Restored prairie and mown path on the grounds of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa

I am back in Iowa this week, researching once again the papers of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane. A travel grant from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Association made this possible. Laura and Rose together worked on the famous “Little House” books during the Great Depression. Many of the old pioneers from the 1870s and 1880s were in their old age then. The pioneers’ hardships resonated with Americans struggling just to feed themselves during the 1930s. Telling the story of how the Little House books sprouted isn’t easy. The papers that did end up at Hoover (many, but not all, of Laura’s files from her farm in Missouri) ended up here because of Rose. In 1920 she wrote one of the first biographies of Hoover, several years before he became president. Hers was closer to what today we call an unauthorized biography. She might have interiewed the man himself once, but most of her work was due to interviews and sleuthing with family members, friends, and published work.

When Rose and Laura both were writing about the frontier (Rose published two books and many stories on this topic), Roosevelt was president. They hated him. They believed that federal programs to control farm markets (by limiting farming) were destroying America. They thought people who complained about hard times were whiners. The blizzards, droughts, and grasshopper plagues of the upper Midwest came to symbolize hardship. It was an amazing recollection of the pioneer days. A new way of looking at it.

The setting of the Hoover library is perfect for the Laura/Rose papers. Outside lies several acres of restored prairies that resemble what Iowa used to be before John Deere invented the tractors that brought in corn. As one of the signs at the edge of these grasses says, after the tractor came, “Iowa was transformed.”

It’s windy here. The storms seem worse than Eastern storms. Trees don’t automatically sprout in Iowa as they do in my adopted home state of Connecticut. Here, a tree seems to be saying: “Each year I stand is a gift.”

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