Famous New Yorker: Almanzo James Wilder

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Almanzo circa 1890 Photo obtained from Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum

It’s often said that behind a great man stands a great woman. In the history of American literature, behind two great women writers stood Almanzo Wilder, a real-life pioneer who became part of American folklore.

Almanzo Wilder was born to a farm family in Burke, Franklin County, on February 13, 1857. In 1875 the Wilders went west, settling in Spring Valley, Minnesota. Four years later, Almanzo moved to the Dakota Territory, near the town of De Smet, where he claimed land under the federal Homestead Act. To encourage agricultural and economic growth, the Homestead Act offered free land to pioneers. Each homesteader received 160 acres of land on the understanding that he or she would farm the land, build a home and live there for at least five years.

In De Smet, Almanzo met Laura Ingalls, whose family had moved there from Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Laura had become a schoolteacher while still attending high school, and Almanzo regularly drove her from De Smet to the distant one-room schoolhouse. In 1885, after fulfilling his homestead requirements, Almanzo proposed to Laura. They were married on August 25, 1885 and had their first child, Rose, in 1886.

The Homestead Act provided free land to pioneers, but maintaining the land meant a lot of expense and hard work, with no guarantee of success. After earning his deed on the original homestead, Almanzo had filed a “tree claim” under an 1873 law that allowed him another 160 acres if he used them to grow trees. But between 1885 and 1890 the Wilders suffered fires, bad weather, the death of a two-week old son, and an illness that left Almanzo unable to perform heavy labor for years. Circumstances forced Almanzo to sell his homestead, relinquish his tree claim, and take his family to his parents’ farm in Spring Valley. They moved briefly to Florida, then returned to De Smet, where Almanzo worked as a carpenter and day laborer as his strength returned. After four unsettled years the family bought a farm near Mansfield, Missouri. At “Rocky Ridge Farm” Almanzo and Laura grew apples and raised horses, chickens, cows and goats. Lessons learned from past failures finally led to economic security.

Laura Ingalls Wilder supplemented the farm income by working in a loan office and writing a newspaper column. Her daughter grew up to become a successful journalist and best-selling author under her married name, Rose Wilder Lane. Rose’s earnings often supported her parents during tough times. Mother and daughter became literary collaborators when Rose edited Laura’s stories about her early life. Little House in the Big Woods was published as a fact-based children’s novel in 1931. Its success inspired a popular series of “Little House” books for young readers, including Farmer Boy, Laura’s account of Almanzo’s life in Malone.

Millions of readers came to know Almanzo Wilder through the “Little House” books. Almanzo himself lived long enough to meet fans of the Little House books who visited Rocky Ridge Farm. He died on October 23, 1949, but he lives on in the imagination of readers and fans of the Little House on the Prairie TV series as a model American pioneer.