Last time, we talked about the things that Laura and her family did to make her fifth birthday a special day. That birthday in the Big Woods was the first birthday that Laura describes in her Little House stories. The next birthday that Laura writes about in her books is the ninth birthday of Almanzo Wilder. Almanzo was born almost exactly ten years before Laura on February 13, 1857. Even though we’re specifically celebrating Laura’s 150th birthday this year, I guess Almanzo deserves some attention. In fact, taking a look at his birthday will give us a fresh perspective on Laura’s own birthday celebrations.
Out west in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, Laura’s family helps her celebrate her fifth birthday by making her little cakes, giving her dolls and doll clothes, and playing some tunes on the fiddle. Meanwhile, back east in New York, Almanzo is practically sitting in the lap of luxury when it comes to his birthday celebrations. The first indication in the books that Laura and Almanzo have very different sorts of birthday experiences is the fact that Almanzo’s birthday gets a whole chapter of its own while Laura’s is only stuck at the end of the chapter about Sundays.
While Laura’s gifts are all on a small scale, Almanzo gets some bigger gifts for his birthday. The first gift he gets is his very own yoke made out of red cedar for his young calves, Star and Bright (Farmer Boy 50). He also gets a hickory sled, all for his own (56). His Father made both items especially for his birthday. On top of that, he gets to stay home from school so that he can use his yoke, train the oxen, and make a few trips down the snowy hill on his sled. The book describes how Almanzo would pop into the house to grab more apples, doughnuts, and cookies to eat for a break (58). Laura only gets five cakes for her birthday in the Big Woods, but the treats that Almanzo gets to eat seem unlimited.
According to pioneergirl.com, a wooden yoke or oxbow would rest “on the shoulders of a pair of oxen.” To keep the yoke in place, a curved piece of wood would have been bent around the neck of each ox and kept in place “with a wooden or metal pin that went through the bow.” The purpose of the yoke was to keep the oxen side by side so that they could work as a team. Working as a team would make it easier for them to pull things such as Almanzo’s bobsled that he uses to haul wood later in the book. This may seem like a strange gift to give to a nine-year-old, but it was perfect for Almanzo since he wanted to be a farmer someday.
Laura describes the type of doughnuts Almanzo’s mother would have made for the Wilder family to snack on in the chapter of Farmer Boy called “Saturday Night.” Laura describes the doughnuts as being made out of “golden dough” that Mother twists and plops into a “big copper kettle of swirling hot fat.” In the book, Almanzo specifically notices how the doughnuts are able to roll themselves over in the fat because of their twisted shape. In The Little House Cookbook, Barbara M. Walker includes a recipe for twisted doughnuts that she got straight from a 1898 Malone Cook Book. This recipe is likely much like the doughnut recipe that Almanzo’s mother would have used. Looking at it, I’d like to think that any recipe that includes two pounds of lard and a shaker full of powdered sugar has to be good. I think all of us (and Laura especially) have a right to be jealous of Almanzo’s birthday snacks.