Country Party

Heartfelt felicitations to our very own Mrs. Wilder on her 150th birthday! As we continue Laura’s birthday celebration with our birthday-themed posts, let’s go back to Plum Creek and talk about the fabulous country party that Ma and the girls throw for their friends.


Modern-day Plum Creek, the body of water in which the Ingalls girls used to play when they lived in the Walnut Grove area. As Laura writes in her books, leeches and crabs hid in this creek.

Last time, we reminisced about the town party that Laura and Mary attended at Nellie and Willie Oleson’s house at the back of the Oleson store. When Laura and Mary get back from the party, they tell their Ma all about it. Ma, in turn, decides that she and the girls should throw a party of their own. “We must not accept hospitality without making some return,” she says. “[Y]ou must ask Nellie Oleson and the others to a party here” (On the Banks of Plum Creek 168). Although the book never says it was supposed to be a birthday party, perhaps Ma considered this party to be a late birthday celebration for her two winter babies.

The party that Ma and the girls end up throwing is a total country party. As with the town party, no such account of the celebration appears in Pioneer Girl. However, the autobiography does talk about the fun time that Laura had scaring Nellie with the crab and the leeches that hid in Plum Creek (Pioneer Girl 92-94). Another account of Laura’s payback to the mean town girl Nellie Oleson also shows up in Laura’s Missouri Ruralist article, “How Laura Got Even,” that she would write later in her life.

Pioneer Girl doesn’t mention any treats that Ma served to Laura, Mary, and their visiting town friends. Near the end of the article, however, Laura talks about a “treat of good things that Ma had made ready.” In the chapter “Country Party” from On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura describes the preparations that Laura, Mary, and Ma made for the party. While the girls cut stars out from strips of paper to hang on the shelves in the house for decoration, Ma makes a special snack called vanity cakes. When the guests come, they eat these cakes while sipping out of their shiny tin cups full of cold, creamy milk. Even though Nellie doesn’t enjoy the party because of the old crab and the leeches, all of the other girls love Ma’s simple and sweet country party and country treats.

Plum Creek describes Plum Creek as a “thirty-five mile stream near Walnut Grove, which flows northeasterly into the Cottonwood River, with its waters then flowing to the Minnesota River and eventually the Mississippi River.” This is the creek where Mr. Crab and the scary, blood-sucking leeches would have hid out. You can still visit Plum Creek today and stand on the site where the little dugout in the bank used to be. A sign marks its spot. Although the Ingalls family was living in a frame house near the creek at the time of the party, they would have been living in the dugout only a little while before.

Vanity Cakes

In the book, Laura describes the vanity cakes that Ma makes as “honey-colored.” As she writes, the flavor of the cakes is not sweet, “but they were rich and crisp, and hollow inside. Each one was like a great bubble. The crisp bits of it melted on the tongue” (On the Banks of Plum Creek 175). The description of the cakes sounds quite wonderful, and it would have been a great treat to the young girls at the party. Today, though, these cakes might not be so appealing to modern eaters. Or cooks, for that matter. It turns out that Ma’s famous cakes are hard to make. According to The Little House Cookbook, making vanities requires a knowledge of “the subtleties of dough texture and shape and fat temperature.” These things, the authors write, make a difference between “balloons and bombs, success and failure” (The Little House Cookbook 202). Plus, the recipe is mostly just lard, egg, salt, and flour, so they’re probably not so appealing to today’s sweet-toothed crowd.


Town Party

Happy 150th birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder! As we continue our year-long celebration of Laura’s birthday with our series of birthday-themed blog posts, I’d like to take a look at one of the more memorable parties attended by the Ingalls girls. This party appears in the fourth book of the series, On the Banks of Plum Creek.

Laura’s Plum Creek birthday is never mentioned in the book itself, and no description of her equivalent birthday appears in Pioneer Girl either. However, for those of you who have watched the Little House on the Prairie TV show, you will remember from the episode “Town Party, Country Party” that Laura and Mary do have a birthday party of sorts at their house in the country near Walnut Grove after Nellie Oleson has her own birthday party in town. Unlike many of the episodes from that show, this episode is actually based on events from the books itself. Laura and Mary do attend a party at Nellie Oleson’s house, and Laura and Mary do throw one at their own house soon after. (Although Nellie’s party is not described as a birthday party in the books, an autobiographical article entitled “How Laura Got Even” that Laura wrote for The Missouri Ruralist much later in her life describes the event as a birthday party for the bratty Nellie.)


A stack of antique books on display in the Ingalls home in De Smet.

The parties are not mentioned in Pioneer Girl, but the autobiography does include a description of Laura and Mary’s visits to Nellie and Willie Owens’ house. (Wilder gave these characters the last name Oleson in her books.) She describes the “wonderful toys, tops and jumping jacks and beautiful picture books” that they had in their house behind their father’s store. She also mentions Nellie’s “wonderful doll” (Pioneer Girl 87).

In the “Town Party” chapter from On the Banks of Plum Creek, we get more details about the toys that the Olesons had at their party. Willie exclaims the he doesn’t want the kids riding on his “velocipede,” and Laura and the other children spend time playing with Willie’s toy soldiers and Noah’s ark set. They also get to play with a jumping-jack, and Nellie even shows them her two dolls: one made out of china and the other out of wax. The wax doll even has eyes that close when she lies down, and she says “Mamma” when her stomach is squeezed. After Nellie yells at Laura for touching her doll, Laura sits to the side of the room and looks at two wonderful books, one of which is entitled “Mother Goose.” For a treat, Mrs. Oleson feeds the children a “sugar-white cake” and tall glasses of lemonade. At this town birthday party, everything is really fancy and expensive to Laura and Mary, including the sweet cake and sugary lemonade, but the party is actually quite sour because Nellie and Willie are so spoiled.


As explains, this nifty contraption that Willie owned was a forerunner for the modern bicycle. The main difference between this and a bicycle was that this thing wouldn’t have had any pedals. Rather, “the rider moved forward by ‘walking’ with the tips of the toes while sitting on the seat between two wheels. It was steered by a handlebar attached to the front wheel.” Velocipedes didn’t have breaks either. To stop, riders would have had to “plant [their] feet firmly” on the ground or let it slow down on its own.

Mother Goose

The pictures and rhymes that Laura read in this book were a collection of ancient nursery rhymes compiled and published by Thomas Fleet. The “Mother Goose” entry on cites a definition from the 1882 Webster’s Dictionary. According to this entry, Fleet actually collected the songs from his mother-in-law, Mrs. Goose, and ill-naturedly entitled the anthology “Mother Goose’s Melodies for Children” in derision of the mother-in-law, whose singing of these songs he found to be so annoying.

Town Treats

While Laura only got five little cakes from her Ma for her birthday in the Big Woods, Mrs. Oleson served a big cake at Nellie and Willie’s party, and all of the children got to eat a piece. Laura and Mary even got their first taste of lemonade. Considering the size of the cake and the expense of white sugar and lemons, the fact that the Olesons could serve these treats shows the wealth of the Oleson family compared to the Ingalls family. (The book The World of Little House has a recipe of this lemonade. Try and make it yourself and see if you find it as amazing as Laura did!)

Meanwhile, In New York…

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.

almanzo & alice

Young Almanzo Wilder with one of his older sisters, Alice.

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.

Almanzo’s Yoke

According to, 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.

Mother’s Doughnuts

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.

A Big Woods Birthday

cabin copy

This is the replica of the little log cabin that Laura would have lived in during her Big Woods birthday. You can visit this replica today. It stands on the location of the Ingalls family’s original cabin in Pepin, Wisconsin.

Today is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 150th birthday! In celebration of that, we’re going to spend the next several blog posts digging in to each of the birthdays that Laura experiences in her Little House series.

In Little House in the Big Woods and in Wilder’s autobiography, Pioneer Girl, Wilder writes about her fifth birthday. Wilder only briefly talks about that birthday in the Big Woods in her autobiography, mentioning that “Pa played spank me” and gave her “one [spank] for each year.” She also mentions the little wooden doll that Pa whittled for her and the rag doll Ma and Mary made for her (Pioneer Girl 41). Even though these were only small and simple gifts, that day’s celebration was special to her. It filled Laura with pride to think she was a whole year older.

Little House in the Big Woods offers a fictionalized perspective of her birthday experience. In this account, Laura gets six spanks: one for each year and “the last one big spank to grow on” (Little House in the Big Woods 97). Just like in Pioneer Girl, Laura gets a little wooden doll from her Pa. But, in this account, she also gets five little cakes from her Ma. Since this book describes Laura as receiving her beloved rag doll, Charlotte, during Christmastime only one chapter earlier, Mary’s gift to Laura is a new dress for the doll (97). Laura may not get the happy birthday song sung to her, but, “for a special birthday treat” at the end of the day, Pa plays one of Mary and Laura’s favorite songs, “Pop Goes the Weasel” (98).

Ma’s Cakes

Although Laura didn’t get an actual birthday cake for her special day, the little cakes that Ma made her would have been considered to be a fine treat for her birthday. Laura doesn’t describe the type of cake that Ma might have made, but we can imagine that perhaps she used her valuable store-bought white sugar. The book The World of Little House offers a recipe for heart-shaped cakes made out of white sugar, butter, flour, and vanilla. I like to imagine that these are like the cakes that Laura got for her birthday.

Charlotte the Rag Doll

In Little House in the Big Woods, we get to see Laura’s excitement when she first holds her very own rag doll, Charlotte. She describes this beautiful rag doll in her autobiography, writing, “I thought her beautiful, with her curled black yarn hair, her red mouth and her black bead eyes” (Pioneer Girl 76). In Pioneer Girl, Wilder mentions that the real-life doll’s name was actually Roxy, not Charlotte. Even though this doll would have been made out of old rags and spare buttons and pieces of yarns, the only other doll that Laura owned before this special doll was a doll made out of corncobs. This homemade rag doll, then, would have been an extra special gift for Laura.

“Pop Goes the Weasel”

According to, “‘Pop! Goes the Weasel’ is considered a traditional American song, and sheet music for it was published a number of times in the 1850s. The song dates back to the 1700s, with lyrics in Cockney slang.” This song was one of Laura and Mary’s favorites to have Pa play for them because they enjoyed the “pop” sound that Pa would make by plucking one of the strings on his fiddle. He would have done this by hooking one of the fingers on his left hand on a string and pulling it up sharply to make the string vibrate. The sound would have contrasted a lot with the rest of the song because normally Pa would play the strings on his fiddle using his horsehair bow, not his fingers. Apparently he would pluck it very quickly, though, because neither Mary nor Laura could ever see his finger making the sound. It may not have been the Happy Birthday song, but the girls sure loved it!

Let’s Have A Good Old-Fashioned Birthday Party

birthday girl

Laura Ingalls Wilder at the dedication of the Wilder Library in Mansfield.


One hundred and fifty years ago this February, something very special happened to the world. At the time of its occurrence, however, only a few friends and family members knew about it. The two people in the world that were the most excited about this special event were 31-year-old Charles Ingalls and his 27-year-old wife, Caroline Ingalls. Two-year-old Mary Amelia Ingalls may have also been a bit excited too, because the special thing that had happened was the birth of her baby sister, Laura Elizabeth Ingalls.

Beloved author of the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder, was born in a little log house near the town of Pepin, Wisconsin, on February 7, 1867. This year, in celebration of her 150th birthday, our blog will be featuring a number of posts about Laura’s birthdaysthe ones she writes about in the Little House series as well as the ones she doesn’t write about. These posts will give you a taste of what birthdays and celebrations were like for kids growing up on the prairie the good old Pioneer Days.

To start us off, let’s take a look at some basic facts about birthday parties in the 1800s.

According to an article entitled “A Brief History of Birthday Parties,” birthday parties in the Victorian era were often “large and extravagant” events thrown by the parents on behalf of the birthday kid. These sorts of birthday parties required enough room for a ball and the help of plenty of servants. It wasn’t exactly your average “pin the tale on the donkey” sort of party. (Check out this article for more information about the history of birthday parties.)

Of course, Laura and her family wouldn’t have been able to pull off birthday parties like these extravagant Victorian parties. But how about birthday cakes and the birthday song? Would Laura at least have had those? Well, according to a Huffington Post article, although the birthday song wouldn’t become a thing until the 1920s, birthday cakes were around by the time of Laura’s childhood. In fact, late 18th century Germany was the originator of the whole contemporary birthday-cake-with-candles tradition. (Take a look at this article for more birthday trivia.) But birthday cakes in the Little House books just doesn’t seem to be much of a thing. If that’s the case, then, what exactly did Laura do for her birthdays?

In order to find that out, we’ll just have to look and see what Laura said herself. Come back next time and join us as we take a look at Laura’s birthday in Little House in the Big Woods.

Charlotte Wallis Tucker Quiner Holbrook

5In our last two posts, we spent some time talking about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s grandmother, Charlotte. Most recently, we learned about her travels from New England to Ohio and from Ohio to Indiana and later Wisconsin with her husband, Henry Quiner, and their growing family. Within the first six years of her time in Wisconsin, however, Charlotte became a widow. Henry drowned in a shipwreck in Lake Michigan in 1845, and Charlotte was left in the Wisconsin woods with her six children who were all under the age of eleven.


The violet is the state flower of Wisconsin, the birthplace of Charlotte’s daughter and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother, Caroline Lake Quiner.

Martha Quiner Carpenter, Charlotte’s oldest daughter of the children who survived to adulthood, recounts in a letter to Laura Ingalls Wilder that her mother sold the claim that she and her husband Henry had settled on and bought another nearby. They made the move in 1847. William Anderson, in his biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, explains that the family was able to farm on this new land. As Martha describes it, “When [my mother, Charlotte,] had a piece of land cleared she would take her spade and hoe to make the garden, [and] plant her corn and potatoes among the stumps. It was no easy work I can tell you. She went at it with a will.” The family also had bees on their farm and would have harvested the honey as well as the crops they planted.

The year after the family moved to this new farm, Charlotte remarried. The man she married was named Frederick Holbrook. By this time, Charlotte’s full name would have been Charlotte Wallis Tucker Quiner Holbrook, Wallis being her middle name, Tucker her maiden name, and Quiner the surname from her first marriage.

William Anderson explains that Frederick purchased the land next to the Quiner farm so that the family could have more space to plant crops and let their animals graze. By the 1850 census, Frederick Holbrook, Charlotte, and all of her kids appear listed together as living in the town of Concord in Jefferson County, Wisconsin. According to the record, Frederick was also from back east, having been born in Connecticut. The census lists him as a farmer by trade. His age is also recorded in this account, and it appears as if he was about 11 years younger than Charlotte, who would have been 39 when she remarried.

In January of 1854, Charlotte and Frederick had their only child together, a very pretty little girl named Charlotte E. She would grow up to be the “Aunt Lottie” that Laura Ingalls Wilder talks about in Little House in the Big Woods, the aunt who answers Laura and Mary’s question about whether she likes brown or golden hair better.

In the 1860 census, the Quiner-Holbrook family is still listed as living in the town of Concord. However, by the 1870 census, the family has moved to the town of Sullivan in Jefferson County, Wisconsin. According to modern maps, Concord and Sullivan are only about 5 miles apart. Sixteen-year-old Lottie is the only one of the Quiner-Holbrook children still living at home in 1870 since all of the other children were out of the house or married by that time.

Sadly, by the 1880 census, Charlotte had become a widow for the second time in her life. Her husband Frederick died in February of 1874. He was not even 55 years old. After his death, Charlotte moved in with her youngest daughter, Lottie, who had married a man named Henry Moore. Charlotte most likely stayed with them for the rest of her life. She passed away in 1884 at the age of 75 and was buried next to her second husband, Frederick Holbrook, in the Hoffman Cemetery in Jefferson County, Wisconsin. Their tombstones can still be visited today.

A sign that sits between these two graves describes Charlotte as the “Mother of Caroline Quiner Ingalls” and “Grandmother of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ series.” Laura would pass on the pioneering legacy of her grandmother Charlotte for generations to come through the stories told in her beloved books.

Grandma Charlotte: The Original Pioneer Girl

Last time, I introduced you to Charlotte Wallis Tucker, the grandmother of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Although we don’t know much about Charlotte’s early life (even her birth date is uncertain), we actually have quite a few details about Charlotte’s life after her marriage to the silversmith named Henry Quiner, mostly thanks to a letter written by Charlotte’s daughter Martha Quiner Carpenter to Laura Ingalls Wilder.

After outlining the details of her mother’s marriage, Martha spends some time discussing the early years of her family. One thing that she skips over in her account is the birth of her only older sister, Martha Morse Quiner, whom Charlotte named after her own mother. I’m not sure if Martha was born in New Haven or elsewhere, but, thanks to a Quiner family tree from the Memorial Society archives, we do know that she was born in the year 1832.


The scarlet carnation is the state flower of Ohio, the birthplace of Charlotte’s first two sons.

Although I found no records to back this up, I agree with Laura’s Aunt Martha that her parents likely lived in New Haven for those first three years, moving to Cincinnatti, Ohio, in 1834. With this move, Charlotte left New England for the first time. By leaving New England, the place where both her mother and father spent their whole lives, Charlotte began the westward movement that would continue throughout the lives of Caroline Quiner and Charles Ingalls, Laura’s Ma and Pa.

According to Martha, Charlotte’s first two sons, Joseph and Henry, were born during the family’s time in Ohio. Later census records confirm this. According to the Quiner family tree that I had on hand during my research, “Joseph Carpenter Quiner” was born in 1834 and his younger brother, “Henry Odin Quiner,” in 1835. A year after Henry’s birth, in 1836, the oldest Quiner child, Martha Morse Quiner, passed away around the age of 4.


The peony is the state flower of Indiana, the birthplace of Charlotte’s second daughter, Martha.

The family’s next move was to Richmond, Indiana. Here, in the Hoosier State, the second Quiner daughter was born. Her name was also Martha. According to this Martha’s 88-year-old self, “Martha Jane Quiner” was born on November 6, 1837.

The fifth Quiner child was also a daughter. She was born in 1839 after the young family made their next move westward to Wisconsin. According to William Anderson’s biographical account of the Ingalls and Quiner families, this child was said by some to be the first non-Indian baby born in the Milwaukee area. Her name was Caroline Lake Quiner, and she would grow up to be the mother of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

After Caroline’s birth, two other children were born to Charlotte and Henry in Wisconsin. Eliza Ann Quiner was born in 1842, followed by Thomas Lewis Quiner about two years later.

Around the same time as Thomas’ birth, tragedy entered Charlotte’s life. During a trading expedition to the Straits of Mackinac in 1844, Charlotte’s husband Henry and the entire rest of his ship drowned in a violent storm on Lake Michigan. This left Charlotte alone in the Wisconsin wilderness with six young children in her care.

For more facts about the rest of Charlotte’s life as a Wisconsin pioneer, be sure to keep an eye out for our next post in this series.