Little House on the Beach: The Wilders’ Year in Florida

Laura Ingalls Wilder settled in many different places throughout her life, but one place in particular is often unknown by fans. Before the Almanzo Wilder family decided to move to the “Land of the Big Red Apple,” they took their chance in Florida. The couple believed the warm, humid climate might help Almanzo with his health. The Wilders decided they had nothing to lose, so they made their way down South in early 1891.

L+A Florida

It all started in October of 1890. According to John E. Miller, author of Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, three relatives of the Wilders set out on a boat, traveling on the Mississipi, Ohio, and Tennessee Rivers. These three men were Laura’s cousins, Peter Ingalls and Joe Carpenter, and Almanzo’s younger brother, Perley.

The men eventually settled in the town of Westville, Florida, but not all three would stay there. Later, Perley Wilder moved to Crowley, Louisiana, to join his sister, Eliza Jane. There, he met his wife and had children of his own. Peter Ingalls, the same cousin that had lived with Laura and Almanzo during their first years marriage, stayed in Westville and tried his luck at farming. He often corresponded with Laura through letters and told her of the warm climate. Later, Peter met a young woman by the name of Mary McGowan and eventually they had six children.

Laura and Almanzo were ready for a change. After years of failed crops, they were in a considerable amount of debt. Both of them came down with diphtheria in De Smet, SD. Almanzo went back to work too soon after the illness, suffered from a stroke, and became partially paralyzed. Although he regained feeling in both his legs and could walk, he was never the same afterwards. The man who once traveled miles in the snow to save the town of De Smet from starving now had to walk around with a cane. The Wilder family thought the warmer climate would help with Almanzo’s mobility. In early 1891, Laura and Almanzo sold their livestock and other belongings, said goodbye to the prairie, and boarded a train for Florida.

spanish moss

Laura and Almanzo were taking a chance by moving to Florida. They knew little of the area and neither of them had ever lived in the south. Laura wasn’t used to humid, hot summers and found the Florida climate to be exhausting. She also found that the Southern way of life wasn’t her style and found it hard to relate to other woman around her. Laura was very much out of her element in Florida. She was used to the cold winters, mild summers, and the prairies of the west. In a few short months, the Wilders realized their mistake and started making plans to return to De Smet.

In August 1892, the family boarded a train and returned to South Dakota. They did not second guess their decision to move back home and never set foot in Florida again. Given the lack of information known about their time there, Laura most likely considered her time in Florida insignificant and didn’t talk much about it later in life.

When they arrived back to De Smet, the Wilders moved in with Laura’s parents for a short period of time. This allowed them to make some money and get back on their feet. Eventually, they were able to afford a house in town. Laura and Almanzo had been married seven years and did not have much to show for it. It would be years before the couple would achieve the American Dream and become the successful farmers they were striving to be. The start of that dream began two years later in 1894 when the family stepped foot in Mansfield, Missouri.

Sources:

Miller, John E. Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend. University of Missouri Press, 2006.

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2 comments on “Little House on the Beach: The Wilders’ Year in Florida

  1. Shaunn Munn says:

    Florida became more popular as clothes were shed. Poor Laura and Almanzo! Dressed for the Dakotas! Many women who stayed began to dress in less, shedding shoes, stockings, petticoats and corsets. Rose mentioned some of this in a magazine serial. Her description of the culture shock helps explain what were 19th century impediments to Florida’s attractions.
    .
    Men gave up coats & even shirts. Children’s attire was even sparser! Not at all what Laura and Almanzo could cotton to.

    No wonder Florida boomed during the Roaring ’20’s! Clothing and mores were much more relaxed!

  2. John A. Bass says:

    Thank you for writing about this Little House Home Site!

    Just wanted to let you know that Mary (Molly) Edith McGowan’s last name was misspelled (as McGowin) in the Westville, Florida Years by Alene Warnock.
    So, it’s McGowan, with an a.

    The Wilder’s briefly lived with Peter and Molly, at first, but then built their own small place on his land. (It was basically across the street now, as it appears today.)

    In October 2006, we placed a Historical Marker there. And over the years, it’s became the Laura Ingalls Wilder/Peter Franklin Ingalls Historic Park at the Peter Franklin Ingalls Homestead in Westville, Florida.

    Saturday, November 3, 2019 will be our 14th Annual/Anniversary of the Site and Ingalls Family and Friends Reunion Picnic at the Park!

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