Little House in the Present: America's economic downturns run through Laura Ingalls Wilder's books like a big three-hearted river

Little House in the Present: America's economic downturns run through Laura Ingalls Wilder's books like a big three-hearted river
Laura Ingalls Wilder as an old woman in Mansfield.

In late August 1894, the Wilder family — Almanzo, Laura and their seven-year-old daughter Rose — arrived in Mansfield, Missouri. They'd spent the past six weeks on the road, traveling the 650 miles from De Smet, South Dakota, in a covered wagon called a hack that looked more like a Model T than a prairie schooner. They had two horses, some furniture, a stray dog named Fido Laura had adopted somewhere in Kansas and their life savings in the form of a $100 bill hidden in Laura's lap desk.

De Smet had endured a Bible-worthy run of droughts dating back to the year of Rose's birth. The Wilders' house had burned down. Their second child, a boy, had died in infancy. Laura and Almanzo both contracted diphtheria; the infection left Almanzo with a permanent limp. Having given up their dream of turning their homestead into a prosperous farm, they'd abandoned it to work for Almanzo's parents in Minnesota, then for an ill-fated venture to central Florida and finally for a rented house in De Smet, where Almanzo got stuck for months on jury duty and Laura earned their $100 by working twelve-hour days for a seamstress.

A massive bank collapse the previous year and its aftermath, the infamous Panic of 1893, was the worst economic depression in U.S. history to date. A band of unemployed workers in Ohio, led by a small-time politician named Jacob Coxey, marched on Washington to lobby the government to create jobs. Its ranks swelled as it marched through Pennsylvania, and eventually Coxey's Army set up camp in Maryland. Similar protests erupted in the Pacific Northwest. If news of the protests reached De Smet, Laura didn't deem it worthy of inclusion in her journal. The Wilders didn't protest. They moved.

Aimee Levitt
Laura Ingalls Wilder as a young girl in De Smet, South Dakota.
Laura Ingalls Wilder as a young girl in De Smet, South Dakota.

In De Smet Mansfield was hailed as the "Land of the Big Red Apple," a paradise of fertile fields and orchards. But on the road, the Wilders encountered dozens of settlers headed in the opposite direction who had failed and were on their way back to the Dakotas.

Using the $100 bill as a down payment, the Wilders purchased a farm a mile outside of town, fittingly named Rocky Ridge. There they would live out their lives.

I arrived in Mansfield in the fall of 2011, traveling the 200 miles from St. Louis by car, carrying a notebook and an overnight bag. It's only a four-hour drive, but once you exit Interstate 44 in Lebanon and head south through the rolling hills of the Ozarks, two-lane Route 5 transports you back in time, through dying old towns without a single gas station or fast-food joint, separated mostly by farmland. You get held up by tractors. There's no cell phone service.

Back in St. Louis (and virtually every other U.S. city), people had set up tent compounds in public spaces in the name of the Occupy movement, collective but disparate acts of civil disobedience meant to protest the unequal distribution of wealth between Wall Street and the other 99 percent of the country. Mansfield epitomizes the 99 percent: The unemployment rate here is 9.5 percent, slightly above the national average, and one-quarter of all households pull down less than $15,000 annually. Like virtually every place else in America, it's worse off than it was ten years ago. The population has dwindled to 1,300 since reaching a peak of 1,429 in 1990. But you'll find no Occupiers here. Unless you count the tourists — 40,000 come every summer, and the mid-September weekend when I drove down, the town was so packed that I had to stay in Ava, fifteen miles to the south.

My fellow visitors and I had come for Laura Ingalls Wilder Days. History tells us that 40 years after settling in Mansfield, Laura began writing the Little House series of semiautobiographical novels about her childhood that were destined to become classics. Since Little House in the Big Woods inaugurated the series in 1932, the books have sold more than 60 million copies and spawned an entire industry that includes sequels, prequels, cookbooks, a stage musical and, most famously, a TV series, which in its own way is also a classic of Americana. (It's said to have brought tears to the eyes of President Ronald Reagan, who liked to watch it in the White House.) Within weeks of the author's death in 1957, Mansfield had turned her house into a shrine, and the town has drawn pilgrims by the score ever since, an endless stream of calico dresses and sunbonnets.

Laura had been on my mind for months, beginning right around the time that I finally gave up on the notion that the economy was improving and the Great Recession would soon recede gently into the past. Like most, I suspect, I'd moved beyond the turbulent Sea of Shock and Outrage and into the stagnant Pool of Doing Without.

As it happens, Little House in the Big Woods appeared at about this same stage of the Great Depression. Not only that, but the time period the book chronicles, the 1870s, marked another strikingly similar hard time. Yet Wilder's books made those hard times sound, well, exciting. There's nothing to make you feel better during hard times than wallowing in nostalgia for even worse hard times, and there was Mansfield, with an entire festival celebrating Laura Ingalls Wilder and hard times just 200 miles from where I live!

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