Saying Goodbye to a LauraLand Legend…Dr. John E. Miller

If you haven’t heard yet, I’m sorry to share that last Friday, 1 May 2020, beloved #LauraIngallsWilder biographer and historian of South Dakota, small midwestern towns, and the social history of these and many related topics, passed away unexpectedly. I’ve debated for almost a week how I wanted to memorialize him. His biography, BECOMING LAURA INGALLS WILDER: The Woman Behind the Legend, is my favorite of the LIW biographies, and his essays on her life and work were insightful, honest, and enriching of the collective wisdom. Losing Dr. Miller means losing a legend of LauraLand, and I’m sure my sense of loss is shared by thousands.

A stack of my copies of books authored by the late Dr. John E. Miller, SDSU Professor Emeritus of History, d. 1 May 2020. Note I have two copies of LIW’s Little Town. Dr. Miller and I met and “talked shop” on numerous occasions, and over the years I asked him to autograph various books. The bottom four in this stack bear his autograph. When he signed the HISTORY OF SOUTH DAKOTA, he asked, “Why did you buy THIS book?” I told him that I wanted a reliable state history for my Meet LIW presentations, and his name on the jacket was all I needed to know that it was going to be a solid choice! I hope that made him happy to hear.
Photo copyright Melanie Stringer/Dakota Yankee Research, 2020.

This was a really nice piece from the Brookings Register (Brookings, South Dakota, where Dr. John Miller lived and worked for most of his life). Oddly, there was no mention of his LIW work.

I had the great good fortune to meet and socialize with him on several occasions over the last decade in my professional work, and he was always a font of information and intriguing stories that piqued my interest in numerous sidelines to my own research. He was a great supporter of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association, and was our featured guest on many occasions at our academic conferences, including last July in Onalaska, Wisconsin. I’m currently the incumbent Co-Chair of the LIWLRA’s Conference, lovingly known as “LauraPalooza,” had planned on inviting Dr. Miller to attend our next (#LP22) conference as a matter of course. As a Public Historian, I feel honored to have had so many opportunities to learn from him both directly and from his numerous publications while simultaneously feeling a terrible loss, both in the niche of Laura Ingalls Wilder study and within the broader topics of South Dakota and midwestern history.

https://brookingsregister.com/…/sd-historian-miller-passes-…

BROOKINGS – On April 30, longtime Brookings resident and South Dakota State University historian John Miller got up early and headed to EdgeBrook Golf Course.

What happens in a typical “Meet Laura” visit?

c. 1895 Summer-weight Visiting Suit, with modified "practical" sleeve on the pigeon-breasted jacket bodice. 7-gored, straight-to-bias skirt sweeps the ground and creates fullness in back without use of hoops nor bustle to create the highly-sought-after "S" shape. Photo by Connie R. Neumann.

c. 1895 Visiting Suit, with modified “practical” sleeve. Photo by Connie R. Neumann, 2012.

What is “First-Person Historical Interpretation?”

Very often, when I meet someone and the subject turns to my primary occupation, I am asked what “First-Person Historical Interpretation” means.  There are many variations in specifics, but, in general, it is the practice of taking a particular historic figure and learning absolutely everything one can about that individual, and then creating a live interpretation of that individual. These interpretations are complete with appropriate wardrobe, grooming, vernacular, and, of course, a thorough knowledge of the details of that person’s life, told from their own perspective.

If you can name any famous figure from the past, you can probably find one, a handful, or even a great many people who have studied that individual’s life and experiences extensively, and who can speak at length with some authority about that person.  As with any other topic, some scholars are more experienced than others.  Some scholars have researched and written volumes of work about their favorite person, while others have a more peripheral knowledge of the individual while retaining a great degree of contextual understanding; that is to say, their knowledge encompasses much of the wider world (region, culture, ethnicity, era, social and economic standing, or education level) in which that individual functioned.  Some scholars can claim both! Some scholars speak from their own research as well as that of others.  Some speak exclusively from their own work, some exclusively from the work of others.  Some always take on the persona of their subject, while others always speak from a third-person perspective.  Some scholars write a script for their presentations, while others work interactively and allow the audience to ask unlimited questions which direct the course of the program. Some toggle between the two approaches as the situation warrants.

Many scholars are rightly described by a combination of these features, having studied others’ work extensively while conducting their own research. Many of these scholars present in character almost exclusively, but adapt the program according to the ages, interest, and needs of their audience…and this is the best way to describe what I do.

So, what can I expect if I invite you to present a “visit” with Laura Ingalls Wilder at my event?

Expect:

~An interactive experience, wherein an adult “Laura” (a.k.a “Mrs. A.J. Wilder”) of the mid-1890s shares her experiences with the audience. This is the era when the Wilders have been married for about a decade, Rose is about 9 years old, and the family have settled on their new property, Rocky Ridge Farm, near Mansfield, Missouri.

~Research-based, factual information about Laura, Almanzo, Rose and their family and friends.

~Clarification of the differences between history and the fictionalized “Little House” series of books and other media interpretations.

~Abundant opportunities to ask ANY question you like of “Mrs. Wilder.”

~In-character answers which reflect Mrs. Wilder’s known activities, tastes, opinions, experiences, beliefs, and manners.

~”Mrs. Wilder” will be dressed in period-correct, authentic reproduction clothing, appropriate to Laura’s taste, means, activities and station in life, about 1895.

~An extensive display of relevant artifacts, including clothing, household items, books, and everyday objects, as well as some special “hands-on” items to investigate further.

Image

This reticule is hand-made of black silk, with a pink silk/cotton blend lining and a 1-3/4″ pink silk edging inside the opening. The drawstrings are black silk petersham (aka “grosgrain”), and the design is a hand-painted wild roses motif. The outer dimensions of the reticule are approximately 9″ wide x 10″ high. I acquired it in Northwood, New Hampshire, in 2009. It is approximately 130 to 140 years old. Photo c. 2009 by Melanie C. Stringer.

What program topics do you offer? Will you customize a program for my group?

I have several topics from which you may choose, and I regularly design new programs to suit the needs of individual venues.  If you have particular goals in your school curriculum, want to explore a topic related to your library or museum programming, or your private organization has a key interest in a particular aspect of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, work, and experience, I can accommodate you.  Here are my three most popular programs:

Meet Laura Ingalls Wilder, LLC/Dakota Yankee Research

Program Descriptions* 

~”A Yankee Woman is a Curiosity”

While “Up-North Gal” Laura may have grown up all over the west, her family is deeply rooted in their Yankee heritage, dating back to the 1620s in Massachusetts!  As a married woman, Laura has lived as far south as the Florida panhandle and only recently moved to the Missouri Ozarks. Learn about the cultural differences and similarities between pioneers of the West, their folks “Back East,” and several places in-between.

~”Look How Far We’ve Come”

As the 19th Century draws to a close, Laura compares her experiences with a woman’s opportunities in the days of her Ingalls and Quiner grandmothers. Laura discusses the many advances women have made in just a few generations. As a mother, Laura observes women rapidly gaining more social freedom and political clout, including members of her own extended family. This prompts her to wonder, “What will the future hold for Rose?”

~”This Wonderful Modern Age”

Did you know that Laura followed the daily news very closely? Ask her about it! The Ingalls and Wilder family were voracious readers, and interested in gaining education throughout their lives. In this visit, Laura will offer a glimpse of the events and questions she finds most pressing in the Gilded Age of 1890s America.

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Playing in the overgrown field on a balmy March morning...showing off the (reproduction) c.1896 Ulster coat, tailored of a navy herringbone pattern wool/cashmere.  Photo copyright Gregory P. Stringer/Dakota Yankee Research, 2013.

Playing in the overgrown field on a balmy March morning…showing off the (reproduction) c.1896 Ulster coat, tailored of a navy herringbone pattern wool/cashmere. Photo copyright Gregory P. Stringer/Dakota Yankee Research, 2013.

Image

Wading in the real Plum Creek of Laura’s childhood, on the former property of Charles Ingalls family. The outfit is a late 1880s calico everyday suit, black print on a brown field. The skirt is a gathered dirndle with ruffled overskirt. Photo by Chrissie H. Velaga, 2010.

What if I want you to do a different kind of Meet Laura program from what you list here?

This is just a partial list of available programs. If you would like a program tailored to your specific curriculum, group, or venue, please inquire.  All requested topics considered. In the past, I have tailored programs for a wide diversity of groups, such as: a group of teachers who wanted Laura to help their 3rd-graders learn about overland migration and wagon travel, an antiquarian booksellers association interested in how I use period books to round out my research and enhance presentations, a community group that wanted to explore the Homestead Act and its impact on current land use, and a private organization which wanted to understand the Ingalls and Wilder connections with the Scottish Rite Free Masons and the Order of the Eastern Star. Don’t be shy–If you can think of a topic, I can relate it to Laura!

Please note:  While every attempt is made to stick to the program topic of your choice, due to the highly interactive nature of the program, many presentations will include elements of all of the above descriptions, as well as other topics, according to the questions asked by audience members.

No matter what topic you choose, or how the audience questions tend, every Meet Laura Ingalls Wilder program offers a Research-Based, First-Person, Interactive History lesson to students and Wilder fans of all ages. All programs feature original research, hands-on artifact displays, period-authentic clothing and much more. Presentations are available year-round, across the United States and Canada.

What if I want something more general in nature?  

I specialize in American Cultural and Social History, with a particular focus on Westward Migration, education, regional culture (especially New England, Upstate New York, and the Midwest), historic childrearing practices, and the occupations and opportunities of women and children in America from Settlement to ~1950.  Additionally, I offer a tutorial of Victorian clothing, including the design, purpose, use and standards of proper dress in the late 1800s, from corset to collar.  (Instruction in corset lacing at no extra charge!)

Tell me what you’d like to learn about, and I will design a program suited to you. I’m always up for a new challenge, and no event is too big, too small, nor too far away! For further information, or to inquire about booking a program, please contact me:

Melanie Stringer, Historian

Meet Laura Ingalls Wilder, LLC / Dakota Yankee Research

603-867-5320

info@meetlauraingallswilder.com

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On the porch of the farmhouse, birthplace of Almanzo Wilder. The outfit is an 1891 visiting suit with high-waisted box-pleated skirt and close-sleeved basque. Photo copyright 2011, Melanie C. Stringer.

Have You Heard About the 2018 Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge? Details…

Beginning 1 February 2018:

Blogger Barbara H. discusses the 2018 #LauraIngallsWilder Reading Challenge and offers title suggestions. I’ve added notes and a handful of more recent publications to the already-daunting list.

Here’s hoping productive discussion ensues:

https://barbarah.wordpress.com/2017/11/22/laura-ingalls-

wilder-reading-challenge-2018-and-book-list/#comment-165541

Racism in the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder

This conversation is one that comes up regularly. As a historian, educator, interpreter, and lifelong scholar of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I have commented on this topic hundreds of times, and will continue to encourage intelligent, fact-based discussion rooted in the real events of United States history. In fact, a few years ago I developed an hour-long presentation entitled “Why Does Ma Hate the Indians?: Responding to Loaded Questions in First-Person Interpretation.” In it, I open discussion on the topic with a focus on how interpreters and other educators can navigate the most difficult aspects of our collective history while remaining true to the facts–not only the facts of the individual being interpreted, but also the context within which that person functioned–while facilitating essential discussion about historic issues which continue to plague our modern society.
I am of the conviction that banning work such as the Little House series of books is counterproductive. I am also of the conviction that changing Wilder’s text would be dishonest to readers and to history. Laura’s not here to make that decision whether or how to change the character as written. Remember, too, that these are novels–works of fiction–and the portrayal of the character Caroline isn’t necessarily a true representation of the real person. However, it is quite likely that many of Laura’s relatives and other people Laura knew held racist beliefs and may have acted in oppressive ways. The mere existence of the Homestead Act is proof that white supremacy was policy, and often rule of law, in the US. Millions of people were complicit, and most of them probably didn’t give it much thought in terms of the disastrous impact it had on Indigenous Americans. 
Furthermore, I am of the conviction that any reader who finds Wilder’s work too upsetting to continue reading (or sharing with others) has every right to put the book down and never look at it again. I’m never going to admonish someone for drawing the line and saying they simply cannot bear to read something that is painful to them. 
But: we who are educators, fans, and interpreters of work such as Wilder’s have an obligation to those we engage with about that work. If we are educators, we particularly owe it to those we serve to have honest, intelligent, and meaningful discourse. We simply MUST acknowledge the racist content, the events and socio-political motivations that underpin the content, and recognize the pervasive damage that resulted from those beliefs and actions in real life. Downplaying or brushing racism under the rug only serves to continue the oppression. 
Ultimately, it’s not our work to alter, and we shouldn’t change what Wilder said no matter how ugly it is. Rather, we should–MUST–be willing to hash it out. 
Believe me, I’m not afraid to say that there is a lot of ugly stuff in certain portions of the books. I discuss it regularly in my public presentations. But I still don’t think the work of any author or artist should be altered by other people. We don’t have to like the character or the narrative. But it isn’t ours to change. 
What IS ours is a duty to learn from the past and work to improve our society with a goal of achieving total equality. So let’s be honest about it, have the dialogue, and work to improve things for the current and future generations.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/realize-classic-books-childhood-racist/

Bustles on an Iron Throne: Victorian Gowns fit for Westeros

Mrs. Wilder can’t afford silk, but, done in a more praxtical fabric, I suspect she would approve most heartily of that bronzy dress’s cut for everyday summmer or informal visits with friends…

The Pragmatic Costumer

Lately I’ve been thinking about stepping outside historical costumes for something a little more free-form and fantasy based. I’m not a huge fan of the Game of Thrones TV show (I lost track of watching it a long time ago), but I am a huge fan of the amazing costumes by Michele Clapton, especially the beautiful gowns embroidered by Michele Carragher! But just because I’ve been drooling over fantasy gowns doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned historical costumes.

One of my favorite sources for historical dress inspiration, Augusta Auctions, is gearing up for their May auction. They always have fabulous fashion items and are so kind to post their upcoming lots with plenty of pictures on their website. I was scrolling through the Upcoming Sale page when I discovered THIS:

Wool Dolman Bustle Coat, circa 1885
The awesome medieval detailing, embroidered Van Dyked  trim, the sweeping fabric…so fabulous!

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Books That Have Influenced Me #3 – Laura Ingalls Wilder

Did you know that Laura published her first magazine column #OTD 18 February 1911? She was 44 years old, and it launched two decades of a journalism career, writing as a columnist and editor at The Missouri Ruralist and The St. Louis Star, as well as publishing articles in numerous national magazines, just as her daughter Rose was doing. Rose was a much more well-known author all the while…and Laura wouldn’t begin writing and publishing her now-iconic series of books until she was what we now consider “retirement age.” Her first novel, LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS, was published in 1932 when #LauraIngallsWilder was 65!

This fan from the UK describes her initiation to the world of Laura, and it seems a fitting tribute:

Laura Ingalls Wilder at 150…

Today, 7 February 2017, is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 150th birthday, and celebrations are happening all year. My love for this iconic, and, at times enigmatic, figure is deep and complex and not something I’m very good at expressing in ways that make sense to most non-LIW fans out there. But my people know. The fans, the scholars, the literary critics, the educators, the historians–oh, especially my fellow historians, YOU get it–these people understand what those who have little if any familiarity with our Flutterbudget do not. And that’s fine.

But today is a big deal. 150 years since Caroline Lake (Quiner) Ingalls brought forth her second child in a tiny cabin in Pepin, Wisconsin. This humble birth began what is now the worldwide phenomenon of Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder, who is the embodiment of that great myth of the person of obscurity, rising from what seems to be the most mundane and ordinary of beginnings, passing a childhood and youth (and, in Laura’s case, much of her adulthood, too) riddled with struggle and misfortune, only to persevere, excel and become wildly successful against the odds. In Laura’s case, she did it as a relatively poor woman with relatively little education and relatively little opportunity all while at a relatively advanced age.

Gives a person a lot to think about.

I’m enjoying seeing how far her reach has influenced others and how many people come up with innovative observations. I dare say I have little in the way of innovation and this tomboy with ten thumbs doesn’t craft, so the best you’ll get from me is a pan of gingerbread with chocolate frosting. Maybe.

Meanwhile, the snarky part of me can’t wait to see how many bloggers and journalists will misattribute tv show dialogue to her wisdom* and, more importantly, how many people are really, REALLY confused by all of this information because they thought the show was documentary** and/or in current production.

In any case, I have LIW to thank for inspiring my adoration of history, research, museums, Dakota roadtrips, ancient cemeteries, abandoned homesteads, antique schoolbooks, and rag dolls with hand-drawn faces. Not to mention corseted karaoke with a diverse selection of like-minded Laurati. So, hats off to Laura!  (And bottoms up, if you’re inclined.) I’d love to hear how you’re celebrating Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Sesquicentennial in your life, whether today, this week, this year, or on whatever timeline suits you!

*I’m looking at you, Anyone Considering the use of “Home is the Nicest Word There Is” in your thinkpiece. Seriously, People. Laura never, ever, said that. Not once. She didn’t write it either. It’s scripted dialogue from tv, written almost two decades after she died. Say it with me: “Laura. Never. Said. That.”

**Trust me. It happens. At least once, at almost every public program I present. 😉

Once more, with feeling: #LauraNeverSaidThat

#IPromise

How NOT to Clean a Tombstone for Photography!

 

With all the advancement in digital photography and the fact that most of us have a great camera in our cell phone, there is no reason anyone who hasn’t been properly trained to touch the stones. Using different contrast settings, trying black and white, or approaching from different angles will all contribute to better results. Take several images and view them on the phone then enlarge them to see how clear the inscription detail is. The camera can “see” many things that our naked eyes can not necessarily distinguish unaided. Sometimes you just need to wait a few minutes for the light to change, or position yourself in such a way that you are casting a shadow on the stone. With a little practice, anyone can get great, legible photos without damaging the stones.

And remember: never enter a historic cemetery when the ground is unstable, such as during snowmelt or spring runoff. Your weight near the stones can disturb the ground and compromise their foundations.

 

Here’s the full entry, reblogged from Dick Eastman:

“Take a look at the picture below. Do you see something wrong with it? Almost every genealogist will cringe when viewing a picture like this one from FindAGrave.com. Someone apparently used a wire b…

Source: How NOT to Clean a Tombstone for Photography!