Thursday, February 13, 2014

Almanzo turns 157

Almanzo in 1894, shortly before moving to Missouri

Today is Almanzo Wilder's 157th birthday. I have always loved Manly Wilder. I fell for the patient, quiet, determined young man from These Happy Golden Years. His courtship of Laura set a bar too high for any of my future suitors to reach.

Laura and Manly in 1885/86

I think Almanzo has gotten a bit of a raw deal in the LIW scholarly world, though. Although many fans love young Almanzo of the books, later on he is most often described  as a shy old man with little to say who spent most of his time hiding in the barn. A few years ago a New York Times review of a LIW biography described him this way "he remains, in all accounts, a stoic, almost silent, limping figure for the rest of his long life." It's like Manly becomes an after thought, reduced to a one dimensional character alongside his feisty wife and strong-willed daughter but that's not the picture that's painted by people that actually knew him.

In his 1986 article for the South Dakota Historical Society, William Anderson quotes Orel Dennis, the Mansfield boy who worked alongside the owner of Rocky Ridge in 1911, during the last stages of construction of the farmhouse there, as saying  "Almanzo Wilder was one of the finest men I have ever know."  Anderson also notes that "Helen Boylston also developed a strong affection for the male Wilder's endearing character when she joined the family unit during the late 1920s. "He was a lamb!" declared Boylston in 1981. "He was a sweet soul, he was a darling, and he was witty.... a good, kind, sweet, intelligent, patient man,... who was the most expert curser that I ever heard in my life!... My Lord! I thought I knew all the words, but he knew more." Laura Wilder, Boylston recalled, "nagged him, and yelled at him, howled at him, and adored him. That he knew, too.... he told me once,... 'I knew when I married her she had a temper. She still does. You just get used to those things."

Neta and Silas Seal, a young couple from Mansfield, became close to Laura and Manly in the 1930s. When asked by author Dan White if Almanzo was much of a talker, she said "oh yes! He liked to talk." I wonder if she ever got to hear his plethora of profanity.

Manly & Laura in 1933 after the publication of Little House in the Big Woods

By far my favorite quote from Dan White's interviews of Mansfield residents comes from Anna Gutschke who knew the Wilders from 1904 until their deaths. She didn't seem all that impressed with Laura, who she noted had quite a temper, but she had nothing but praise for Almanzo "Mr. Wilder was one of the greatest men. He had great humor, he enjoyed entertaining. He was absolutely the greatest. He had lots of fun, he was a joy."

That doesn't sound like a stoic, silent limping figure to me. So happy birthday Almanzo, you don't look a day over 155.

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