Laura Ingalls Wilder: Pioneer, Author, Orchardist

Beyond the years covered in the beloved Little House on the Prairie series, and before the books made Ingalls a household name, Laura and her husband, Almanzo, tended an orchard in Missouri, growing Missouri Pippin and Ben Davis apples. Both varieties are part of the Seed Savers Exchange collection and are offered on the Exchange.

 Almanzo Wilder holding an apple from one of his trees, around 1911/1912. (photo: cOURTESY Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum, mANSFIELD, MISSOURI)

Almanzo Wilder holding an apple from one of his trees, around 1911/1912. (photo: cOURTESY Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum, mANSFIELD, MISSOURI)

Had it not been for the fact that Laura Ingalls Wilder had written her series of Little House books, the world might have never known of Almanzo or Laura Ingalls Wilder. These, however, were not Laura’s first writings. She first began writing for the Star Farmer of St. Louis, Missouri. She would then move on to the Missouri Ruralist, a larger weekly farming and agricultural newspaper, writing on subjects such as the couple’s orchard, farming, poultry, and everyday life. She wrote for them from 1911 to 1924, with one article in 1931 as well. It was, however, her Little House books that would bring them worldwide fame and notoriety.

The story begins in Malone, New York, on February 13, 1857. Almanzo James Wilder, the 5th child of James and Angeline Wilder is born. Nearly a decade later, on February 7, 1867, Laura Elizabeth Ingalls is born in Pepin, Wisconsin to Charles and Caroline Ingalls.

Almanzo did not meet Laura until the Charles Ingalls family, which included Charles (Pa), Caroline (Ma), Laura’s older sister, Mary, and younger sisters Carrie and Grace, moved from Walnut Grove, Minnesota to De Smet, South Dakota in 1879.

(Contrary to what was portrayed in the Little House on the Prairie television series (1974-1983), Almanzo Wilder never lived in Walnut Grove, Minnesota and he never had an orchard there.)

On August 25, 1885, Almanzo and Laura were married in De Smet. On December 5, 1886, their daughter, Rose Wilder, was born. They would also have a son, born August 12, 1888, but he died 12 days later and was buried, unnamed. Also in 1888, Almanzo and Laura contracted diptheria, from which Almanzo never fully recovered. He would walk with a limp and would have breathing problems for the rest of his life.

In 1890, they left De Smet and moved to Spring Valley, Minnesota. In October 1891, they moved to Westville, Florida, in hopes it would help with Almanzo’s breathing, but moved back to De Smet in August 1892 and stayed there until 1894.

Seeing ads in newspapers of land for sale in Missouri, they purchased their property in Mansfield in September 1894. This would be their home for the rest of their lives.

In purchasing Rocky Ridge Farm (as Laura would name it), they had hundreds of apple trees, which had been left by the previous owner, in addition to an already started orchard.

They grew Ben Davis and Missouri Pippin apples. Literature has not been kind to the Ben Davis apple. Even during its peak years, it wasn’t considered that great of an apple. Why, then, was it so popular? Commercial growers loved the apple: it looked nice, stored well, and could be shipped over long distances without bruising. But, at best, it was just an average eating apple. Yet, before Civil War times and into the 1920s, millions of Ben Davis trees were planted throughout the south. 

 Orchard at Rocky Ridge Farm. Almanzo, middle, during apple picking. (Photo: Courtesy Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum, Mansfield, Missouri)

Orchard at Rocky Ridge Farm. Almanzo, middle, during apple picking. (Photo: Courtesy Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum, Mansfield, Missouri)

The origin of the Ben Davis was unclear. Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky are the likely choices, and even Maine is suspected as being the state of its origin.

The Missouri Pippin, on the other hand, is by far superior to the Ben Davis. It originated on the farm of Brinkley Hornsby of Kingsville, Missouri. The seed was planted in 1839 and it first fruited in 1854. It is also an excellent keeping apple that was sold in St. Louis in 1869 as Missouri Keeper. The apples are greenish-yellow with red stripes and are crisp and juicy, a good apple for eating out of hand.

The trees in Almanzo and Laura’s orchard were 25 feet apart in the rows, with 32 feet between the rows. The orchard was around 24 acres total and had around 1000 trees.The orchard also contained peaches and pears.

One of the nurseries that supplied the trees for the Wilder orchard is the oldest still in existence, and celebrated its 200th year in business in 2016. Stark Brothers Nursery out of Louisiana, Missouri has been in operation since 1816.

Whenever Almanzo would go into town, which was about a mile from the farm, he would bring back a load of wood ashes and manure to put around the trees. The orchard was filled with quail, which helped keep the insect population down and no hunting of them was ever allowed.

Each April and fall, the trees were whitewashed to prevent rabbits from girdling the trees and to help reduce insect damage.

The trees planted by the Wilders in 1895 and those planted by the previous owner began to bear fruit in 1902, which turned into a major cash crop for them. In the fall, they would pick and fill barrels full of apples to be shipped by railroad to different cities.

Farm life was busy. The Wilders raised chickens, turkeys, milk goats, and Jersey cows. They sold eggs from the chickens and made and sold their own cream and butter. They had Morgan horses, which Almanzo said had more intelligence than any other breed.

Between the rows of apple trees and throughout the farm, they raised corn, oats, rhubarb, and strawberries, along with all kinds of vegetables and potatoes. They would cut hay along with canning fruits and vegetables for winter use, filling up the root cellar and barn with the harvest.

 Almanzo and Laura on vacation in California. (Photo: Courtesy Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum, Mansfield, Missouri)

Almanzo and Laura on vacation in California. (Photo: Courtesy Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum, Mansfield, Missouri)

Rocky Ridge Farm was 185 to 200 acres total. In 1943, the Wilders sold 40 acres to Harland and Gireda Shorter, and in 1948, they bought the rest of the farm for $8,000. Laura and Almanzo were give a life estate on the house, barn, and surrounding acres.

Fame came late in Laura’s life. Her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, was published in 1932 when Laura was 65. It was followed by eight others in the Little House series. These Happy Golden Years, published in 1943, was her last book published during her lifetime, when she was 76 years old. The First Four Years came out after her death, published in 1971.

In July 1949, Almanzo suffered a heart attack and on October 23, 1949, he passed away at age 92. Laura passed away on February 10, 1957, due to complications of diabetes. She was 90 years old. Their daughter, Rose, passed away on October 30, 1968 at the age of 81. All three are buried in the Mansfield cemetery.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum has since purchased most of the land that previously belonged to Almanzo and Laura. (Author note: I also want to thank them for the pictures that accompany this article and for all their help.)