A little Rose, just past her second birthday, already a girl who knows her own mind.
We know a few facts about the early life of Rose Wilder Lane. We know that she was born on Dec. 5, 1886, in a claim shanty outside the town of De Smet, in Dakota Territory. Her parents were 19-year-old Laura Ingalls Wilder and 29-year-old Almanzo Wilder. Rose would be their only child; a son born in 1889 did not survive. After family illness, crop failures, and a house fire, the bank took the claim and the Wilders moved in with Laura's parents in De Smet, then with Almanzo's parents in Spring Valley MN. In 1890, they movedto Westville FL, hoping that the warm climate would improve Almanzo's health. But they were Plains people, and the Florida heat and humidity proved uncomfortable, so in 1892 they took the train back to De Smet, where Laura worked as a dressmaker and Almanzo did odd jobs around town. By 1894, they had saved $100--enough, they hoped, to buy a farm in the "Land of the Big Red Apple," in southwestern Missouri, near Mansfield the "Gem City of the Ozarks." They moved there in 1894. Just seven years old, Rose was already a well-traveled child, and travel would be in her blood until the end of her days.
Those are facts. The rest of what we know about Rose's childhood comes from her--and since she was a consummate storyteller, the stories are embellished. But that's what makes a good story, isn't it? Take, for instance, the story she tells about the unsmiling and determined little girl in the calico dress, crocheted collar, and tatted cuffs who is pictured above. In the foreword to her mother's diary of the trip from De Smet to Mansfield (On the Way Home), she writes:
"I was 2 years 4 months when this picture was taken in April, 1889. I remember the picture-taking well, was impressed by the photographer’s stupid pretense that there was a little bird in the camera. The photographer also kept putting my right hand on top of the left, and I kept changing them back because I wanted my carnelian ring to show. And in the end I won out."
Rose had a remarkable memory, an even more remarkable gift for story, and a way of enlarging personal experience that made it memorable and special. You can read more about her early childhood in On the Way Home and in several pieces collected in The Little House Sampler: "Rose Wilder Lane, by Herself"; "Memories of Grandma's House"; and "Innocence," a darkly compelling short story based on the Wilders' time in the piney woods of the Florida Panhandle. "Innocence" won second prize in the O'Henry Awards for 1922--and it wasn't the only O'Henry Prize Rose would win in her writing career.
Reading note, from Rose's foreword to On The Way Home, p. 12, describing the Wilders' going-away from De Smet in 1894: "Away from Grandma's house with its rag-carpets and rocking-chair, the hymn books on the organ, my very own footstool; away from the chalky schoolroom where angelic Miss Barrows taught Kindergarten, Primer, First and Second Readers; away from the summer sidewalks where grasshoppers hopped in the dry grass and the silver-lined poplar leaves rattled overhead; away from the gaunt gray empty house, and from Mrs. Sherwood and her sister who sometimes on sweltering afternoons asked me to fech ten cents' worth of icecre am from the far-away icecream parlor, and shared it with me; away from De Smet to The Land of the Big Red Apple."