Just How Cold Was It? 

17 February 1936: The coldest temperature recorded in South Dakota history. 58 degrees BELOW ZERO, at McIntosh, SD.
Author Laura Ingalls Wilder would, a few years later, immortalize a different weather system, known as the Hard Winter of 1880-1881, in her book, THE LONG WINTER. In that book and others, Dakota winters were described as experiencing temperatures in the -30s or -40s (Farenheit); sometimes, she said, the thermometer would simply freeze and no longer work at all.
In this age of central heating, snow tires, fiberglass insultion, Polartec  cold-weather gear, and satellite weather forecasting, extreme temperatures of that nature will still make us shudder. Imagine facing an air temperature of -58F  without our modern comforts, and compounded with the reality of food and fuel being in very short, often sporadic, supply. I’m willing to bet even the bison (what few remained on the High Plains at the time) felt their dense wooly coats weren’t quite adequate.

By the time of this 1936 event, Wilder had long since moved out of the state, but her sister Carrie (Ingalls) Swanzey was living 242 miles to the SW of McIntosh, in the somewhat milder Black Hills region at Keystone, South Dakota. I hear from the folks at the Keystone Historical Society that winter in the shadow of Mt. Rushmore is certainly snowy, and at times blustery, but nothing compared to the legendary whiteout blizzards of the Hard Winter. Perhaps someday this New Hampshire native (who’s shoveled a fair amount of snow and chipped countless inches of ice off her driveway over the years) will brave a little jaunt to Dakota in one of the months that ends in -uary. Maybe.

Stay warm!

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130 Years Ago Today: Almanzo Wilder’s Homestead Proof, 12 September 1884.

Here’s a little something pleasant for your perusal this fine, but chilly, September morning:

Almanzo James Wilder’s Homestead Proof, testimony dated exactly 130 years ago, 12 September 1884.

A.J. Sheldon, a nearby neighbor, sets his hand to testify on “our” A.J. Wilder’s behalf that, indeed, he is qualified, being a citizen of the U.S., over the age of 21, who has never made a previous homestead entry (at least, not to conclusion) and kept continuous residence on this section of land (NE 21-111-56), with a dwelling:

“about 12 ft. square, 2 doors, 3 windows. Stable. frame. Well of water. cellar. acres broken & cultivated. some trees. Value at least $300.00.”

You see, early this morning, I received a Google alert from New Zealand, which looked like this: http://foreignaffairs.co.nz/2014/09/12/homestead-testimony-of-almanzo-wilder/

Unfortunately, the link didn’t want to load all the images, so while the description was intact, the actual document was not in view.

But, with a little hunting and pecking, the National Archives record (National Archives Identifier: 595419) came up rather quickly, because I know you want to SEE it…with the original handwriting, syntax, capitalization, punctuation, and signatures intact…

http://research.archives.gov/description/595419

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Let’s note a few details, shall we?

Since the Homestead Act of 1862 required that the claimant remain in continuous residence for six months out of each year for five years, Sheldon’s purpose as witness to Wilder’s claim was to testify that Wilder had indeed fulfilled the various stipulations of the Act, prior to receiving his patent (deed) to the land. It was also required that the land be “improved,” i.e. cultivated, and that no evidence of precious minerals, oil, or the like, was present. The witness had to be someone living nearby to the claimant, so as to be a reliable authority on the claimant’s, er, claims. That witness also needed to swear his own statements were true, and that he did not hold a personal stake in the claimant’s success. Like Wilder, Sheldon also was a farmer, and one whose statements appear to be articulate as well as thoughtful. A reliable fellow for the task at hand, Sheldon supported all of the necessary requirements for Wilder. To wit:

Sheldon lists his own address as SW 10-111-56 (that is, SW quarter of Section 10, Township 111, Range 56), putting him within an easy distance of Wilder’s homestead. He states he is “well acquainted with Almanzo J Wilder, the claimant…“for about 5 yrs. he had taken his land at Yankton about 3 weeks before I met him.” 

He further attests Wilder “was temporarily absent at times working on the R.R. and visiting in Minn. not more than about 2 months at a time.”  

and:

“crops on (in?) past 4 years. breaking 5 yrs. acre(s) cultivated. about 20 acres of wheat this year. 1884.”

The best part?  Sheldon’s answer to the following:

“Question 10. Are you interested in this claim, and do you think the settler has acted in entire good faith in perfecting this entry?”  

“no. nor am I in any way related to claimant. think he has acted in good faith. AJ Sheldon”

A good neighbor. I’m sure Almanzo was relieved to get that little detail squared away. Because our man had some serious courting to get to! And, while we know that Miss Laura E. Ingalls would soon become Mrs. A.J. Wilder (“Bessie” as our man of the hour called her), I bet fellow researcher Nancy Cleaveland* could tell us all about helpful Mr. A. J. Sheldon’s own property, his place and family of origin, his own homestead, and what he did with the rest of his life. Probably, she has a photo of him somewhere, I reckon. Except, “I wouldn’t bet on a woman.” Wouldn’t be proper.

Finally, while that little house and its builder are both long gone, Kingsbury County still holds a great deal of charm for the visitor who revels in a hot Dakota summer. Here’s what the property looked like just a couple of years ago on a stunning Sunday afternoon:

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Nice warm thought on a not-so-warm morning. You’re welcome.

_____

*She’s reliably the most likely person to have researched him, simply because no one, and I mean no one, has spent more time squirreling out the nitty-gritty details of every soul who once settled in Kingsbury County. I say that with the utmost respect. NC is my research hero. And a generous friend, to boot.

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.

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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.

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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.