Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born February 7, 1867, near the village of Pepin, in the "Big Woods" of Wisconsin, to Charles Phillip Ingalls and Caroline Lake (Quiner) Ingalls. She was the second of five children; her siblings were Mary Amelia, who went blind; Caroline Celestia, Charles Frederick, who died in infancy, and Grace Pearl. Her birth site is commemorated by a period log cabin, the Little House Wayside. Her life here formed the basis for the book Little House in the Big Woods.
In Laura's early childhood, her father settled on land not yet open for homesteading in what was then Indian Territory near Independence, Kansas--an experience that formed the basis of Ingalls' novel Little House on the Prairie. Within a few years, her father's restless spirit led them on various moves to a preemption claim in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, living with relatives near South Troy, Minnesota, and helping to run a hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa. After a move from Burr Oak back to Walnut Grove, where Charles Ingalls served as the town butcher and Justice of the Peace, Charles accepted a railroad job in the spring of 1879 which led him to eastern Dakota Territory, where he was joined by the family in the fall of 1879. Over the winter of 1879-1880, Charles landed a homestead, and called DeSmet, South Dakota, home for the rest of his, Caroline, and Mary's lives. After spending the mild winter of 1879–1880 in the Surveyor's House, the Ingalls family watched the town of DeSmet rise up from the prairie in 1880. The following winter, 1880–1881, one of the most severe on record in the Dakotas, was later described by Wilder in her book, The Long Winter. Once the family was settled in DeSmet, Wilder attended school, worked several part-time jobs and made many friends, most importantly the bachelor homesteader Almanzo Wilder (1857–1949), whom she later married, despite his being 10 years older than her. This time in her life is well documented in the book The First Four Years.
Shortly before her sixteenth birthday, she accepted her first teaching position, teaching three terms in one-room schools, when not attending school herself in DeSmet. She later admitted that she did not particularly enjoy teaching, but felt the responsibility from a young age to help her family financially, and wage earning opportunities for females were limited. Between 1883 and 1885, she taught three terms of school, worked for the local dressmaker and attended high school, although she did not graduate. Her teaching career and her own studies ended when she married Almanzo Wilder, whom she called Manly, on August 25, 1885, when she was eighteen and he was twenty-eight. Almanzo Wilder had achieved a degree of prosperity on his homestead claim, owing to favorable weather in the early 1880s, and the couple's prospects seemed bright. She joined Almanzo in a new home on his claim north of De Smet and agreed to help him make the claim succeed. On December 5, 1886, she gave birth to Rose Wilder (1886–1968) and later, an unnamed son, who died shortly after birth in 1889.
The first few years of marriage held many trials. Complications from a life-threatening bout of diphtheria left Almanzo partially paralyzed. While he eventually regained nearly full use of his legs, he needed a cane to walk for the remainder of his life. This setback, among many others, began a series of disastrous events that included the death of their unnamed newborn son, the destruction of their home and barn by fire, and several years of severe drought that left them in debt, physically ill, and unable to earn a living from their 320 acres (1.3 km2) of prairie land. The tales of their trials at farming can be found in The First Four Years, a manuscript that was discovered after Rose Wilder Lane's death. Published in 1971, it detailed the hard-fought first four years of marriage on the Dakota prairies. Around 1890, the Wilders left DeSmet and spent about a year resting at Wilder's parents' prosperous Spring Valley (Minnesota) farm before moving briefly to Westville, Florida. They sought Florida's climate to improve Wilder's health, but being used to living on the dry plains, they wilted in the heat and Southern humidity, and felt out of place among the backwoods locals. In 1892, they returned to DeSmet and bought a small house (although later accounts by Lane mistakenly indicated it was rented). The Wilders received special permission to start their precocious daughter in school early and took jobs (Almanzo as a day laborer, Laura as a seamstress at a dressmaker's shop) to save enough money to once again start a farm.
In 1894, the hard-pressed young couple moved a final time to Mansfield, Missouri, using their savings to make a down payment on a piece of undeveloped property just outside of town. They named the place Rocky Ridge Farm. What began as about 40 acres (0.2 km2) of thickly wooded, stone-covered hillside with a windowless log cabin, over the next 20 years evolved into a 200-acre (0.8 km2), relatively prosperous poultry, dairy, and fruit farm. The ramshackle log cabin was eventually replaced with an impressive 10-room farmhouse and outbuildings. The couple's climb to financial security was a slow process. Initially, the only income the farm produced was from wagonloads of firewood Almanzo sold for 50 cents in town, the result of the backbreaking work of clearing the trees and stones from land that slowly evolved into fertile fields and pastures. The apple trees did not begin to bear fruit for seven years. Barely able to eke out more than a subsistence living on the new farm, the Wilders decided to move into nearby Mansfield in the late 1890s and rent a small house. Almanzo found work as an oil salesman and general delivery man, while Laura took in boarders and served meals to local railroad workers.
Wilder's parents visited around this time, and presented to the couple, as a gift, the deed to the house they had been renting in Mansfield. This was the economic jump start they needed; they added acerage to the original purchase, eventually owning nearly 200 acres. Around 1910, they sold their house in town and using the proceeds from the sale, were able to move back to the farm permanently, and to complete Rocky Ridge Farmhouse.
By 1910, Rocky Ridge Farm was established to the point where the Wilders returned there to focus their efforts on increasing the farm's productivity and output. The impressive 10-room farmhouse completed in 1912 stands as a testament to their labors and determination to carve a comfortable and attractive home from the land.
Having learned a hard lesson from focusing solely on wheat farming in South Dakota, the Wilders' Rocky Ridge Farm became a diversified poultry and dairy farm, with an abundant apple orchard. Wilder, always active in various clubs and an advocate for several regional farm associations, was recognized as an authority in poultry farming and rural living, which led to invitations to talk to groups around the region.
Following her daughter Rose Wilder Lane's developing writing career also inspired Wilder to do some writing of her own. An invitation to submit an article to the Missouri Ruralist in 1911 led to a permanent position as a columnist and editor with that publication — a position she held until the mid-1920s. She also took a paid position with a Farm Loan Association, dispensing small loans to local farmers from her office in the farmhouse.
Her column in the Ruralist, "As a Farm Woman Thinks," introduced Mrs. A.J. Wilder to a loyal audience of rural Ozarkians, who enjoyed her regular columns, whose topics ranged from home and family to World War I and other world events, to the fascinating world travels of her daughter and her own thoughts on the increasing options offered to women during this era.
While the Wilders were never wealthy until the "Little House" series of books began to achieve popularity, the farming operation and Wilder's income from writing and the Farm Loan Association provided a stable enough living for the Wilders to finally place themselves in Anderson, Missouri middle-class society.
Wilder's fellow clubwomen were mostly the wives of business owners, doctors and lawyers, and her club activities took up much of the time that Lane encouraged her to develop a writing career for national magazines, as Lane had done. Wilder seemed unable or unwilling to make the leap from writing for the Missouri Ruralist to these higher-paying national markets. The few articles she was able to sell to national magazines were heavily edited by her daughter and placed solely through Lane's established publishing connections.
For much of the 1920s and 1930s, between long stints living abroad (including in her beloved adopted country of Albania), Lane lived with the Wilders at Rocky Ridge Farm. As her free-lance writing career flourished, she successfully invested in the booming stock market.
Her newfound financial freedom led her to increasingly assume responsibility for her aging parents' support, as well as providing for the college educations of several young people she "adopted," both in Albania and Mansfield. Lane also took over the farmhouse her parents had built and had a beautiful, modern stone cottage constructed for them as a gift. However, when Lane left the farm for good a few years later, the Wilders, homesick for the house they had built with their own hands, moved back to it, and finished their lives there. By the late 1920s, they had scaled back the farming operation considerably and Wilder had resigned from her positions with the Missouri Ruralist and the Farm Loan Association. Hired help was installed in the caretaker's house Lane had built on the property, to take care of the remaining farm work that Almanzo, now in his 70s, could no longer easily manage.
A comfortable and worry-free retirement seemed possible for the Wilders until the Stock Market Crash of 1929 wiped out the family's investments. The couple still owned the 200 acres (0.8 km2) farm, but they had invested most of their hard-won savings with Lane's broker. Lane was faced with the grim prospect of selling enough of her writing in a depressed market to maintain the financial responsibilities she had assumed, and the Wilders became dependent on her as their primary source of support.
In 1930, Wilder asked her daughter's opinion about a biographical manuscript she had written about her pioneering childhood. The Great Depression, coupled with the death of her mother in 1924 and her sister Mary in 1928, seem to have prompted her to preserve her memories in a "life story" called Pioneer Girl. She had also renewed her interest in writing in the hope of generating some income. The first idea for the title of the first of the books was When Grandma was a Little Girl (later Little House in the Big Woods). After its success, Laura continued writing, given mental support and help in the form of her sister, Carrie, sharing her own memories.
Almanzo died in 1949, aged 92. Laura died on February 10, 1957, three days after her 90th birthday. Both died at Rocky Ridge Farm at Mansfield, Missouri.
Controversy surrounds Lane's exact role in what became her mother's famous "Little House" series of books. Some argue that Laura was an "untutored genius," relying on her daughter mainly for some early encouragement and her connections with publishers and literary agents. Others contend that Lane took each of her mother's unpolished rough drafts in hand and completely (and silently) transformed them into the series of books we know today. The truth most likely lies somewhere between these two positions — Wilder's writing career as a rural journalist and credible essayist began more than two decades before the "Little House" series, and Lane's formidable skills as an editor and ghostwriter are well-documented. But Lane's New York literary agent, George T. Bye, turned away the initial drafts, commenting that they lacked drama.
The existing evidence (including ongoing correspondence between the women concerning the development of the series, Lane's extensive personal diaries and Wilder's first person draft manuscripts) tends to reveal an ongoing joint collaboration. The conclusion can be drawn that Wilder's strengths as a compelling storyteller and Lane's considerable skills in dramatic pacing and literary structure contributed to an occasionally tense, but fruitful, collaboration between two talented and headstrong women.
Whatever the extent of the collaboration, it seems to have worked both ways: two of Lane's most successful novels, Let the Hurricane Roar (1932) and Free Land (1938), were written at the same time as the "Little House" series and basically re-told Ingalls and Wilder family tales in an adult format. The collaboration also brought the two writers at Rocky Ridge Farm the money they needed to recoup the loss of their investments in the stock market. Simply stated: If Wilder had not written the books, they would not exist — Lane had no interest in writing what she called "juveniles" — but had Lane not edited the books, they might well have never been accepted for publication let alone become famous. Since the initial publication of "Little House in the Big Woods" in 1931, the books have been continually in print and have been translated into 40 different languages.
Wilder once said the reason she wrote her books in the first place was to preserve the stories of her childhood for today's children, to help them to understand how much America had changed during her lifetime.