Reflections on Farm Women

Working with the contents of the box that Heather and I are archiving made me think about the farm women I have known over the years. Many chose to share their stories with when I was working on More than a Farmer’s Wife, and I have numerous letters from women all over the country who felt pressed to share a story, either their own, or their mother’s, about what life was like on the American farm for women between 1910 and 1960.

I’ve been asked about my choice of time period for the original book before, and it falls to a couple of things: first, the years that Laura Ingalls Wilder was an active writer, and second, the period during which the United States saw its biggest shift in population from rural to urban in history. In 1910, 90 percent of those living in the United States lived in rural areas; in 1960, 90 percent of those living in the United States lived in urban spaces.

The shift was dramatic, and with it, many had a sense that something would be “lost” of rural culture’s history. More than one letter I received suggested that fear was the reason so many stories were shared. It certainly was the driving force behind Wilder’s initial draft of what would become the Little House series of books for children. Wilder, herself, began writing for farm journals and rural publications at the beginning of that period, under the handle of “As a Farm Woman Thinks” in the Missouri Ruralist. When she and her husband, Almanzo, “retired” from active farming, Wilder decided to write down what she remembered about her childhood in order to preserve it. While it’s true that another motivation was financial–she certainly hoped to create something that would sell–preservation of history remained a goal of that draft, and all subsequent drafts of her books.

I’m finding, as time moves on, that many other women have had the same impulse. Occasionally, I still get a copy of someone’s memoirs in the mail. I keep every one. I have scrapbooks, pictures, letters, and self-published books. All of their senders say one thing: Remember us.

It’s fitting, I think, that these should have some sort of home, even if it’s digital. It’s exciting to see the interactive documentary Heather and I are producing take shape as we make decisions about preservation and content.

Next week, it’s our spring break, and my sister and I plan to take my littles on a road trip to Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Mo., home to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family for more than 65 years. I’ve never been there, and it’s one of the Wilder sites that I’ve most wanted to see. There, she wrote the Little House books. There, her daughter Rose grew up, then later rested and recouped the family’s financial losses during the Great Depression. It’s place, and space, that helped shape a family and a legacy.

I’m really looking forward to it.

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