Prairie Fires: Chapter 5

[Prairie Fires Content Note: Racism, Settler Violence, Child Abuse]

Friends, it has been a whole year and now it is time for me to re-read Prairie Fires.

Prairie Fires, Chapter 5

Who is up for another Chapter? Shit is about to start going wrong. Or, wronger. Chapter 5.

When we last left Laura, she'd just married Almanzo and was certain that everything was going to be fine forever. He was the town hero, he came from a rich family, and everything was looking up. What Laura didn't know was that their new house was *heavily* in debt and Almanzo's sweet impulsive nature of spending money on presents for her as soon as he gets any will be a problem of epic proportions.

"By the time she was eighteen, Laura Ingalls had walked away from at least a dozen homes". The house Almanzo built for her was meant to be permanent, their forever-home, and she loved every detail. The first year, everything is basically lovely. Almanzo buys two ponies and teaches Laura to ride. They race every morning before breakfast. "“It was a carefree, happy time[,] for two people thoroughly in sympathy can do pretty much as they like,” she wrote. It was the closest she ever came to saying they were in love."

"In a later manuscript about her early married life, which she never sought to publish, Wilder allowed a tiny cloud into the picture. She was worried about money." Money problems are plaguing all the settlers; banks refuse to lend to farmers at rates that are affordable, considering them bad risk. Without proper equipment like mowing machines, farmers like Almanzo have to hire workers to cut his wheat. His net profit for one year was $40--contrast with the $400 an unskilled laborer in a city could expect.

Almanzo spends extravagantly, but the expenditures at least make sense: more horses to pull a bigger plow, a mowing machine, a hay rake, a large barn to store the hay and livestock. Laura starts sending him with butter and eggs into town to sell, concerned about money, but there's no market for these items when everyone else also has milk cows and chickens. "He was basing his expectations on what he knew of his father’s successful enterprises in New York and Minnesota, anticipating that a well-run farm, after an investment of hard labor and cash outlay on machinery, could begin to yield dividends almost immediately."

"He had good reason to be hopeful: the weather that spring was fine, raining often, and their 100 acres seemed poised to yield 40 bushels to the acre of Number 1 hard wheat. At seventy-five cents a bushel the wheat alone promised to bring in three thousand dollars. At the time, Dakota farmers were on a spending spree, buying train cars full of plows, seeders, and binders—buoyed by record wheat harvests in 1882...a feat made possible by the rush to mechanization."

And, the thing is, they shouldn't have had to buy their own machinery! Mechanization which allows for more harvests and cheaper wheat is a *public good*. We should have just given the farmers whatever they needed! Almanzo made mistakes, no doubt, but I still maintain that the bigger problem was the capitalistic demand that farmers make a profit for some unfathomable reason.

"On one stifling afternoon, the sky darkened. Thunderheads built up, and it began hailing, the lumps of ice so large that Laura compared them to hens’ eggs. In twenty minutes, the hail destroyed the wheat, along with the Wilders’ hopes and plans." That's so tragic. Twenty minutes of bad weather destroying $3,000 worth of crops and ruining them financially.

"Expecting their first child in December, the Wilders now found themselves in financial straits. Notes on the farm machinery were due, and they needed to buy coal for the winter and seed wheat for next year’s crop. It was at this moment that Almanzo revealed to his wife the debt on their new house: an additional five hundred dollars that she had not known about. That was a small fortune to them, worth over thirteen thousand dollars today. Laura was crushed by the news. The fact that her husband had kept this debt from her—he hadn’t wanted to bother her with it, he said—comes up again and again in Wilder’s drafts and letters. It affected her deeply and for many years."

WELL YEAH. 'Surprise, honey, the house you thought was free and clear from debt is actually underwater to the tune of 13,000 of today's dollars' would rankle me too.

They need money. Money is not optional. Without coal, they will die in the winter; without seed, they can't plant crops. The livestock is already mortgaged, so they have to mortgage the land--and rent out the house. That means moving out of the beautiful house that gave Laura so much joy and moving into a little one-room claim shanty, "twelve by sixteen feet, with their kitchen, bedroom, and sitting room furniture arrayed in different corners."

Laura is now heavily pregnant and doing her best to help Almanzo bring in the hay before the baby arrives and she's confined to bed. The birth was difficult and painful. "Laura’s impressionistic account captured hours of listless discomfort, pain, and hazy confusion until the doctor arrived with chloroform or ether."

"That Christmas, as a gift for his family, Almanzo traded a load of hay in town for a carved walnut clock, its glass door “wreathed with a gilt vine” festooned with four gilt birds. Wilder wrote that she “loved it at once” but wondered at the expense." We'll see this again, actually; Almanzo just cannot NOT spend money when he gets his hands on it. He thinks of the spending cash in a very separate category from their huge looming debts. This isn't necessarily a BAD way to handle money--economically, if you're a thousand in debt, then a five dollar purchase isn't going to make or break you, so you might as well go ahead--but it CAN stress your wife out if she handles money differently.

I do think it's interesting that in FARMER BOY, Laura wrote the memorable scene of Almanzo's father teaching him to *not* spend his money on lemonade and instead to invest in a suckling pig because the one is fleeting while the other is an *investment*. I wonder whether that moment really happened, and/or how Almanzo felt about it. Because child!Almanzo is shown learning from that moment and becoming a Prudent Spender, while adult!Almanzo seems likely to buy the lemonade AND the suckling pig.

"The Wilders were barely scraping by. The justice’s docket for Kingsbury County recorded a summons issued to A. J. Wilder on February 8, 1887, the day after his wife’s birthday. He was being sued...for nine dollars owed for goods and merchandise." That's $250 in today's money and Charles was the deputy sheriff at the time. It's unclear whether he had to haul Almanzo in himself, and Laura may never have known about the incident; she never mentioned it. Almanzo paid the balance, plus legal expenses.

At one point, the Wilders take Rose on a ride to the Ingalls in 15-below-zero weather. Ma and Pa chide Laura for not knowing any better than to take an infant out in such weather. "The anecdote reflected the harsh reality of Western settlement. The frontier presented grave hazards to all, but especially to children. The record abounds in tales of what one scholar termed “improvisation,” if not incompetence, in child-rearing. Babies were kept in drawers and shoeboxes, parked on the open door of ovens to keep warm, and imperiled by all manner of accidents as their mothers tried to cope with competing responsibilities. Parents found it nearly impossible “to give children even minimal care,” one historian wrote. “Women worried all the time … nearly frantic because it was so difficult.”"

This is curious to me because historically we think of childcare as a learned skill that girls pick up from their mothers. But we've seen a weird puritan reluctance to even talk about things like pregnancy with children. Each time Ma had a baby, Laura seems not to have been aware of what was going on until *after* the baby showed up--and we saw anecdotes from other settlers testifying to similar ignorance as children. The parents aren't teaching their kids *about* kids. If Laura doesn't know anything about kids, then whose fault is that? Caroline apparently didn't teach her. It wasn't taught in school. Why wasn't it part of school? SEEMS KINDA IMPORTANT.

On another occasion, an infertile couple offers to buy Rose in exchange for the "finest horse from his stable". The husband tries to argue that the young Laura and Almanzo can just make more. Shocked, they decline the offer. Once again, the fact that this offer occurs in conjunction with serious (and known) debts feels ominous--we've seen Almanzo sell good horses for anywhere from $200-$400, which is a not insignificant amount on their debt right now. Laura and Almanzo turn down the offer, but you have to wonder how often these offers occurred and who accepted them. I can well imagine many women were pressured to sell their babies (and many would not even be given a choice).

"But one Sunday in July, when Almanzo went to visit a neighbor, their barn and haystacks caught fire and burned. The blaze was visible all the way from town." I joked yesterday that the only way to get ahead in this system would be to set your neighbor's fields on fire. You have to wonder if anyone did.

"Meanwhile, interest kept accruing on their various outstanding debts: the eight-hundred-dollar mortgage on the homestead, five hundred dollars on the tree claim house, and all the farm machinery bought on credit. Along with many others, the Wilders were beginning to realize that the paradise promised by the railroads might be a mirage—the kind of cruel, shimmering illusion of water where there is no water that recedes endlessly before those stranded in the desert."

"When election time rolled around on November 8, 1887, Charles Ingalls was sworn in as a judge administering the ballot." Only men can vote, of course. The 72 men of De Smet vote on whether to split the Dakota territory into two states (the Republicans want more representation in the Senate) and whether alcohol sales should be allowed (no).

For Christmas of 1887, Charles moves his family off the homestead and back into town. They will never again live on the homestead. Charles has labored for 7 years as a farmer and it's just not working out as a living. He never could make a self-sustaining farm. He always had to supplement his farms with income from a wage-job in order to keep everything afloat.

"For the Wilders, Christmas brought fresh expenditures, with Almanzo purchasing a new hard-coal heater for the claim shanty. Again, Laura wondered at the expense, but said nothing. “That was Manly’s business,” she wrote years later." That must have been so stressful for Laura, watching her husband manage their money in ways which appeared wasteful or incorrect to her.

"Laura had noticed that her husband suffered sharply from the cold. It was a condition worsened by his previous brushes with frostbite, including perhaps on the famous 1881 drive with Cap Garland to find wheat for the snowbound town." I've always hated the expression 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger' when you can absolutely be made weaker by things and this is a great example. Would Almanzo have been less pained by the cold if he hadn't had to go on the Long Winter excursion? Who knows. But we can definitely say that the trip shouldn't have been necessary. There ought to have been enough food in town that no one would starve over the winter.

Laura turns 21 and falls ill with diphtheria. "In the nineteenth century, before effective antibiotics were discovered and a vaccine developed for diphtheria, up to half of those infected died." They send Rose to town to live with Laura's parents rather than risk her coming down sick. Almanzo tended to Laura until he fell ill, then Royal tended to them both until HE fell ill. Somehow they all got better.

"Their lives appeared to be returning to normal. Then, one cold morning, Almanzo stumbled getting out of bed. ... The diagnosis was “‘a slight stroke of paralysis’ … from overexertion too soon after the diphtheria.”" Almanzo's hands and feet are seriously affected; he can barely walk on some days and struggles to hitch up his horses. Laura was raised in a profoundly ableist environment and doesn't take any of this well, treating the stroke as Almanzo's "fault" for over-exerting himself. I keep mentioning this, but it probably saves their lives by ruling out farming as a viable occupation.

They now face a crisis of finances. All their debts are coming due, plus a substantial doctor bill, and now Almanzo can't work the land. They manage to find someone who will "buy" the homestead for $200 plus assuming the debt on the property. That was probably a massive bullet dodged there; it would be interesting to know if the buyer ever managed to make the farm profitable in the long-term.

Living on the tree claim (a separate property from the homestead) in the little shanty, Laura and Almanzo look forward to a wheat harvest that will settle some of their debts. "Once again, as it had year after year since the Wilders’ marriage, the harvest failed....Just as they were getting ready to harvest, hot winds blew for days, desiccating the wheat. They were forced to mow it for feed, along with the hay." I can't even imagine what an emotional blow that had to be. To spend so much time and labor on that damn wheat, year after year, only to always have it fail right before harvest.

"No one, least of all the Wilders, knew that six Biblically lean years were about to come upon them, with devastating consequences not only for the Dakotas but for everyone in the region of the 100th meridian." While seeding their fields in April, a dust-storm kicks up and whips away all the seed such that they have to re-buy new seed. "They had so little money that they were buying food on credit, at 2 percent interest, a source of shame to Laura."

The drought that year kills everything. "By the time the windstorm blew itself out, the ten acres of trees Almanzo had planted were dead. So were the wheat and oats, barely worth mowing for feed. It was a major setback: it had been nearly ten years since Almanzo had filed on the tree claim, and those acres of trees were required for him to prove up on it. The only other way to retain the land...was to buy it outright, by filing on it as a preemption claim."

[TW: Child Death] Laura has a second baby--10 pounds and a very difficult delivery and hard recovery. He lives a month before dying of unknown causes. The event is incredibly painful for Laura and Almanzo.

"Then, another disaster. On the afternoon of August 23, two weeks after the death of her son, Laura was building a fire in the kitchen stove, preparing to make supper. She was burning dried slough hay for fuel; Almanzo had left an armful near the stove...Waiting for the stove to heat, Laura went into the other room, closing the door behind her. Minutes later, when she opened it again, the kitchen was engulfed in flames—the ceiling, the wall, the floor." There's no way whatsoever to put out the fire, so she grabs Rose and the deed box and runs.

"Running to help, their neighbor Ole Sheldon, climbed in through a window and was able to throw out a few of their belongings: some clothes, silverware, and part of their set of Christmas dishes, including the oval glass bread plate with the inscription on the rim. Rose, nearly three, witnessed it all—the fire, her mother’s screams and burns, the loss of everything." It wasn't her fault--she doesn't seem to have been involved at all--but she would later claim that it was and blame herself.

Emotionally, Laura is broken by the loss of her son and by the fire. By November, the Wilders have decided to "sell up and go to Spring Valley, Minnesota, where they would stay with Almanzo’s parents...For the next few years, the Wilders would be landless, if not homeless. They were not the only ones." The drought of 1889 has left the entire territory facing starvation. "South Dakota’s new constitution forbade the appropriation of public money to provide relief." Jesus Christ, that is terrifying and awful and why.

"The drought was in large part created by the settlers themselves. The Dakota Boom had upended an ecosystem, with dramatic and near-immediate results. After the rapid removal of bison and the interruption of a fire regime eons in the making, more than two and a half million acres of native grasses had been abruptly cleared and plowed within a decade. This stripped out organic matter available to crops, and had profound effects on temperature and climate." In other words, rain doesn't follow the plow but drought does. "The settlers who flooded into the Great Plains in the 1870s tore away protective grasses and their roots, exposing bare soil to intense heat, evaporation, and drying winds. Wheat is a thirsty crop, and every wheat seed they sowed contributed to the desiccation."

Living with the Wilders is mildly marred by the presence of Eliza Jane, who is an anti-populist activist and annoying. "In the De Smet Leader, [Eliza Jane] presented herself as an expert on high tariffs, tight money, and bonds. She expressed devotion to her “brother farmers of Dakota” while suggesting that a few artesian wells might do more to aid “the brave pioneers of Kingsbury than all the stuff and nonsense about farm reform,” a reference to populist agitation for measures to ease lending and support cooperative irrigation schemes. She never mentioned her actual brothers, whose Dakota farming experience exceeded her own." Given that Rose Wilder will grow up to style herself an expert on things she knows nothing about, and expound against cooperative societies, one wonders if Eliza Jane had any influence on her--because there are strong parallels here.

The young men of the family are... planning to... sail a sailboat down to Florida. Oh no. "Railroads had finally penetrated the dense yellow pine forests...and promotional brochures, posters, and handbills were doing all they could to whip up appetites for the balmy climate and supposedly rich soils of this “poor man’s paradise,” said to be ideal for year-round fruit orchards, pecans, and tomatoes. “THESE LANDS ARE NOT ALL SAND AND BARREN,” exclaimed one such brochure, with all the typographical force it could muster." WHY WAS THIS ALLOWED TO KEEP HAPPENING.

"At some point that year, after briefly considering emigration to New Zealand—perhaps due to their brief success in raising sheep—Almanzo and Laura Wilder decided to join the adventurous sailors. They, too, would move to Florida." So, to recap: The railroads build tracks to a place, publish a bunch of misleading bullshit to encourage white people to emigrate there in order to support the railroad, and everyone dies.


When we last left Laura and Almanzo, they were staying with his parents (and Eliza Jane, awkwaaaaard) and planning to move to Florida where the railroads are whipping up a new land rush. They host an auction to sell horses and "other things", probably continuing to settle old debts. They sell off the last bit of land they'd owned in South Dakota for $200, noting an existing $430 mortgage on the property. "The move was intended to restore Almanzo’s health. In later years, he said he had been “ordered south” by doctors, his constitution nearly ruined by the prairies—reflecting the prevailing medical view that certain climates were injurious, others beneficial." suspects that none of these doctors lived in Florida.

"Railroad boosters for the P. & A. were relentlessly touting the climate not just as ideal for farming but as a panacea for all manner of diseases. Facts About Florida, an eighty-four-page advertorial William D. Chipley—...founder of the railroad line—scoffed at the “dry atmospheres” and drought of the Dakotas, promising cool nights and summer temperatures that were never oppressive. Immigrants were assured that yellow fever never penetrated the region, which was “secure from death-dealing diphtheria and typhoids.” Benighted souls from the north, accustomed to “hovering over great fires or shivering in great wraps,” were promised health “in every breath.” ...Invalids could expect “perfect transformation.”"

"It was nonsense, of course. Malaria occurred in every county in Florida, and the Panhandle had suffered yellow fever outbreaks throughout the 1800s. Recent major epidemics, in 1874 and 1882, left nearly fifteen hundred dead." It should have been illegal to print that propaganda. The Wilders may not have had access to the real information. I don't know whether those outbreaks were being recorded in national news. We talk a lot about "fake news" and it's a real problem in our modern discourse, but this is bringing home to me the realization that it's not a *recent* problem. The railroads were allowed to just straight-up lie in order to drum up business.

This time the Wilders actually *visit* the place rather than buy sight-unseen, which suggests that Laura learned a few lessons from Charles Ingalls' mistakes. Laura never writes about their Florida trip outside of a few meager words, so we're left with Rose's account which is highly questionable and melodramatically gothic. However, apparently Laura and Almanzo were horrified by the "poor white trash" community that Peter Ingalls married into, and Laura found the Florida heat and sun oppressive.

That "poor white trash" quote is from Almanzo (to Rose) rather than from Laura and I find it interesting. Laura has, after all, been poor her entire life. And the introduction reminds us that her books taught children to be "poor without shame". But Laura's book espouse a very particularly kind of virtuous poverty: one where the family is constantly working to adhere to middle class notions of cleanliness, virtue, and income-gathering. Peter Ingalls' Scottish wife and her relatives presumably didn't fit this WASPy picture that Laura demanded. And I come back to that "poor without shame" quote again from the introduction.

Laura certainly wanted poor children to not be ashamed, but at the same time that's a far cry from what we mean by "shameless". I think she would find the "shameless poor" to be very offensive indeed. Being poor without shame meant pretending to be what we would now call "temporarily without wealth", but in anticipation of that changing. Being shamelessly poor would mean accepting that poverty is a likely constant state and finding other priorities than money.

"The Wilders never filed for a homestead in Florida. They stayed less than a year and gave up, taking the train back north. ...1892 was the thirtieth anniversary of the Homestead Act. ...The Brown County Historical Society in New Ulm displays photographs of “Century Farms,” each successfully cultivated by a single family for a hundred years or more. Such prosperous farms sprang from the loins of large immigrant families with many sons. Socialism also helped: many century farms improved their chances through cooperative ventures—creameries, grain elevators, and warehouses—in open acknowledgment of the fact that farmers simply could not go it alone."

Basically, the farms which stood the best chances of succeeding were ones that didn't have single points of failure -- if Brother or Pa gets sick or stops being able to plow, there's other workers capable of picking up the slack. Laura's families never had that kind of security. Charles was the only man of the family, then Almanzo. Caroline and Laura were the only adult women in their households. Likewise, they couldn't spread their purchases out over a large area to lessen the impact. Charles had to go into debt for a mower, then Almanzo had to go into debt for HIS mower. There wasn't a paradigm for sharing the cost.

"Overall, less than half of homesteaders succeeded. ...There were other problems, too. Speculation and fraud undermined homesteading from its inception. Bundlers took advantage of the ability to buy claims after half a year for the bargain price of $1.25 an acre, instead of arduously proving up the land. If they hadn’t realized it before, farmers were increasingly aware the system was rigged to favor railroads, middlemen, and large operations such as the bonanza farms of the Red River Valley, which could afford to stockpile grain and wait for the market to turn."

"By the time of the convention, Charles Ingalls’s struggles with farming were over. In February 1892, he had sold the De Smet homestead for $1,200 and moved his family to town. ...after the mortgage was subtracted from the total, he was left with $400. In town he opened a store—“C. P. Ingalls & Co.”—taking over the stock and business of Royal Wilder, who moved back to Spring Valley." Once again we see that even Charles tiny successes come about because of his relatives. I mean, it doesn't *say* that the stock was sold to him cheap because he was related by marriage to Royal, but I'm guessing it probably was.

Laura and Almanzo move back to De Smet and buy a little house in town close to her parents. "Rose recalled that they lived there in an empty house, furnished only with a cookstove, kitchen table, and chairs; the rest of their furniture was chattel-mortgaged. They slept on pallets on the floor. Laura was determinedly cheerful, saying they were “camping” and “wasn’t it fun?” Her daughter was not fooled: “I knew she wanted me to say yes, so I did.”"

I wonder how much Rose's resentfulness towards her parents poverty stemmed from having lived in some comfort with the elder Wilders for many of her earliest memories. As a child, Laura herself *only* knew poverty and small houses and covered wagons and bare floors, so she accepted it as normal and not unusual. Rose probably experienced it as a "downfall" from what she may have internalized as "normal" with her grandparents.

"Laura sewed for a dressmaker six days a week, from six in the morning until six at night, making buttonholes for a dollar a day. Almanzo picked up odd jobs.... For one glorious five-week stretch he served on jury duty, earning two dollars a day." Charles becomes the Master Mason at the local Eastern Star Masonic lodge and Caroline and Laura join with him. "For the next two years, from August 1892 until the summer of 1894, the Wilders were only staying, not living, in De Smet. They were too poor to get away."


When we last left off, Laura and Almanzo were working wage jobs in De Smet and sleeping on the floor of their tiny house.

On the subject of man-made climate change: "mass land clearing and wheat farming had led to significant drying, exhausting the soils and throwing fragile ecosystems out of whack." This is sad to me because it's another thing that scientists knew and told people about and they just decided to believe otherwise and yell "RAIN FOLLOWS THE PLOW" in spite of actual science showing otherwise. "The world had shifted so rapidly from subsistence agriculture to a market economy that price fluctuations sent ripples throughout the system, destabilizing entire regions."

"On the Great Plains, the curtain was rising on what would culminate in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. People left in droves, cutting the population in some counties by half." There's some side stuff about L. Frank Baum, author of Wizard of Oz, and you should know (if you don't already) that he was a genocidal frothing racist who demanded the slaughter of all remaining Native Americans. Gross guy. "Americans wanted to believe that grit, spunk, and the strength of their own ax-wielding arms had raised a democracy in the wilderness."

Back to Laura, she and Almanzo are saving money for a new land grab: Missouri. "The railroad would mail free to anyone who wanted them maps, timetables, and an eight-page illustrated monthly newsletter, the “Missouri and Kansas Farmer.” There was also an enticing notice for a lavishly illustrated fifty-three-page book, likewise mailed free: “AMONG THE OZARKS: The Land of Big Red Apples.” ...the Wilders perused its mouthwatering paeans to the apricots, pears, plums, cherries, peaches, raspberries, apples, and grapes waiting to spring out of admittedly rocky soil. Rest assured, the railroad promised, this soil was enriched with “crystalized limestone,” ...The land was said to have Biblical properties: “On or about this very spot must have been located the garden of Eden.” As with Florida, health claims were prominent, if vague: “The climate is as near perfect for health as can be.”"

The Wilders sell their house, pack up a covered wagon, and ready themselves for the 670 mile journey. For Laura, this was a bittersweet parting from her parents; the Wilders don't plan to return, and their leaving feels like failure rather than excitement. They need to go somewhere where the land is "easy" since Almanzo can't work the "hard" Dakota land. Rose would never see her grandparents again, and Laura would only see them years later. The chapter ends there.


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