May 5, 2017
By Lisa Petrison, Ph.D.
During their first four years of marriage, Almanzo Wilder and Laura Ingalls Wilder had far more than their fair share of difficulties.
Several years’ worth of their crops were destroyed by hail or hot dry winds, in most cases just a few days before harvest. They both became sick with diphtheria that kept them close to death in bed for weeks, with lingering symptoms for a long time afterwards. Almanzo acquired partial paralysis that interfered with his ability to walk or use his hands. Their only son died of spasms a few weeks after his birth. Their very nice house dramatically went up in flames and burned to the ground.
As a result of all of this and more, their financial problems became such that they ended up selling their land, equipment and stock, and then (with only a little money left) moving in with Almanzo’s parents.
Although Laura began working on a novelization of this period of their lives long before her death, she never made an effort to refine or publish the book. Apparently the whole story seemed too grim to be likely to get much of an audience.
Laura’s draft of the book was published without alteration in 1971, after Laura and Almanzo – as well as their daughter Rose Wilder Lane – had all died.
The title of the book is The First Four Years.
Biographies of the author suggest that the book is a straightforward and factual summary of the experiences that the young couple faced during their first years together (rather than having been highly fictionalized and shaped as the books about the earlier parts of Laura’s life were).
The First Four Years is now positioned as the ninth book in the “Little House” series. Still, the book has been read by far fewer people than the earlier novels, and it features a plot that has virtually nothing to do with the entirely invented version of Laura and Almanzo’s marriage depicted on the long-running “Little House on the Prairie” television show.
Those people who have read the book often view it as a story similar to that of the Book of Job – that is, with a main focus of how people can go about coping with extreme adversity that has very little to do with anything that they personally did wrong.
Based on having read several biographies of the author, it does seem to me that many of the problems that Laura and Almanzo faced were due only to their pursuing the generally difficult endeavor of trying to farm an area of the country that had previously been open prairie as well as to plain bad luck with regard to the weather. No one else living in the Great Plains states (such as Nebraska and South Dakota) during that period of time did much better in terms of growing crops than the Wilders did, it seems.
But still, the Wilders’ trials and tribulations seem to have gone way beyond just a few bad farming years. Most critically, Almanzo – and to a somewhat lesser extent Laura – acquired health problems during this time that substantially limited the extent to which they were able to be productive and kept them living in poverty for decades into their marriage.
Although I know it has become a bit of a joke that I see mold illness everywhere that I look, when I re-read The First Four Years several years ago, I started feeling like the mold clues were really jumping out at me.
So while obviously we are never going to know for absolute sure whether toxic mold was an underlying cause of some of the Wilders’ problems, I thought I would share my observations as food for thought for those who are interested.
The Prairie Cure
In 2011, I drove my RV through South Dakota and made a detour to De Smet, South Dakota.
Laura’s family moved to De Smet in 1879, when she was twelve years old. She and Almanzo met there and lived there for the first four years of their marriage.
I spent about five years of my life traveling around the western half of the U.S., seeking out air that felt good to me and trying to understand the Locations Effect. When I visited De Smet in 2011, it was at the top of the heap in terms of places where I did well.
I was really happy that I was able to stay overnight on the Ingalls Homestead, where there are a few RV sites. I felt really great there.
Here are some photos that I took while visiting De Smet. Look at how bright blue and perfectly clear those skies are! (That is how they really look too.)
From a mold avoidance perspective, another good thing about the De Smet area is that even now there are hardly any people there (and therefore not much toxicity).
In addition, the air is pretty dry (meaning that mold is less likely to be able to grow) and the winds across the open prairie are quite strong (meaning that any toxins that are present are likely to get blown away).
My feeling during my visit was that although South Dakota gets so cold that it would not be a good camping location most of the year, and although getting organic food might be a challenge, the air quality was so amazing there that the town nonetheless seemed to me an option that mold avoiders might do well to at least consider.
Whether De Smet still would feel good to me in the light of Roundup Ready Alfalfa having been introduced since then, I am not so sure. Things are changing very fast in this country as we dump more and more toxic chemicals on the earth.
However, that town felt good to me in 2011, and I feel fairly confident that it likely would have been good prior to that as well.
I thus was very interested to learn that this area was one of the locations that was recommended by doctors during the late 1800’s as a cure for tuberculosis (then called consumption). Quite a few other locations where I have felt particularly good – including Mercey Hot Springs – had reputations for being helpful to tuberculosis patients as well.
Both the novel By the Shores of Silver Lake and the more fact-based Laura Ingalls Wilder autobiography Pioneer Girl discuss a man who was determined to stay in the De Smet area through the winter of 1879, even though there was no town built yet and even though he was very frail and living all by himself in a claim shanty.
In the novel, Charles Ingalls (“Pa”) states just before winter arrives:
“That teamster’s the last one out. He came all the way from the Jim River and didn’t find a soul. Everyone along the line is going. Last night, when dark caught him, he saw a light about two miles north of the grade and drove to it on the chance of finding a place to stay all night.
“Well, Caroline, he found a claim shanty and an old man, all by himself. His name is Woodworth. He has consumption, and came out here to take the prairie-climate cure. He’s been living on his claim all summer and was going to stay all winter.
“Well, he’s so feeble, the teamster tried to get him to go out. Told him it’s his last chance but Woodworth wouldn’t go. So when the teamster saw our smoke this morning, he stopped to see if he couldn’t get somebody to help him persuade the old man.
“Caroline, he was skin and bones. But bound and determined to stick to the prairie cure. Said it was one cure the doctors recommended as pretty near a surefire thing.”
“Folks come from all over the world to take it,” said Ma.
“Yes, I know, Caroline. It’s true enough, I guess, these prairies are about the only thing that cures consumption. But if you’d seen him, Caroline. No, he wasn’t in any shape to stay alone in a claim shanty, fifteen miles from any neighbor. The place for him is with his own folks.
“Anyhow, the teamster and I packed him up and loaded him and his things in he wagon. Lifted him in, as easy as if he was Carrie, here. In the end he was glad to be going. He’ll be a sight more comfortable with his folks in the east.”
-By the Shores of Silver Lake, pp. 151-152
Although spending time at a sanitarium in one of these good locations did not cure TB patients quickly, sources suggest that it did have a fairly high success rate for individuals who had the money and determination to stick with the prescribed treatment (which also included nutritious food and large amounts of forced rest).
My guess at why that would have been is the same guess that I have with regard to why patients with certain diseases that appear to have pathogen involvement (including ME/CFS and Lyme) do better when they spend time in pristine locations and eat a clean and nutritious diet.
That is, that if you can improve the terrain of the body by promoting good health through clean living and detoxification, then eventually the system will become strong enough to get the pathogens under control on its own.
Addendum 7/13/17: The “old man” who moved to De Smet to take the prairie cure was Rev. Horace Woodworth, who was in his early 50’s and was reported to have previously lived in Darlington, WI. In The Long Winter, in a passage about meeting her new school mates, Laura wrote: “The brown-eyed, dark-haired boy was Ben Woodworth who lived at the depot. His father was the sick man that Pa had sent out with the last teamster the year before. The ‘prairie cure’ had truly almost cured his consumption of the lungs and he had come west again for more of it. He was the depot agent now.”
Living on the Tree Claim
Laura and Almanzo Wilder were married in August 1885. Laura (nicknamed “Bess” by Almanzo because he had a sister named Laura) was 18, and Almanzo (called “Manly” by Laura and then also by others) was 28.
Up until this point, both of them had been in vigorously strong health, habitually working long and hard on physical and intellectual pursuits.
For instance, readers of the novel series may remember Almanzo giving it his all from sun-up to sun-down on the farm as a child (in Farmer Boy), and then courageously heading out across the prairie in the dead of winter to purchase wheat that would allow the townsfolk to keep from starving to death when trains could not come in (in The Long Winter).
Laura labored like a man during the harvest (in The Long Winter), held down demanding jobs as a teacher and seamstress starting at age 14 (in Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years), and helped out on the farm while going to school the rest of the time.
When Laura suggested that life would be easier if Almanzo worked in town rather than continuing to farm, he responded that he enjoyed the hard work of farming:
You see, on a farm it all depends on what a man is willing to do. If he is willing to work and give his attention to his farm, he can make more money than the men in town and all the time be his own boss.
-The First Four Years, p. 5
Almanzo owned two different plots of land prior to marrying Laura: a tree claim and a homestead. He suggested that they live on the tree claim and built a new house on it.
Laura saw the house for the first time on the afternoon after their wedding and described it as follows:
The pine floors of the front room and pantry were painted a bright clean yellow. The walls of the house were white plaster, and the pine woodwork was satin-smooth and oiled and varnished in its natural color.
It was a bright and shining little house and it was really all theirs, Laura thought. It belonged to just Manly and her.
-The First Four Years, p. 14
Descriptions of the first several months of their marriage make it seem as if they were both happy with each other, experiencing abundant good health, and optimistic about the future. Laura wrote:
Now was a busy, happy time. Manly was early in the field, plowing, and Laura was busy all day with cooking, baking, churning, sweeping, washing, ironing and mending. The washing and ironing were hard for her to do. She was small and slender but her little hands and wrists were strong and she got it done. Afternoons, she always put on a clean dress and sat in the parlor corner of the front room sewing, or knitting on Manly’s socks.
It was a carefree, happy time, for two people thoroughly in sympathy can do pretty much as they like.
-The First Four Years, p.22, 27
By February 1886, things still seemed good:
With work and play, in sunshine and storm, the winter passed. There was very little visiting or having company, for neighbors were rather far away (except for the Larsens across the main road) and the days were short. Still, Laura was never lonely. She loved her little house and the housework. There were always Shep and the cat, and a visit to the horses and cows at the barn was, she thought, as good as visiting people any day.
-The First Four Years, p. 44
A Difficult Pregnancy
The first signs of reported ill health for either of them came during a Spring 1886 visit to the homestead, where Almanzo was using the claim shanty as a warehouse for handling grain:
At the shanty on the homestead Laura held the grain sacks while he shoveled the wheat into them. He was hauling them to the house barn to be handy for the sowing. The shanty was cold. The grain sacks were coarse and rough to the touch and the wheat was dusty.
Watching the plump wheat kernels slide into the open mouth of the sack made Laura dizzy. If she took her eyes from them, they were drawn irresistibly to the newspapers pasted on the shanty walls and she read the words over and over. She was unreasonably annoyed because some of them were bottom side up but she must read them anyway. She couldn’t take her eyes from them. Words! Words! The world was full of words and sliding wheat kernels!
And then she heard Manly saying, “Sit down a minute! You’re tired.”
So she sat down, but she was not tired. She was sick. The next morning she felt much worse and Manly got his own breakfast.
For days she fainted whenever she left her bed. The doctor told her to lie quietly. He assured her she would feel much better before long and that in a few months, nine to be exact, she would be quite all right. Laura was going to have a baby.
So that was it! Well, she mustn’t shirk. She must get around and do the work in the house so that Manly could get the crops in. So much depended on this year’s crops, and there was no money to hire help.
Soon Laura was creeping around the house, doing what must be done, and whenever possible relieving her dizzy head by lying down for a few minutes.
– The First Four Years, p. 45-46
Since Laura was going through her first pregnancy, she had a good excuse to be experiencing new symptoms. And perhaps that was all there was to it.
On the other hand, for reasons that I will share in the next sections, I am especially suspicious about this claim shanty with regard to it potentially having had a toxic mold problem.
When I have heard of older buildings (constructed before the development of drywall) having toxic mold problems, it very often has been when newspaper was used as insulation. Newspapers obviously get moldy very easily, and my suspicion is that the ink in the newspaper makes it especially likely that particularly problematic types of mold toxin will then result.
In this excerpt, Laura is especially focused on the newspapers that are attached to the walls in what seems to me an almost hallucinatory fashion (and one that I experienced myself from time to time, prior to starting to pursue mold avoidance).
Laura’s description of the newspapers (“She couldn’t take her eyes from them! Words! Words! The world was full of words and sliding wheat kernels!”) also seems to me quite similar in tone to the the description in a well-known short story of some blatantly moldy wallpaper in the bedroom of neurasthenia sufferer Charlotte Perkins Gilman:
There is a very funny mark on this wall, low down, near the mop board. A streak that runs round the room. It goes behind every piece of furniture except the bed, a long, straight, even smooch, as if it had been rubbed over and over.
I wonder how it was done and who did it, and what they did it for. Round and round and round – round and round and round – it makes me dizzy!
-The Yellow Wallpaper
Although Gilman published “The Yellow Wallpaper” in 1899, it describes a bout of postpartum depression she experienced earlier in her life in 1885 – less than a year before Laura was feeling dizzy when staring at the newspapers glued to the walls in the claim shanty.
Living in the Claim Shanty
In Summer 1886, a freak hailstorm destroyed the Wilders’ wheat crop just a few days before it was ready to be harvested. As a result, Almanzo needed to get a loan so that he could afford to buy more farming supplies for the next year.
Almanzo found that he would qualify for a mortgage of the homestead property, but only if he and Laura were living there. As a result, Almanzo quickly built an addition to the existing building so that they could move there.
An addition would have to be built on the homestead claim shanty before they moved but they could do with one new room and a cellar underneath through using the original shanty for a storeroom.
When the oats were hauled to the homestead and stacked, Manly dug the hole in the ground for the cellar, and over it built the one-room addition to the claim shanty. Then he built the frame of a barn, cut slough hay, and when it was dry stacked it around the frame to make a hay barn.
-The First Four Years, p. 59-60
Laura and Almanzo moved to the homestead on August 25, 1886. She wrote about the move:
The thing to do was to get things arranged in the home and make it cheerful for Manly. Poor Manly, he was having a hard time and doing his very best. The house wasn’t so bad. The one new room was narrow (twelve feet by sixteen) and not very long, facing the south with a door and a window on a narrow porch, closed at the west end by the old claim shanty.
The carpet from the old bedroom was across the east end of the room, and the armchair and Laura’s little rocking chair stood on it, close to each other between the windows. The sun came in through the east window in the mornings and shone across the room. It was all very snug and pleasant.
The room that had been the claim shanty was convenient as a storage room, and the stock were comfortable in their new barn. Sheltered from the north and west by the low hill and facing south, it would be warm in winter.
The whole place was new and fresh.
-The First Four Years, p. 62-63
Despite having gone out of her way to tell herself positive things about their new home, Laura (then about five months pregnant) nonetheless immediately started making a special effort to spend as little time in the house as she possibly could.
This seems to contrast dramatically to her behavior in the house on the tree claim, where she would happily sit in the parlor knitting socks for Almanzo and waiting for him to come home each afternoon.
On their first day in the house, instead of unpacking, Laura headed right outside, stating clearly and repeatedly that she did so because of the good air quality outdoors:
Because of the hailstorm, hay would be the only crop this year. So as soon as breakfast was over on the day after the moving, Manly hitched Skip and Barnum to the mowing machine and began cutting hay.
Laura left her morning’s work undone and went with him to see the work started, and because the air was so fresh and the new-cut hay so clean and sweet, she wandered over the field, picking the wild sunflowers and Indian paintbrush. Presently she went back to the house and finished her tasks.
She didn’t want to stay in the house. There would be so much of that after the baby came. And she felt much better out in the fresh air. So after that she did as little as possible in the house, and instead stayed out in the hayfield with Manly.
-The First Four Years, p. 64
Even when it got cold, Laura still made a big effort to spend as much time outdoors as she possibly could:
In November, the snow came and covered the ground, making good sleighing. Manly and Laura, well bundled up and covered with robes, went often for sleigh rides on sunny afternoons. Because Laura felt so much better outdoors, Manly made a handsled and a breast-collar-harness for Old Shep.
On pleasant days Laura hitched Shep to the handsled and let him pull her on it down the hill to the road. Then together they would climb the hill, Shep pulling the sled and Laura walking beside him to take another ride down until she was too tired from the walking and the fun. Shep never got tired of it, and at times when the sled tipped against a drift and Laura rolled into the snow he seemed actually to laugh.
And so November passed and December came.
-The First Four Years, p. 67-68
In early December, Laura had a baby girl, named Rose.
The weather that winter was clear and sunny but very cold, such as 25 to 30 below zero, and so Laura was forced to stay inside with the baby.
One day when it was only 15 below, Laura and Almanzo bundled the baby up and took her in the sled to town. However, Ma and Pa expressed dismay and said that Rose could have died, and so the Wilders were afraid to take the baby outside again in the cold after that.
As soon as spring came, Laura went right back to spending as much time as she could away from the claim shanty:
There could be no horseback riding safely with a baby, but Laura did not miss it so much, because Manly fastened a drygoods box in the front of the road-cart, leaving just enough room for Laura’s feet at the end where the driver sat. When the work was done after dinner, Laura would hitch Barnum to the road-cart and with Rose in her pink sunbonnet sitting in the box she would drive away wherever she cared to go. Sometimes she went to town, but more often to see her Ma and the girls.
At first Ma was afraid to have Rose travel that way, but soon she became used to it. Although Barnum was a fast driver, he was as gentle as a kitten, and the cart on its two wheels was light and safe. Rose could not fall out of the box, and Laura was a good driver. She never had a moment’s uneasiness with Barnum hitched to the road cart.
And Manly didn’t care how often she went, just so she came home in time to get supper.
-The First Four Years, p. 81
At the beginning of the 1887-1888 winter, Almanzo splurged on a new hard coal heater.
Laura’s comments suggest that Almanzo already was suffering from the beginnings of the sorts of health issues often associated with mold illness at the time:
Laura felt that they couldn’t afford the beautiful new stove, but that was Manly’s business. She need not bother about it – and he did suffer with the cold. It seemed as though he could never get clothes warm enough. She was knitting him a whole long-sleeved undershirt of fine, soft, Shetland wool yarn for a Christmas surprise.
-The First Four Years, p. 85
In February 1888, both Laura and Almanzo became very ill with diphtheria, a dangerous illness caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae. The disease had killed a few children in De Smet over the previous few years, and concern over there being an epidemic was high enough that there was a temporary ban on gatherings in town to try to control the spread of the disease in the early months of 1888.
Laura reported first starting to get sick on Almanzo’s birthday on February 13:
But in spite of the warm day Laura caught a severe cold and had a touch of fever so that she must stay in bed. Ma came over to see how she was and took Rose home with her for a few days. Instead of getting better, the cold got worse and settled in Laura’s throat. The doctor when he came said it was not a cold at all but a bad case of diphtheria.
But then Manly came down with it, and on his morning visit, the doctor ordered him to bed with strict orders to stay there. He said that he would send someone out from town to help them. A short time after the doctor went away, Manly’s brother Royal came out to care for them. He was a bachelor, living alone, and thought he was the one could best come.
So both in the same room, with the crudest of care, Manly and Laura spent the miserable, feverish days. Laura’s attack had been dangerous, while Manly’s was light.
At last they were both up and around again, but the doctor had given his last advice and warning against exertion. Royal, tired and half sick himself, had gone home, and Laura and Manly, well wrapped, had spent a day in the summer kitchen while the sick room was fumigated.
Then after a few days longer, Rose was brought home. She had learned to walk while she had been away and she seemed to have grown much older but it was very pleasant to have her taking her little running steps around the room, and most of all, it was good to be well again.
-The First Four Years, p. 87-88
At first, Laura was happy that she and Almanzo were over the diphtheria and believed that their health would return to the way that it was before they got sick.
That turned out not to be the case, as she wrote:
Laura thought the trouble was all over now. But that was not to be for many a day yet.
Manly – disregarding the doctor’s warning – had worked too hard, and one cold morning he nearly fell as he got out of bed, because he could not use his legs properly. They were numb to his hips and it was only after much rubbing that he could get about with Laura’s help.
But together they did the chores; after breakfast, Laura helped him hitch up the wagon and he went to town to see the doctor.
“A slight stroke of paralysis,” the doctor said, “from overexertion too soon after the diphtheria.”
From that day on there was a struggle to keep Manly’s legs so that he could use them. Some days they were better and again they were worse, but gradually he improved until he could go about his usual business if he was careful.
-The First Four Years, p. 89
Biographer John F. Miller commented:
Afterward, Almanzo walked with a limp and operated at less than full strength. It was a severe blow both to him personally for he had always been such a vigorous outdoorsman, and to the young family, whose financial fortunes depended heavily upon his ability to handle heavy physical labor.
-Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, p. 81
Back to the Tree Claim
An additional problem was that medical bills and Almanzo’s inability to work very hard had depleted the family’s already slender financial resources.
Fortunately, a buyer for the homestead emerged, giving them enough money to live on for a time. In Spring 1889, they moved back to the house on the tree claim where they had started their marriage. Laura reported:
The little house was in bad order, but a little paint, a few fly screens, and a good cleaning made it fresh and sweet again. Laura felt that she was back home, and it was easier for Manly to walk on the level ground to the barn than it had been for him to climb up and down the hill on the homestead.
He was gradually overcoming the effects of the stroke but still would fall down if he happened to stub his toe. He could not step over a piece of board in his way but must go around it. His fingers were so clumsy that he could neither hitch up nor unhitch his team, but he could drive them once they were ready to go.
So Laura hitched up the horses and helped him get started and then was on hand ready to help him unhitch when he drove them back.
It was a busy summer for Laura, what with the housework, caring for Rose, and helping Manly whenever he needed her. But she didn’t mind doing it all, for Manly was recovering the use of his hands and feet.
Slowly the paralysis was wearing off. He was spending a great deal of time working among the young trees.
-The First Four Years, p. 90-92
By Fall 1889 (the beginning of their fourth year of marriage), Laura remained optimistic, stating:
Now Manly’s hands were not nearly so stiff and clumsy. Perhaps he could soon hitch the straps and buckle the buckles himself.
The house was snug and comfortable with storm windows and doors, and the hard-coal heater in the front room between the front door and the east window. Manly had made the storm shed, or summer kitchen, tight by battening closely all the cracks betwen the board sheeting, and the cook-stove had been left there for the winter.
-The First Four Years, p. 99, 102
Many years later, however, Rose Wilder Lane stated about the time that she had been sent to her grandparents’ to avoid getting diphtheria and then returned home:
When I saw my father again, he was walking slowly. He limped through the rest of his ninety years and was never as strong as he had been.
-On the Way Home, p. 4
The Loss of a Child
In late 1889, Laura learned that she was pregnant again. She stated:
In December Laura felt again the familiar sickness. The house felt close and hot and she was miserable. But the others must be kept warm and fed. The work must go on, and she was the one who must do it.
On a day when she was particularly blue and unhappy, the neighbor to the west, a bachelor living alone, stopped as he was driving by and brought a partly filled grain sack to the house. When Laura opened the door, Mr. Sheldon stepped inside, and taking the sack by the bottom, poured the contents out on the floor. It was a paper-backed set of Waverly novels.
“Thought they might amuse you,” he said. “Don’t be in a hurry! Take your time reading them!” And as Laura exclaimed in delight, Mr. Sheldon opened the door, closed it behind him, and was gone. And now the four walls of the close, overheated house opened wide, and Laura wandered with brave knights and ladies fair beside the lakes and streams of Scotland or in castles and towers, in noble halls or lady’s bower, all through the enchanting pages of Sir Walter Scott’s novels.
She forgot to feel ill at the sight or smell of food, in her hurry to be done with the cooking and follow her thoughts back into the book. When the books were all read and Laura came back to reality, she found herself feeling much better.
It was a long way from the scenes of Scott’s glamorous old tales to the little house on the bleak, wintry prairie, but Laura brought back from them some of their magic and music and the rest of the winter passed quite comfortably.
-The First Four Years, p. 108
A baby boy was born on August 5, 1890. Laura commented:
Laura was proud of the baby, but strangely she wanted Rose more than anything. Rose had been kept away from her mother for the sake of quiet, and a hired girl was taking indifferent care of her. When Laura insisted, the girl brought Rose in, a shy little thing with a round baby face herself, to see her little brother.
-The First Four Years, p. 125
The baby died three weeks later, apparently without ever having been given a name:
Laura was doing her own work again one day three weeks later when the baby was taken with spasms, and he died so quickly that the doctor was too late.
To Laura, the days that followed were mercifully blurred. Her feelings were numbed and only wanted to rest – to rest and not to think.
But the work must go on. Haying had begun and Manly, Peter, and the herd boy must be fed. Rose must be cared for and all the numberless little chores attended to.
-The First Four Years, p. 127
This was the last known attempt of the Wilders to have another child. Years later, at age 79, Rose Wilder Lane wrote about her baby brother:
I know nothing about him because my mother wanted nothing said about it; I think she never stopped grieving and it was her way to be silent, and want silence about any unhappy subject.
-Quoted in the book Laura’s Rose by William T. Anderson
A House Fire
Only a week after the baby died, the house on the tree claim caught fire and was destroyed. Laura wrote:
The summer fuel was old, tough, long, slough hay, and Manly had brought an armful into the kitchen and put it down near the stove.
After lighting a fire and putting the tea kettle on, Laura went back into the other part of the house, shutting the kitchen door.
When she opened it again, a few minutes later, the whole inside of the kitchen was ablaze: the ceiling, the hay, and the floor underneath and wall behind.
As usual, a strong wind was blowing from the south, and by the time the neighbors arrived to help, the whole house was in flames.
Laura had thrown one bucket of water on the fire in the hay, and then, knowing she was not strong enough to work the pump for more water, taking the little deed-box from the bedroom and Rose by the hand, she ran out and dropped on the ground in the little half-circle drive before the house. Burying her face on her knees she screamed and sobbed, saying over and over again, ‘Oh, what will Manly say to me?’ And there Manly found her and Rose, just as the roof was falling in.
-The First Four Years, p. 128-130
Later on, Rose – who was age 3 at the time of the fire – publicly took responsibility for it, saying that she had put a few logs into the cookstove trying to be helpful while her mother was out of the room.
Laura apparently decided it would be better not to mention that in her description of the fire in The First Four Years, however.
A Move to Florida
At this point, Almanzo and Laura decided to give up on farming in De Smet and try a different location. In addition to having lost their house, for two consecutive years hot and dry winds had totally destroyed their wheat crops and expenses were mounting. Almanzo also was continuing to have problems with episodes of paralysis and with tolerating the harsh South Dakota winters.
The Wilders had had some success raising livestock, and so by selling it all as well as their farm equipment, they were able to pay off all their debts with a bit of money left to start over elsewhere.
For a little more than a year, the couple stayed with Almanzo’s parents in Spring Valley, Minnesota. In October 1891 – enticed by the thought of warm weather – they moved to Florida.
Biographer John F. Miller wrote:
Moving to the piney woods of Florida was an act of faith for Laura and Almanzo, for they had little solid information about the area. Had they realized what they were going to find once they arrived, they probably never would have made the move in the first place. Their primary consideration in going was Almanzo’s health, but the hot, moist climate near the Gulf Coast and along the Choctawatchee River turned out to be more debilitating for Laura than it was energizing for Almanzo.
–Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, p. 87
According to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s biographers, although Almanzo appreciated being away from the brutally cold winters of the upper Midwest, neither of them liked Florida much or did very well there from a health standpoint. In less than a year, they were back in De Smet planning their next move.
In 1922, Rose Wilder Lane wrote a short story called “Innocence” for Harper’s Magazine. The story is reported as being autobiographical fiction, focusing on time period that the family spent in Florida. Although reading the story requires purchasing a subscription to the magazine and I have not done that yet, biographer John E. Miller states that the story mentions moldy air quality as one of the problems the family endured during their time In Florida:
Southern women, in Rose’s story, went barefoot and dipped snuff. Snakes slithered through the forest, the piney woods whispered, enveloping everything in their shadows, and the air was thick and moldy, suffused with strange smells.
-Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, pp. 87-88
Land of the Big Apple
After returning from Florida in August 1892, the Wilders lived for a time with Laura’s parents and then rented their own place in De Smet.
Biographer John E. Miller wrote:
The Florida interlude had done little to improve Almanzo’s health. The idea of trying to farm a quarter-section of land now apparently seemed to be out of the question. Instead, he took what jobs he could find, painting and carpentering and the like. Laura, meanwhile, went to work for a dressmaker for a dollar a day. Money was scarce, but frugal as she was, Laura managed to begin putting money away that could provide them with a stake for a new start.
-Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, p. 89
In July 1894, the family had saved some money and headed off to southern Missouri, where they hoped that they could grow apples and that the climate might work for them.
When we came to Missouri in 1894, we were looking for a place where the family health might make a good average, for one of us was not able to stand the severe cold of the North, while another could not live in the low altitude and humid heat of the Southern states.
-Referenced in Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, p.92
They bought a farm in Mansfield, Missouri, for $400 (apparently mortgaging half of it) and named it Rocky Ridge.
During their first year at Rocky Ridge, they made money by selling firewood harvested on the farm:
Almanzo and Laura began clearing trees and chopping them into firewood to sell in town. During their first year or two at Rocky Ridge, the wood they took into town and the income they received from their flock of hens provided what cash they needed for groceries, clothing, and other necessary items. ‘It was hard work and sometimes short rations at the first, but gradually the difficulties were overcome,’ Laura later recalled. Almanzo’s poor health continued to restrict his activities. ‘Mr. Wilder was unable to do a full day’s work,’ Laura told a journalist. ‘The garden, my hens and the wood I helped saw and which we sold in town took us through the first year. It was then I became an expert at the end of a cross-cut saw and I still can ‘make a hand’ in an emergency. Mr. Wilder says he would rather have me saw than any man he ever sawed with. And believe me, I learned how to take care of hens and to make them lay.
-Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, p. 97
Life in Missouri
For their first two decades in Missouri, Laura and Almanzo practiced what Rose Wilder Lane later referred to as “extreme frugality.” Rose wrote of her own growing-up years there:
It was a hard, narrow, relentless life. It was not comfortable. Nothing was made easy for us. We did not like work and we were not supposed to like it; we were supposed to work, and we did. We did not like discipline, so we suffered until we disciplined ourselves. We saw many things and many opportunities that we ardently wanted and could not pay for, so we did not get them, or got them only after stupendous, heartbreaking effort and self-denial, for debt was much harder to bear than deprivations.
-Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, p. 104
Eventually the family began living in town, where Laura offered meals to traveling salesmen and Almanzo ran a draying business (hauling large items around on a trailer). In the early 1900’s, Almanzo took a job as a salesman for an oil company while Laura continued to earn money from her cooking and to focus on saving money.
Over time, especially after receiving some financial help from Almanzo’s parents, they were able make substantial improvements on the farm and to expand the acreage that they owned. In addition to growing apples, they raised cows, poultry and horses there.
In 1911, Laura began writing articles about the day-to-day life of running a farm for the Missouri Ruralist.
In 1915, Laura took a trip on her own to San Francisco to visit her daughter Rose, who was working as an editor there.
“Little House” Author
By the time that the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Laura (now age 50) and Almanzo (now age 60) were doing a little more comfortably financially.
Biographer John E. Miller wrote of Laura during this time:
If aging was supposed to slow a person down, she did not seem to be following form. If anything, she seemed to be getting busier as time went by. She was continuing to write newspaper articles and became more involved in community activities.
-Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, p. 136
Starting in the early 1920’s, Laura began working on transforming her childhood memories of pioneer times into an autobiography. At first, she wrote a straightforward memoir that she hoped would be of interest to adults (recently published under the title of Pioneer Girl), but eventually she decided to instead put her efforts toward a children’s book series.
With the help of her daughter Rose (by then an established editor and fiction writer herself), Laura refined her books and signed a contract with the publisher Harper & Brothers.
The eight books in the series – from Little House in Big Woods to These Happy Golden Years – were published between 1932 and 1943. They were a great critical and popular success, providing Laura and her husband with considerable financial security and fame.
The couple lived out the remainder of their lives on Rocky Ridge Farm. Almanzo died in 1949 at age 92, and Laura died in 1957 at age 90.
Whether Almanzo and Laura actually had a toxic mold problem in their claim shanty is an open question that I do not think that we ever will be able to answer with total certainty.
Still, when I look at their story, I see a large number of elements that are very consistent with other mold stories that I have seen, and thus think it is a plausible hypothesis that they may have had mold issues as well.
Following is a list of some of the characteristics of their situation that I find noteworthy in the context of other cases of toxic mold illness that I have observed.
1. Even if mold is not obvious in an environment, acute symptoms and intuition often will provide good clues that it is a problem.
Regardless of whether we can prove that mold was an issue for the Wilders, it is my own takeaway that The First Four Years leaves little doubt that Laura and Almanzo believed that something was wrong with the claim shanty. Laura repeatedly stated that she did not feel good in that house, and Almanzo went to considerable trouble to present her with various gifts that would allow her to stay out of it a higher percentage of the time.
While it is possible that something else other than mold could have been causing Laura to feel bad when in the house, I am hard-pressed to imagine what that could have been.
The issue does not seem to be that the house made her feel psychologically bad, for instance. She actually seems to be trying very hard to support Almanzo with regard to their need to live there for a time while recovering from their first crop loss and seems reasonably happy with how things are going apart from not feeling good when in the house.
With the exception of the newspaper ink, I am finding it hard to imagine what kinds of human-made chemicals likely to have been used in the house during that time period could have been causing such distinct reactions in Laura.
Mold makes much more sense to me.
2. It’s easier to tell if a house is a problem when the location is good.
If the outside air in a location is not very good, then immediately identifying that buildings are a problem tends to be much more difficult.
On the other hand, if the outdoor air is really stellar – as appears to have been the case on the open prairie of South Dakota when Laura and Almanzo were living there – then in some cases people can tell fairly easily if there is a toxic mold problem in their home, especially if they spend a lot of time out of the house.
This contrasts to typical situations where people spend so much time living in bad buildings that they never become unmasked enough to the problem to have any idea that their issues are environmental rather than due to something from within.
3. Using paper or other building materials that contain cellulose is a bad idea.
Stachybotrys chartarum – which is perhaps the most dangerous of toxic molds commonly found inside buildings – generally grows well only on paper, plywood, straw or other materials containing processed cellulose. It first was found inside buildings in the early 1800’s after wallpaper became fashionable, and now is especially associated with drywall (which has a paper backing on it).
Long before I understood anything about mold, my family sold my late grandparents’ house (built in the 1930’s) to a contractor. The first thing this guy did was to drill holes in all the walls so that shredded newspaper could be blown inside the gap between the inner and outer walls. That seemed like craziness to me even back then, and since then I have heard many, many stories of newspaper insulation in older buildings leading to horrific toxic mold problems.
Stachybotrys is especially associated with psychiatric symptoms and other neurological problems, and so the fact that Laura reported having what sound to me like hallucinatory symptoms when focused on and in close proximity to the newspaper insulation seems to me an important clue that she very well may have been being exposed to the mold at that moment.
4. The most important effects of environmental toxic mold exposures are indirect and usually do not manifest until years after moving into a toxic building, and this causes even people who are aware that environmental issues exist to underestimate their importance.
It is my assessment that The First Four Years makes it clear that both Laura and Almanzo were aware that being in the house had a negative effect on Laura and that it was better for her to minimize her time there.
What many people who are having acute symptoms as a result of building exposures to problem toxins do not realize, however, is that continued exposures over time have the potential of eventually leading to much more serious problems that will not necessarily go away once they get out of the bad building.
Stachybotrys in particular has immune system effects that are reported to be cumulative over time, with the result eventually being that the immune system may have a hard time keeping even very common pathogens in check.
This kind of phenomenon appears to have been responsible for the 2009 and 2010 deaths of actress Brittany Murphy and her husband Simon Monjack, for instance. The couple were living in a blatantly moldy home which they knew was a problem and which – according to a well-known forensic pathologist looking at the case – eventually contributed to their succumbing to a common bacteria that most people’s systems are able to easily keep in check.
My guess in the case of Laura and Almanzo is that their having been living in the house likely was one of a number of reasons that they became ill with diphtheria while most of their neighbors in the De Smet community did not.
The fact that Royal was exposed to the house only on a short-term basis while taking care of Almanzo and Laura may have accounted for why he ended up only exhausted and “half-sick,” rather than than wholly sick and on the verge of death, I would guess.
Still, I do not think that all people who become sick with acute infections like diphtheria necessarily are suffering from toxic mold exposures. Many other things can weaken the system to the point where a pathogen can take hold and make people sick (or kill them).
What seems much more associated with mold-related illness is the inability of the body to get pathogens under control even over time, and thus to become affected by them in chronic ways.
This, perhaps, could have been what happened to Almanzo with regard to the paralysis that he experienced subsequent to being sick with diphtheria. Although it is unclear exactly what caused the paralysis, one possibility is that some kind of pathogen (such as poliovirus or another enterovirus) was responsible for that occurring.
I am reminded here of the case of ME/CFS patient Julie Rehmeyer, who has reported periodic partial paralysis triggered by exposures to particularly problematic environmental toxins (apparently ones made by mold or other microbes).
Although I could be wrong, my guess is that for her, the environmental exposures are having a negative effect on her body’s ability to keep some kind of pathogen that is in residence in check, and that when that pathogen flares the paralysis symptoms come back.
In the case of Almanzo, I am thinking that the most likely scenario may be that spending several weeks in bed in a toxic building while fighting off a life-threatening infection could have put so much strain on his immune system that some kind of pathogen that his body was previously able to keep in check when he was healthy flared to a significant extent and caused the paralysis.
5. Even after people get out of problematic mold exposures, making a full recovery may take many years.
Although Laura did not have the paralysis issues that Almanzo did (perhaps due to her not having the same pathogen in residence in her system), it is my impression from reading various books by and about her that it took her a very long time to wholly recover her own health subsequent to the diphtheria issue as well.
The health effects that both Laura and Almanzo experienced appear to have limited their ability to lead productive lives for decades after they recovered from the diphtheria incident and moved out of the claim shanty.
It seems to me that Laura and Almanzo’s extreme frugality while Rose was growing up stemmed not from inherent penuriousness but rather from the fact that working to make money was such a difficult endeavor for them that they needed to be extremely cautious about the spending of what they had if they were to survive at all.
As Laura moved into middle age – a full two decades after the diphtheria – much of her health seemed to return to her and she was able to become much more active (including focusing on writing her book series).
This all is wholly consistent with many of the cases of mold-related illness that I have seen. Although people certainly may experience improvements in the first few months or years after getting away from a bad environment, moving back to a high enough level of health to be able to lead a full life usually takes quite a few years or in many cases a few decades.
Especially if people are carrying around belongings contaminated in the problematic environment, the return to health may be particularly slow.
One symptom that seems almost universal in people who have been made sick from toxic mold is a continued reactivity to even very small amounts of molds or mold toxins, including (in many cases) run-of-the-mill molds found outdoors.
I therefore was interested in hearing that complaints about the moldy air in Florida came up in Rose Wilder Lane’s short story about the family’s time there.
Although some mold victims (especially those with cold sensitivity) report making reasonably good recoveries in some parts of Florida, the comparison between the heavy moldy and swampy air of Florida and the clean prairie air of South Dakota likely would have been quite noticeable to those who have been affected by toxic mold illness, I think.
Later in her own life, Laura shared the sentiments of countless mold-sensitized people when she made a comment that since has become a popular Internet meme:
Some old-fashioned things like fresh air and sunshine are hard to beat. In our mad rush for progress and modern improvements, let’s be sure we take along with us all the old-fashioned things worth while.
-A Family Collection: Life on the Farm and in the Country, 1911
Addendum 7/23/17: In another book related to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life – called The Long, Hard Winter of 1880-81: What Was It Really Like? – author Dan L. White quotes another article in which Laura speculated about the benefits of fresh air.
Everybody ground wheat, even the children taking their turns, and the resultant whole wheat flour made good bread. It was also a healthful food, and there was not a case of sickness in town that winter.
It may be that the generous supply of fresh air had something to do with the general good health. Air is certainly fresh when the thermometer registers all the way from 15 to 40 degrees below zero with the wind moving at blizzard speed….As the houses were new and unfinished so that the snow would blow in and drift across us as we slept, fresh air was not a luxury.
-The Missouri Ruralist, February 5, 1917
6. Mold-related illness may have a wide range of repercussions that can take a great deal of fortitude to get through.
Another thing that I wonder about is whether the death of Almanzo and Laura’s unnamed son could have been related to their hypothesized mold issues.
Although they were no longer living in the claim shanty when the baby was conceived and born, he could have had a great deal of exposure to the toxins anyway while in the womb and as a result of breast feeding due to toxic accumulation in Laura’s body.
In addition, I wonder if bedding contaminated with mold toxins could have been directly responsible for his death.
One theory that seems to have achieved a fair amount of recent mainstream credence suggests that mold in baby mattresses may be a major contributing factor to SIDS (called “cot death” in the UK). The suggestion here is that a particular kind of mold may volatalize fire retardants used in the mattresses, thus exposing infants to poisonous gasses and suffocating them.
Although I am not sure what kinds of chemical substances might have been used in baby blankets or baby mattresses in the late 1880’s, I don’t think it is implausible to imagine that the cash-strapped Wilder family would not have bought new baby bedding after moving out of the claim shanty and may not have made the effort to re-wash the items prior to using them with the new baby.
Especially if the baby was already weak from toxic exposure in the womb and from breast feeding, additional toxicity from the bedding may have been sufficient to result in death.
If the baby’s death indeed was related to mold issues, then I would suggest that the house fire likely was an indirect result as well, since probably Laura would have been watching Rose more carefully had she not been preoccupied with grief and fatigue as a result of the death of the baby and the family’s general illness issues.
In general, mold-related illness issues almost invariably take an enormous emotional toll on families, and the Wilders’ experiences certainly seem consistent with that.
What is impressive about this family is how much love they continued to show for one another, and that they figured out a way to survive and make their way in the world, despite their ordeals.
Based on the information from their biographers as well as how they were portrayed in the “Little House” book series, both Laura and Almanzo grew up in very emotionally stable and loving families. It seems to me that they managed to bring that same sensibility to their own family unit, even under the most trying of circumstances.
And so – as much as I loved the “Little House” books when I was growing up – I am finding myself having even more respect for Laura and Almanzo Wilder now, as I think about their story in the context of the effects that chronic (possibly mold-related) illness seems to have had on their lives.
More About Laura and Almanzo
Those who are interested in Laura and Almanzo Wilder’s story may want to take a look at the following resources.
A collection of delightful drawings of Almanzo and Laura by Garth Williams:
A collection of photographs of Almanzo, Laura, Rose and various extended family members from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s:
Some pictures that I took in De Smet in 2011.
Some books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder that I found helpful in writing this blog:
Some biographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder that I found helpful:
About Paradigm Change
Lisa Petrison is the executive director of Paradigm Change. Her Ph.D. is in marketing and social psychology from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
For more information about the role of mold toxins in chronic multisystemic illness, please visit the Paradigm Change website.
Those interested in the topic of whether other famous people may have had mold illness may want to read the previous Paradigm Change article, “A Moldy Home, A Flu-Like Illness, and the Deaths of Brittany Murphy and Simon Monjack.”
The Paradigm Change website page “Mold Stories” discusses some additional famous people who have had mold issues.
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