Next Tuesday, the 23rd of May, is Grace Ingalls’ birthday. It is the 140th anniversary of this event, which had to have been a special day in Laura’s life.
It’s intriguing to me how time has remember Laura and elevated her to an icon, while essentially forgetting her youngest sister. Of course, Little House fans recall Grace as the sweet girl from the books. The really hard-core ones even know that her middle name was “Pearl”, and that she married, but died childless. Still, the fact remains that everyone, understandably, remembers Laura much better.
However, I did some reading recently, and I realized that there is much about Laura that we didn’t know. Here are the most surprising ones:
- Laura’s family helped run an inn in Iowa. Pa, Ma, and the girls worked like servants in this hotel. Naturally, they didn’t like this, so Pa soon moved them away.
- But while they were helping at the inn, they lived next door to a saloon, and one night, the saloon caught fire.
- The mean girl, Nellie Oleson, was actually inspired from 3 girls—Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters, and Stella Gilbert. Nellie Owens was the inspiration for the mean girl at her father’s store; Genevieve was Laura’s rival at the school in Little Town on the Prairie; and Stella was the girl who tried to force her way into Almanzo’s affections by tagging along for those buggy rides. Surprising as this is, it makes sense that Laura would change the name, to protect the identity of the actual girls. Lots of authors who use their life experiences change names, for legal and privacy purposes. James Harriot did that. He changed the names of his patients, and he even changed his own name. James Harriot was just a pen name; his real one was James Wight.
- Laura had a baby brother who died before his first birthday. If he had lived, he would have been younger than Carrie but older than Grace. His name was Freddie. From birth, he had always been sickly. Tragically, he died before his first birthday, while the family was living on Aunt Eliza’s farm in Minnesota (Aunt Eliza was the mother of those cousins that Laura played with by falling off stumps to make snow angles back in Little House in the Big Woods).
- Pa opened a butcher shop, back when they lived in Minnesota (think On the Banks of Plum Creek).
- Laura had her first photograph taken when she was 14. Most kids today have their own phone at 14. Crazy how much times have changed.
- Laura hated Florida. After the end of The First Four Years, Laura, Manly and Rose moved first to Minnesota, then to Florida. The culture and environment of Florida differed so wildly from Laura’s prairies that it shocked her. In addition to this, Laura was not welcomed by her neighbors, who stayed away from “those Yankees”. Another problem for her was the climate. The warmth and humidity, which was supposed to improve Manly’s health, ironically, made Laura feel ill. She hated all of it. After less than a year, they moved back to South Dakota.
- Laura and Manly got a car when Laura was in her 60s, and Manly was in her 70s. When I first read this, I was shocked. I could never imagine Laura riding in anything other than a covered wagon. That’s silly, I suppose, but it was what I had pictured. On a side note, the purchase was Rose’s idea.
- When the Wilders moved to Rocky Ridge Farm, they rode in a wagon painted black.
- And finally, Laura owned and used a small pistol (not on people). While it’s unclear when Manly bought the gun for her, we do know that Laura used this pistol on their journey from South Dakota to Missouri. It now resides in the museum at Rocky Ridge Farm Historic Site.
So that is my list of unusual things that you may not have known about everyone’s favorite pioneer girl. Did any of these facts surprise you? Let me know in the comment section!
- Little Author in the Big Woods: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Zeldis Yona McDonough
- The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure