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

In other words: There goes Pa!

The real-life Ingalls family, though, wasn't always so self-reliant. Historians have made a game of finding discrepancies between the books and the historical record: periods the Ingallses had to crash with friends or relatives, times when Pa worked as a carpenter rather than a farmer and, most egregiously for those who approach the books as autobiography, the year the family spent in Burr Oak, Iowa, where they helped run a hotel and wound up skipping town to avoid paying their back rent. (Pa did eventually settle up.)

As the series progresses and the family moves farther from the Eden of the Big Woods, the government works its way into the cozy world of the Ingalls family and turns it upside-down. At the end of Little House on the Prairie, the third book in the series, they are forced to abandon their homestead near Independence, Kansas, just as it's about to yield a profit after a year of hard work, because the government screwed up. As Pa explains it, "'If some blasted politicians in Washington hadn't sent out word it would be all right to settle here, I'd never have been three miles over the line into Indian Territory. [Discrepancy alert: They were in fact nearly 40 miles inside the border of the Osage reservation.] But I'll not wait for soldiers to take us out. We're going now!'...His face was very red and his eyes were like blue fire. Laura was frightened; she had never seen Pa look like that."

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.

Later, in The Long Winter (book six, which corresponds to the winter of 1880-'81), the family nearly starves to death because they've grown dependent on the railroad to bring them food, and the constant blizzards keep the trains from running. If only the railroad men had, like Pa, noticed that the muskrats were building the walls of their houses thicker than usual (an unmistakable harbinger of a hard winter)! And in the next book, Little Town on the Prairie, when the family temporarily abandons its claim shanty and settles in town for the winter, Pa becomes a leader in the group that arranges the evening socials and insists that there be no committee meetings.

The theme of this year's Wilder Days was "Laura, Teacher of the Ozarks."

"But Laura didn't teach school in Mansfield," I pointed out to Kate Barrad.

"Well, she made a lot of school visits," the emcee replied. "And we wanted to honor the teachers by letting them lead the parade."

Barrad moved to Mansfield three years ago, in order to help her father and sister run a complex of vacation cottages just a short walk from the Wilder house. (It's said there's a cave on the property where young Rose once got lost.) During her time in town, the biggest Wilder freak Barrad has seen was a woman who came from Vienna, stayed for a week and visited the museum every day. But Barrad was more interested in talking about Mansfield and the goings-on of the festival than she was in discussing Laura. All she said was, "I like to tell people, 'If the end of the world comes, these are the best books you could have, because they tell you how to do everything.'"

According to the town's website, Wilder Days date back to 1974, but no one in town seemed to remember whether that's accurate. Over the years the festival's character has changed. In the past there were displays of pioneer-era tools — button lamps like the one in The Long Winter, which Ma makes from a button, a scrap of calico and some axle grease when they run out of kerosene; a cobbler's bench to illustrate the shoemaking chapter in Farmer Boy, the second book in the series, which tells the story of Almanzo's childhood in rural New York; the ubiquitous butter churn; old-fashioned crafts such as candle-making and blacksmithing. Every fall, during the week preceding Wilder Days, some of the townsmen go rambling around the countryside in wagons (like Laura and Almanzo in These Happy Golden Years!) and return in time to kick off the celebration with a bonfire outside the high school.

This year the wagon riders came back quietly, not even bothering with the customary celebratory lap through town. "People are getting older," explained Kathy Short, who volunteers at the Mansfield Historical Society. "They can't get off work anymore."

I'd been talking to Kathy's mother-in-law, Marge Short. Marge has lived in Mansfield for 65 years, long enough to have known Laura — or Mrs. Wilder, as the townspeople called her — but she didn't have much to say about her. Of course, they were of different generations, and, as Jim Kaiser, the amateur historian who runs Laura's "Sweet Memories," told me later, Mrs. Wilder had intimidated the other women in town, not because she wrote books but because of the biting intelligence she displayed at club meetings. Marge's Mansfield was football games and the wagon rides that her husband Amon, who has been dead eleven years now, joined in every fall. "Wilder Days was much more fun then," she told me.

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