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Authors: Laura Ingalls Wilder

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The First Four Years

BOOK: The First Four Years
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Little House 9 The First Four Years
Little House 9 The First Four Years

Little House 9 The First Four Years

Little House 9 The First Four Years
INTRODUCTION

T
his tale begins where
These Happy Golden Years
ends. It tells of the struggle of Laura and Almanzo Wilder during their first years of marriage and is the next chapter in the story begun in Laura's
childhood eight books earlier. Its events occur before those described in
On the Way Home
Laura's diary account of the little family's adventures when they moved by wagon from
Dakota Territory to Missouri in 1894.

The manuscript of
The First Four Years
was discovered among Laura's papers. She had penciled it in three orange-covered school
tablets bought long ago from the Springfield Grocer Company for a nickel each. Laura wrote the
first drafts of her previous books in the same way. My own guess is that she wrote this
one in the late 1940's and that after Almanzo died, she lost interest in revising and
completing it for publication. Because she didn't do so, there is a difference from the
earlier books in the way the story is told.

An important part tells of the birth and childhood of Rose, Laura and Almanzo's
daughter. Rose was my dearest friend and mentor. I met Rose when I was a young boy and
later became her lawyer. My wife and I were close to her for many years. She gave me the
manuscript of this book for safekeeping, and after her death in 1968, I brought it to
Harper & Row (now HarperCollins). After considerable thought about the countless children
and adults who have read the Little House books, and concern for what Rose and Laura might
have wanted, the editors at Harper and I all agreed that Laura's original draft should be
published as she had first written it in her orange notebooks.

Rose grew up to be a famous author who carried on Laura's pioneer spirit by having many adventures in America and abroad. She wrote a number of fascinating books about this
country and about faraway places like Albania, and she became well known the world over.
But Rose grew up in a time when ladies did not consciously seek fame. She chose to shed
light on the lives of others instead of her own, and so this book about her mother, her
father, and herself had to wait until after her death to be published.

Rose (who became Mrs. Rose Wilder Lane) led a full and busy life. After her mother died,
she wrote the setting for
On the Way Home.
She also wrote a number of magazine articles, some of which were published as the
Woman's Day Book of American Needlework.
She worked at length on a major book yet to be published, and she was sent to Vietnam as a
war correspondent in 1965 when she was seventy-eight years old! Rose read constantly and
knew more about any subject I can think of than any person I ever knew. A week before she was to set off on a world tour
at age eighty-one, her heart stopped suddenly, at her home of thirty years in Danbury,
Connecticut. The night before, she had sat up in jovial and lively conversation with friends after making them a baking of her famous bread.

But what happened after those events described in both
The First Four Years
and
On the Way Home
after Laura, Almanzo, and Rose reached “The Land of the Big Red Apple”?

There in the Ozarks, Almanzo built by hand, with care and precision, a charming country
house on land that Laura later named Rocky Ridge Farm. T h e y lived and successfully
farmed right there for long and happy lifetimes, Almanzo's ending in 1949 at age
ninety-two, and Laura's in 1957 at age ninety. Their home was made sturdily to last for always, and the lucky people
who go to Mansfield, Missouri, may see that happy home with its fossils in its chimney
rock, much furniture handmade by Almanzo, and many other treasures. Pa's violin,
Mary's organ, and Laura's lovely sewing box are there as well as some of Rose's
possessions. Rocky Ridge Farm is now a permanent nonprofit exhibit. If you go, the
curators, who loved and knew the Wilders personally, will take you around and tell you
details that may not be in the Little House books, to help you better to know Laura, Almanzo, and Rose. We all wish there were more of Laura's stories.
We have come to know and cherish their qualities of character and spirit. They have
entered our lives and given them meaning. But if there cannot be more, may we make life
stories of our own worthy of hers.

Charlottesville, Virginia July, 1970 Roger Lea MacBride

Little House 9 The First Four Years
PROLOGUE

T
he stars hung luminous and low over the prairie. Their light showed plainly the crests of
the rises in the gently rolling land, but left the lower draws and hollows in deeper shadows.

A light buggy drawn by a team of quickstepping dark horses passed swiftly over the road
which was only a dim trace across the grasslands. The buggy top was down, and the stars
shone softly on the dark blur of the driver and the white-clothed form in the seat beside
him, and were reflected in the waters of Silver Lake that lay within its low, grass-grown
banks.

The night was sweet with the strong, dewy

fragrance of the wild prairie roses that grew in masses beside the way.

A sweet contralto voice rose softly on the air above the lighter patter of the horses'
feet, as horses and buggy and dim figures passed along the way. And it seemed as if the
stars and water and roses were listening to the voice, so quiet were they, for it was of
them it sang.

"In the starlight, in the starlight, At the daylight's dewy close, When the nightingale is
singing His last love song to the rose; In the calm clear night of summer When the breezes
gently play, From the glitter of our dwelling We will softly steal away.

Where the silv'ry waters murmur By the margin of the sea, In the starlight, in the
starlight, We will wander gay and free."

For it was June, the roses were in bloom over the prairie lands, and lovers were abroad in
the still, sweet evenings which were so quiet after the winds had hushed at sunset.

Little House 9 The First Four Years
THE FIRST YEAR

I
t was a hot afternoon with a strong wind from the south, but out on the Dakota prairie in
1885 no one minded the hot sunshine or the hard winds. They were to be expected: a natural part of life. And so the swiftly trotting
horses drawing the shining black-top buggy swung around the corner of Pearson's livery
barn, making the turn from the end of Main Street to the country road Monday afternoon at four o'clock. Looking from a window of the low,
three-room claim shanty a half mile away, Laura saw them coming. She was basting cambric
lining to the bodice pieces of her new black cashmere dress and had just time to put on her hat and pick up her gloves when the brown horses and the
buggy stopped at the door.

It was a pretty picture Laura made standing at the door of the rough claim shanty, the
brown August grass under her feet and the young cottonwoods standing in their square
around the yard.

Her dress of pink lawn with its small sprigs of blue flowers just cleared her toes. The
skirt was full, and tucked to the waist. The little tight waist with long sleeves and high
neck had a bit of lace at the throat. The sage-green, rough-straw poke bonnet lined with
blue silk softly framed her pink cheeks and her large blue eyes with the bangs of her
brown hair above them.

Manly said nothing of all this, but he helped her into the buggy and tucked the linen lap
robe carefully about her to keep off the dust. Then he tightened the reins and they dashed
away for an unexpected weekday afternoon drive. South twelve miles across bare prairie to
lakes Henry and Thompson, along the narrow neck of land between them where chokecherries
and wild grapes grew. Then over the prairie again east and north to Spirit Lake fifteen miles away. Forty
or fifty miles in all, but always “around the square” to come home.

The buggy top was up to make a shade from the heat of the sun; the horses' manes and tails
flew out on the wind; jack rabbits ran and prairie chickens scuttled out of sight in the
grass. Striped gophers ducked into their holes and wild ducks flew overhead from one lake to another. Breaking a somewhat lengthy silence, Manly
said, “Can't we be married soon? If you don't want a big wedding, and you would be
willing, we could be married right away. When I was back in Minnesota last winter, my
sister started planning a big church wedding for us. I told her we didn't want it, and to
give up the idea, but she hasn't changed her mind. She is coming out here with my mother,
to take charge of our wedding. But harvest is right on hand. It will be an awfully busy
time and I'd like us to be settled first.”

Laura twisted the bright gold ring with its pearl-and-garnet setting around and around on the forefinger of her left hand. It was a pretty ring and she liked having it, but. . .
“I've been thinking,” she said. “I don't want to marry a farmer. I have always said I
never would. I do wish you would do something else. There are chances in town now while it
is so new and growing.”

Again there was a little silence; then Manly asked, “Why don't you want to marry a
farmer?” And Laura replied, “Because a farm is such a hard place for a woman. There are so
many chores for her to do, and harvest help and threshers to cook for. Besides a farmer
never has any money. He can never make any because the people in towns tell him what they
will pay for what he has to sell and then they charge him what they please for what he has
to buy. It is not fair.”

Manly laughed. “Well, as the Irishman said, 'Everything is evened up in this world. The
rich have their ice in the summer but the poor get theirs in the winter.'”

Laura refused to make a joke of it. She said, “I don't always want to be poor and work
hard while the people in town take it easy and make money off us.”

“But you've got it all wrong,” Manly told her seriously. "Farmers are the only ones who
are independent. How long would a merchant last if farmers didn't trade with him? There
is a strife between them to please the farmer. They have to take trade away from each
other in order to make more money, while all a farmer has to do is to sow another field if
he wants to make a little extra.

"I have fifty acres of wheat this year. It is enough for me, but if you will come live on
the farm, I will break the ground this fall and sow another fifty acres next spring.

"I can raise more oats too and so raise more horses, and it pays to raise horses.

“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.”

Again there was a silence, a rather skeptical silence on Laura's part, broken at last by
Manly, who said, "If you'll try it for three years and I haven't made a success in farming
by that time,

I'll quit and do anything you want me to do. I promise that at the end of three years we
will quit farming if I have not made such a success that you are willing to keep on."

And Laura consented to try it for three years. She liked the horses and enjoyed the
freedom and spaciousness of the wide prairie land, with the wind forever waving the tall
wild grass in the sloughs and rustling through the short curly buffalo grass, so green
on the upland swells in spring and so silvery-gray and brown in summer. It was all so
sweet and fresh. In early spring the wild violets carpeted and made fragrant the little
hollows of the grassland, and in June the wild prairie roses blossomed everywhere. Two
quarter sections of this land, each with 160 acres of rich black soil, would be theirs,
for Manly had already proven up on a homestead and he also had a tree claim on which he
was growing the ten acres of trees required by law to get title. The 3405 trees were
planted about eight feet apart each way. Between the two claims lay a school section where
anyone could cut the hay, first come first served.

It would be much more fun living on the land than on the town street with neighbors so
close on each side, and if only Manly were right Well, she had promised to try the farm
anyway.

“The house on the tree claim will be finished in a couple of weeks,” Manly was saying.
“Let's be married the next week. It will be the last week in August and before the rush of
harvest begins. Let's just drive over to Reverend Brown's and then go home to our new
house.”

But Laura objected to this because she would not be paid for the last month of her school
teaching until October and needed the money for clothes.

“What's the matter with the clothes you have?” Manly asked. “You always look nice and if
we are married suddenly, that way we won't need fine clothes. ”If we give Mother time enough, she and the girls will come out from the east and we will have to have a big wedding in the church. I
can't afford the expense and your one month's salary would not be enough for you."

This was a surprise, for Laura had not thought

of such a thing. In the wild new country, the folks back east never seemed to be real and
certainly were not considered in the making of plans, but she remembered with something of
a shock that Manly's folks back in eastern Minnesota were well off and that one sister had
a homestead claim near by. They would be sure to come if they knew the wedding date, and
his mother had asked for that in her latest letter.

She could not ask her Pa to go to any expense for the wedding. It was all he could do to
keep up with the family expenses until there would be some return from their 160 acres of
wild land. Nothing much could be expected from the raw sod the first year it was turned
over, and his farmland was newly broke.

There seemed no other way than to be married suddenly because of the help it would be to
have a home and housekeeper in the rush of fall work coming on. Manly's mother would
understand and not be offended. It would be thought the right and sensible way to do it
by the neighbors and friends, for they were all engaged in the same struggle to
establish themselves in their homes on the new prairie land. And so on Thursday, the twenty-fifth of August, at ten o'clock in the morning, the quickstepping brown horses and the buggy with
the shining top flashed around the corner at Pearson's livery barn, came swiftly over the
half mile, and drew up at the door of the little claim house in its hollow square of young
cottonwoods.

Laura stood at the door, her Ma and Pa on either hand, her two sisters grouped behind
her.

They all gaily tried to help her into the buggy. Her wedding dress was the new black
cashmere she had thought would be so serviceable, for a married woman should have a black
dress.

All her other clothing and a few girlhood treasures had been packed in a trunk and were
waiting in Manly's newly finished house.

As Laura looked back, Ma, Pa, and Carrie and Grace were grouped among the young trees.
They threw kisses and waved their hands. Bright green leaves of the cottonwoods waved too
in the stronger wind of afternoon and there was a little choke in Laura's throat for they
seemed to be saying good-by, and she saw her Ma brush her hand

quickly across her eyes. Manly understood, for he covered Laura's hand with one of his and pressed it strongly. T h e preacher lived on his homestead two
miles away and it seemed to Laura the longest drive she had ever taken, and yet it was
over all too soon. Once in the front room, the ceremony was quickly performed. Mr. Brown
came hurriedly in, slipping on his coat. His wife and his daughter, Ida, Laura's dearest
friend, with her betrothed, were the witnesses and those present. Laura and Manly were married for better or worse, for richer or poorer. Then back to the old home for a noon dinner,

and in the midst of good wishes and cheerful good-bys, once more into the buggy and away
for the new home on the other side of town. The first year was begun.

T h e summer wind blew softly, and sunshine was bright where it shone through the east
windows that first morning. It was an early sun, but breakfast was even earlier, for
Manly must not be late at the Webbs' for the threshing. All the neighbors would be there. Since they would expect Mr. Webb to give them a good day's
work in exchange, as their turns with the threshers came, no one could afford to be late
and hold up the gang at Webb's place. So the first breakfast in the new home was a hurried
affair. Then Manly drove away with the brown horses hitched to the lumber wagon, and Laura
was alone for the day.

It would be a busy day, there was so much to do putting the little new house in order.

Before beginning, Laura looked the place over with all the pride of possession.

There was the kitchen-dining-living room, all in one but so nicely proportioned and so
cannily furnished that it answered all purposes delightfully.

The front door in the northeast corner of the room opened onto the horseshoe-shaped drive
before the house. Just south of it was the east window where the morning sun shone in. In
the center of the south wall was another bright window.

The drop-leaf table stood against the west wall with one leaf raised and a chair at either end. It was covered with Ma's bright
red-and-white checked tablecloth on which stood the remains of the early breakfast. A door
at the end of the table led into the storm shed, and there was Almanzo's cook-stove with
pots and frying pans on the walls. Then there was a window and a back door that opened
toward the south.

Just across the corner from the door into the shed,was the pantry door. And such a pantry!
Laura was so delighted with the pantry that she stood in the doorway for several minutes,
admiring it. It was narrow, of course, but long. Opposite her at the far end was a
full-sized window, and just outside the window stood a young cottonwood tree, its small
green leaves fluttering in the morning wind.

Inside before the window was a broad work shelf just the right height at which to stand.
On the wall at the right a strip of board ran the whole length and in it were driven nails
on which to hang dishpans, dish towels, colanders, and other kitchen utensils.

But the wall to the left was all a beautiful cabinet. Manly had found a carpenter of the old days who though old and slow did beautiful
work, and the pantry had been his pride and a labor of love to Manly.

The wall was shelved the whole length. The top shelf was only a short space from the
ceiling, and from it down, spaces between the shelves were wider until there was room for
tall pitchers and other dishes to stand on the lower shelf. Beneath the lowest shelf was
a row of drawers as well made and fitted as boughten furniture. There was a large wide
drawer to hold a baking of bread. There was one drawer that already held a whole sack of
white flour, a smaller one with graham flour, another with corn meal, a large shallow one
for packages, and two others: one already filled with white sugar and the other one with
brown. And one for Manly's wedding present of silver knives and forks and spoons. Laura
was so proud of them. Underneath the drawers was an open space to the floor and here stood
the stone cookie-jar, the doughnut jar, and the jar of lard. Here also stood the tall
stone churn and the dasher. The churn looked rather large when the only cow giving milk was the small fawn-colored heifer Pa had given them
for a wedding present, but there would be more cream later when Manly's cow should be
fresh.

In the center of the pantry floor, a trap door opened into the cellar.

T h e door into the bedroom was just across the corner from the front door. On the wall at
the foot of the bed was a high shelf for hats. A curtain hung from the edge of the shelf
to the floor, and on the wall behind it were hooks for hanging clothes. And there was a
carpet on the floor!

The pine floors of the front room and pantry were painted a bright clean yellow. The walls
of all the house were white plaster, and the pine woodwork was satin-smooth and oiled and
varnished in its natural color.

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