her stories as fiction in order to give herself license to dramatize some events, simplify others, and make the material appropriate for children. Of course, there has been so much independent verification of the basic facts of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life that, in the our era of A Million Little Pieces, Wilder’s fiction stands up as more true-to-life than most people’s nonfiction.
Nevertheless, Wilder “fudges” a substantial number of facts and events, keeping the question of truthfulness relevant. For instance, when she re-introduces Almanzo in The Long Winter, she creates an elaborate lie about his age, presumably to obscure the ten-year age gap between them. Laura Ingalls Wilder was personally opposed to the practice of taking child brides, as Miller reminds us.
Knowing that Laura Ingalls Wilder took liberties with the facts, and at the same time knowing that the facts of her husband’s life have not been as thoroughly corroborated as those of her own, we can not in good faith put forth Almanzo Wilder as a real life role model without first doing our homework. We must line up Almanzo’s story with the facts to the extent that we can, or at least make an adequate effort. Using a character based on myth can undermine that character’s long term value as a literary and historic role model. Depending on the timing of the revelation, learning that George Washington never really chopped down the cherry tree can be just as devastating as learning that there is no Santa Claus.
Such concerns may seem trivial to some people; however, any risks can be avoided with a well-researched biography. Given all the work that has gone into finding birth and death records, land deeds, census data, etc. in order to reconstruct the facts of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, and given the fact that most of these official documents would have been filed under Almanzo Wilder’s name, it seems quite odd that no one has bothered to write it all down with a focus on him. This reality raises a question for the researcher: Should one bother starting from scratch and collecting all of the primary documents, or could the information be culled from existing biographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder?
This is question may be one of many requiring consultation with an experienced historian, someone who may be able to suggest the most prudent avenues of research among the many available.
Avenues of Inquiry
At the office of the Wilder Homestead in Burke, New York, there is an archive made up of articles and printed materials compiled by researchers and Wilder aficionados, overseen by archivist Elizabeth Menke. Among the boxes of printed material sit several that are listed as sealed; these are the research records of William T. Anderson.
William Anderson is the most prolific of contemporary Wilder biographers. He has been writing about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family since the 1960s, and his most recent work is Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography, with a publication date of January 2007. He has authored one of two slim books on Almanzo’s immediate family; his is entitled “The Story of the Wilders.” It is thirty-three pages long, with twelve pages focused on the life of Almanzo (and Laura) under the heading “A.J. Wilder of Mansfield, Missouri.” This section constitutes the largest concentration of facts about Almanzo Wilder in one publication, at least one not billed as a book about his wife.
The other existing booklet on the Wilders is “The Wilder Family Story” by Dorothy Belle Smith. It contains a more extensive bibliography than does Anderson’s book; however, the author, a granddaughter of one of Almanzo Wilder’s cousins, is now deceased.
Since William Anderson is still alive and still actively working on the topic of Laura Ingalls Wilder, it would seem advisable, indeed obvious, to contact him and consult with him on any future work concerning Almanzo Wilder. One question does arise, however: In the interests of scholarship, would it be more valuable to have two distinct and independent lines of research on the same topic rather than merging them into one through the sharing of ideas? Perhaps it is not a significant concern, but it may be worth considering in advance of any irrevocable action.
Almanzo Wilder’s birthplace in Burke, New York, is the obvious starting point for research on Almanzo’s life. Aside from the archives, there is the original architecture of the family home, as well as reconstructed interior details and outbuildings; it is both a museum and a kind of ongoing archeological dig into the life of Almanzo Wilder.
Moving outward from this starting point, the nearby town of Malone provides many of the settings for the book Farmer Boy, and records still exist about the sites as well as the people depicted in book. Although there are differing accounts about certain details (the exact church attended by the Wilder family, for instance), there should be plenty of corroboration for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s depiction of young Almanzo’s life. The Franklin County Historical and Museum Society holds the letters and memorabilia of Alice Wilder and Eliza Jane Wilder, two of Almanzo’s sisters. Also, the archives of Franklin Historical Review hold several articles of potential interest.
Striking out from upstate New York, a would-be researcher then faces a potentially long itinerary. Aside from all of the private collections amassed by Laura Ingalls Wilder fans, there are a half dozen semi-official “Little House” museums and/or collections, not counting the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum or the Almanzo Wilder House. Minnesota would be a logical destination, possibly to visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, and certainly to visit Spring Valley, where Almanzo’s family settled after leaving New York. Municipal and county documents, as well as newspaper archives, from in and around Spring Valley could provide some heretofore unknown details as well as provide backup for those already reported.
The physical trail would most likely end in Mansfield, Missouri, location of the Wilder Home and Museum. Mansfield was where Laura and Almanzo Wilder settled after the events depicted in the “Little House” books and where they lived the remainder of their long lives. Almanzo Wilder died in 1949 and Laura Ingalls Wilder lived on until 1957, so there certainly would be current residents of Mansfield who remember both of them first hand.
Of course, researching the life of Almanzo Wilder would involve more than just road trips. What has not been published so far yeilds plenty of leads, some obvious and some not-so-obvious. William Anderson points out that Almanzo wrote for the Missouri Ruralist, a magazine for farm families, during Laura's twelve year employment with that publication. Anderson also makes note of Almanzo's prominence in equestrian circles and documents his desire tp introduce the Morgan horse to the Missouri Ozarks. Since breeders tend to be a close-knit group who keep detailed records, breeder publications may have further information about Almanzo Wilder's activities in Missouri. In fact, according to Kathlyn Furr, there was an article on the Wilders published in the October 1992 issue of The Morgan Horse.
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., may have access to the largest potential mother lode of unpublished writings by Almanzo Wilder. In 1974, the company published West from Home, a collection of letters sent by Laura to Almanzo in 1915, when Laura had the opportunity to visit San Francisco. Only her half of the correspondence made it into the book. On the other hand, the omission of Almanzo's letters makes sense in light of the fact that Laura was the subject of interest; on the other hand, there are passages that seem incmplete: "Manly ders. So glad to get your letter and know that you were all right. My, how wet it must be back there. I'm glad we live on the hills. Mrs. Rogers is a dear, and so are you for telling me not to worry and have a good time." Such a passage is teasingly frustrating, yet representative of the need to construct Almanzo Wilder's biography.
The works of Laura Ingalls Wilder are a matter of ongoing interest for many readers; the mysterious “hole” represented by the life of her husband is but one of the reasons to look in this direction. This writer feels, however, that an even more compelling reason than simple curiosity should drive active research on the life of Almanzo Wilder.
What the character of “Laura” and the true-to-life Laura Ingalls Wilder did for young girls – their goals, their self-image and their self-esteem – should be replicated to as great an extent as possible for young male readers. Few will attempt to deny that boys create special challenges for educators; it is therefore important to use educational tools that target their particular needs.
Some might argue that the life of Almanzo Wilder would seem at best quaint and at worst irrelevant to the modern young reader, but that depends entirely on the perspective of a given educator. Those who see the “boy problem” as one restricted to inner city schools may have to look elsewhere for the ideal role model. However, urban school districts are far from the only area of concern.
According to Vincent J. Roscigno and Martha L. Crowley, a 2001 article in Rural Sociology reported that students in rural schools rank lower in achievement based on SAT/ACT scores and are more likely to drop out of high school than their urban counterparts. The authors wrote that these results were consistent for the three decades prior to the report. There may not be any statistics broken down by gender, but a person who spends time in less trafficked parts of the country may be able to sense the problem first hand.
From personal observations on the economy and lifestyles of the rural North Country of New York State, Almanzo Wilder’s boyhood stomping grounds, it seems that young men and boys are adrift. Most entry-level jobs – clerks, waitstaff, etc. – are filled by women and girls; men and boys seem less likely to be gainfully employed. For many, just as in the inner city, drug dealing seems like the best prospect. For many boys, a good role model may be hard to find. Fortunately, one can be found between the covers of a book.
Once again, it may be time for Almanzo Wilder to ride to the rescue. The first task is to find him, and we must begin by dusting off the “forgotten ‘Little House’ book.” On the wall of the birthing room/infirmary of his parents’ house, above the spot where perhaps Almanzo Wilder was born, there is a sign that reads: “Forget Me Not.”
From guest contributor Wayne Jebian