Laura Ingalls Wilder was born February 7, 1867 to parents Charles and Caroline Ingalls, the second of five children. The details of her family life through adolescence are chronicled in her semi-autobiographical Little House books. As those books reveal, she and her family moved extensively throughout the mid-west during her childhood. Although she was a bright student, her education was rather sporadic, a result of her family often living in isolated areas where schools were not yet established, or the family's finances resulting in Laura interrupting her schooling to earn money. The family eventually settled in De Smet, Dakota Territory, where she attended school more regularly and worked as a seamstress and teacher before she married homesteader Almanzo James Wilder (1857-1949) in 1885. They had two children: the novelist, journalist and political theorist Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968), and an unnamed son, who died soon after birth in 1889.
In the late 1880s, complications from a life-threatening bout of diphtheria left Almanzo partially paralyzed. While he eventually regained nearly full use of his legs, he needed a cane to walk for the remainder of his life. This setback began a series of disastrous events that included the death of their newborn son and the destruction of their home and barn by fire. On top of that, several years of severe drought left them in debt, physically ill and unable to earn a living from their 320 acres of prairie land.
In about 1890, the Wilders left South Dakota and spent about a year resting at Almanzo's parents' prosperous Minnesota farm, before moving briefly to Florida. The Florida climate was sought to improve Almanzo's health, but Laura, used to living on the dry plains, wilted in the heat and southern humidity. They soon returned to De Smet and purchased a small house in town. Laura and Almanzo took jobs (Almanzo as a day laborer, Laura as a seamstress at a dressmaker's shop) to save enough money to once again start up a farming operation.
In 1894, the hard-pressed young couple moved a final time to Mansfield, Missouri, making a partial down payment on a piece of undeveloped property just outside town that they named Rocky Ridge Farm. What began as about 40 acres of thickly wooded, stone covered hillside with a windowless log cabin, over the next 20 years, evolved into a 200 acre, relatively prosperous, poultry, dairy, and fruit farm. The ramshackle log cabin was eventually replaced with an impressive and unique ten-room farmhouse and outbuildings. While the Wilders were never wealthy until the Little House series of books began to achieve popularity, the farming operation provided a stable living.
During much of the 1920s and 30s, Rose began to help provide her parents welfare. She encouraged her parents to scale back the farming operation, bought them their first automobile and taught them both how to drive. Rose also took over the farmhouse her parents had built and had a beautiful, modern stone cottage built for them. A comfortable and worry-free retirement seemed possible for Laura and Almanzo until the Stock Market Crash of 1929 wiped out the family's investments (Laura and Almanzo still owned the 200 acre farm, but they had invested most of their hard-won savings with Rose's broker).
In 1930, Laura asked her daughter's opinion about a biographical manuscript she had written about her pioneering childhood. The Great Depression, coupled with the recent deaths of her mother and her sister Mary, seem to have prompted her to preserve her memories in a "life story" called "Pioneer Girl." She had also renewed her interest in writing in the hope of generating some income. Little did either of them realize that Laura Ingalls Wilder, 63, was about to embark on an entirely new career: writer of books for children. By the mid-1930s the royalties from the Little House books brought a steady and increasingly substantial income to the Wilders for the first time in their 50 years of marriage. Various honors, huge amounts of fan mail and other accolades were granted to Laura.
In the fall of 1956, Rose found her 89-year-old mother severely ill from diabetes and a weak heart. Several weeks in a hospital seemed to improve the situation somewhat, but on February 10, 1957, three days after her 90th birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder died.
The popularity of the Little House series has grown phenomenally over the years, spawning a multimillion-dollar franchise of mass merchandising, additional spinoff book series and the long-running television show, starring Michael Landon. Laura Ingalls Wilder has been portrayed by Melissa Gilbert, Meredith Monroe and Kyle Chavarria in television series.
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