Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Long Winter
When I lived out west for ten years or so, and it never snowed and summers were brown and winters were rainy, the book I most read and reread when I was homesick was “The Long Winter”. I can’t say it’s my favorite of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, but it is the one whose atmosphere and descriptions most reminded me of home in Minnesota.
You see, we love our lakes and the rich green of summer, but it’s the crisp whiteness of winter, with the sparkle of the snow and bite of the air that really defines my home state for me. Though “The Long Winter” takes place in South Dakota, the winters are not far different. I’ve never had to twist hay to stay warm, nor gone hungry, but I have had to struggle through snow drifts up to my waist while a wind as sharp as a knife cut through me as I carried heated water from the house to the livestock in the barn. And, yes, I loved every minute of it.
But who could have loved The Long Winter? Who could have loved the isolation and endless storms? Who could have loved the snow that measured as much as eleven feet deep and buried houses and towns? Curiously enough, the people who loved it were the ones who lived it. In a history of that winter of 1880-1881, written in 1904, it says, “…it is the almost universal testimony of the pioneers that they have never gotten more real enjoyment out of a winter than they did from the winter of the big blockade.” Reflecting upon that winter, Laura wrote in 1917, “There is something in living close to the great elemental forces of nature that causes people to rise above small annoyances and discomforts.”
It began in October, with a great blizzard, the history by Doane Robinson says of what came to be called The Hard Winter. It was the first winter for many pioneers in this land, as Laura’s own account of the town of De Smet makes clear. “…this first winter of its existence it was isolated form the rest of the world from December 1 until May 10 by the fearful blizzards that piled the snow 40 feet deep on the railroad tracks.” Robinson’s history describes, “Early in January on many lines train service became utterly impracticable. It was before the invention of the rotary snow plow, and the constantly accumulating masses of snow blown back and forth by violent winds filled the cuts to a vast depth. More than eleven feet of snow fell during the season and all of it remained in the country, there being no thawing weather. Hundreds of snow-shovelers were employed by the railways leading to Dakota. They would attack a drifted cut, and shovel the snow out and into great banks upon either side. The winds of that night would possibly fill the enlarged cut to the brim, and another day’s work would simply result in raising the banks higher, making place for deeper drifts. In this way mountains of snow were built up over the tracks in the very places where the greatest effort was made to open them. Even in the open places it was no uncommon thing to find the telegraph wires buried under the snow,” Robinson wrote.
Though they had the disadvantage of not having supplies brought from the East, as many of their pioneer neighbors did, the Ingalls did have the advantage of long acquaintance with winters in nearby regions, including on the Minnesota prairie in Walnut Grove (“On the Banks of Plum Creek”) only 110 miles away from De Smet, South Dakota. They knew how to survive and adapt.
“On the 2nd of February, when it appeared that nature had exhausted all of her resources in supplying material for drifts, a snow storm set in which continued without cessation for nine days. In the towns the streets were filled with solid drifts to the tops of the buildings and tunneling was resorted to to secure passage about town. Farmers found their homes and their barns completely covered and were compelled to tunnel down to reach and feed their stock. Among the homesteaders, “straw barns” were very popular, affording a cheap and comfortable protection for stock and these became hidden under the general level of the snow on the prairies and a favorite method of reaching stock stabled in this way was through a well sunk directly down from above, through which provender was carried in. The supply of fuel and necessities for living were soon exhausted. There were few mills in the country and flour soon was not obtainable, but there was wheat in abundance and it was ground into a sort of graham in coffee mills.
“The farmers burned hay and in the towns the lumber from the yards, small buildings, bridges, fences, particularly the snow fences along the railways, were burned.” All winter long the Ingalls family twisted hay to keep warm. In her memoirs, Laura said, “When the thermometer stands at 25 to 40 below zero and a blizzard wind is raging, it takes a great deal of twisted hay to keep an unfinished shack warm enough to live in.”
“One of the great inconveniences was the lack of oil for lighting. The country was new and the production of lard and tallow only as yet nominal. The kerosene at the stores lasted but a few days after the trains stopped, and many families were compelled for several months to sit in darkness,” said Doane Robinson. Laura described the button light Ma made in “The Long Winter”, adding in her memoirs, “…we did not use the light in the evenings, but kept it for an emergency…”
“In every town the business men organized themselves into relief committees to see that there was an equitable distribution of such supplies as could be secured, and they extended their relief work over all of the adjacent territory so that all were supplied, and, while there was great hardship, there was very little real suffering,” Robinson wrote. All of which fits Laura’s account of those times.
One thing left out of Laura’s book, “The Long Winter”, which she included in her unpublished memoirs was the presence in their house of another couple, George and Maggie Masters. The history by Doane Robinson describes situations like these, “Several families would colonize in one habitation to save fuel.” In the case of the Ingalls, the wife gave birth during that winter. Laura, in her unpublished memoirs, said, “Maggie Masters’ baby was born in her room upstairs with only Ma and Mrs. Garland to help her. There was no doctor to be had.”
George Masters, the husband, considered himself a paying guest and refused to share the work. “Times like these test people, and we were getting to know George Masters,” Laura wrote. “We had not asked him and Maggie to live with us, but they were out of money and had no other place to go, so they stayed on. This was all right and they would have been welcome, but instead of taking hold and helping with good spirit, share and share alike, George gave himself all the airs of a boarder, because he had promised to pay his share of the living expenses when work opened up in the spring… Pa did all the chores while George sat by the fire… George lay snug in his bed until his breakfast was ready. He was always first at the table… he would not deny himself even for Maggie–as we did, because she was nursing the baby.” Clearly, even after all the years, Laura was no fan of George Masters, though “in justice” she did admit he paid them the following year, but didn’t count the value of the Ingalls’ milk, potatoes, hay, and work. And, yes, he was a relative of Genevee Masters, the girl who became part of the much-loathed combination character Nellie Oleson.
Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, used this story of shared habitation during a hard winter, to an extent, in her novel, “The Young Pioneers” (originally published as “Let the Hurricane Roar”).
Though Laura’s story of the Hard Winter ended in the spring with the warming Chinook winds, for the area the melting snow brought catastrophic floods as “the prairies became one vast lake” with destructive flooding to towns and cities as the rivers flooded.
Given the severity of the winter, one would think those who survived it, and those who had thought to settle this land, would have been deterred, but no. “It would seem that the terrible winter and the great disasters following would have had the effect of suspending immigration to Dakota, but no such result followed. Everywhere the prospective settlers were gathered, awaiting the raising of the blockade that they might flock in and, except in the flooded section along the Missouri, the territory was blessed with an abundant harvest.”