The long, hungry winter of Laura Ingalls Wilder

  • Updated: February 8, 2014 - 2:00 PM

Forty degrees below? Storm after storm? Months without respite from the cold? Sounds familiar. But at least you could get to the grocery store.

On a stretch of bitterly cold evenings, I reached for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series, the fictionalized account of her Midwestern youth in the late 1800s.

I had read these nine books so often as a child that the characters felt like family — in fact, I had considered naming my firstborn Laura — but decades passed before I turned their pages again. Now for a week in January, temperatures plunging and snow falling outside my double-insulated windows, I immersed myself in the tales of pioneer life, from the early years of “Little House in the Big Woods” to the marriage of Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder in “The First Four Years.”

What I discovered through adult eyes, long before reaching the last chapter, surprised me. Pa still fiddles, of course, and Ma keeps the girls busy with household chores. But on another level, which I had not seen as a child, food dominates these stories — growing, harvesting and cooking the necessities of life. The “Little House” pages celebrate the family meal, in all its simple pleasures.

When I turned to “The Long Winter,” sixth in the collection and the most thrilling of the “Little House” books, its drama gave me pause. This is a tale of a family near starvation, of a town crippled by lack of food when blizzards keep the supply train from reaching the settlers.

The account, told through the eyes of 13-year-old Laura, takes place in the fall of 1880 and continues through May 1881 in De Smet, S.D., during what turns out to have been one of the worst winters in U.S. history. Meteorologists have verified the accuracy of Wilder’s account of the weather.

The first blizzard blows through unexpectedly in October 1880. Anticipating a bad winter, the Ingalls family moves to De Smet, population 80, from their shanty a mile outside of town.

Blizzard after blizzard follows. The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway, which serviced South Dakota and elsewhere across the Midwest, shuts down its supply trains in January as the snow piles too high for trains to pass through, at one point 12 feet in depth. Townspeople in De Smet carve tunnels to get from one building to the next.

By Christmas, the grocery store no longer has food and the family runs out of coal and kerosene. The Ingalls twist hay into sticks for fuel and switch to axle grease to light their home.

Then they run out of flour. To make bread, they grind wheat with a coffee mill.

More storms. More cold. “Forty degrees below,” Pa says.

The Ingalls switch to two meals a day to save fuel and, presumably, food, though in the upbeat speech Ma gives, it’s because “ … the days are so short that there’s hardly time for three meals.” Sourdough bread keeps them going. So do potatoes.

“There’s only this month, then February is a short month, and March will be spring,” says Pa.

The Ingalls are starving. Pa’s eyes look funny, he’s too thin and not as strong as usual. Wilder describes Laura in terms that clearly reflect the symptoms of malnutrition: feeling cold (though the outdoor temperature was certainly a factor), tired, listless and dull.

Desperation sets in. With wheat running out, Pa demands the seed hidden behind the feed-store wall.

Rumors of a possible cache of wheat on a farmstead 20 miles away prompt Almanzo Wilder and another young man to brave the weather, no Gore-Tex or Under Armour to keep them dry and warm. They return with 60 bushels of grain and face the greed of the shopkeeper, who had paid for the wheat and wants to price-gouge the town.

April brings more snow and yet more despair. “Winter had lasted so long that it seemed it would never really end. It seemed that they [the Ingalls] would never really wake up,” writes Wilder.

Relief arrives in early May with a warm sun and a bounty of food on the supply train. “It will be so good to have enough of everything to cook with again,” says Ma, as she plans to prepare a belated Christmas dinner in May.

“This is quite an extraordinary document that really captures both the town’s experience and her own family’s brush with real disaster,” said Caroline Fraser, editor of the “Little House” edition from Library of America, in an interview.

“The focus on food in the ‘Little House’ books becomes a celebration of what was joyful about their lives in the midst of complete insecurity and what we would term ‘poverty,’ though that’s clearly not how she [Wilder] saw it. She was grateful for whatever they had.”

I am, too, including those double-insulated windows and the grocery store down the block. And for the reminder from Wilder: Don’t take food for granted.

Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste





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  • The Minnesota Historical Society photo above shows the “snow blockade” from March 29, 1881, the winter Laura Ingalls Wilder describes in “The Long Winter.”

  • "The Long Winter" by Laura Ingalls Wilder

  • Snow blockade from March 29, 1881. From the minnesota Historical Society.scan from original on an Epson Expression 10000XL

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