When I first started studying the life of Laura, the discovery that she, Almanzo and Rose lived in the panhandle of Florida in took me by surprise. Somehow, it just didn’t seem to fit my image of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl. But it’s true. The Wilder’s moved to Westville, Florida, where Laura’s cousin Peter had settled. Cousin Peter, as you remember, was the son of Uncle Peter and Aunt Eliza and had lived with Laura and Almanzo in the The First Four Years. Peter went to Florida in 1890 with Almanzo’s brother Perley and Laura’s cousin, Joe Carpenter. Perley and Joe returned to Minnesota after a year, but Peter stayed on.
Laura and Almanzo joined Peter in Florida mainly for health reasons. Almanzo still suffered from the effects of the stroke/diphtheria and the cold Dakota winters were brutally hard on him, so a warmer climate was recommended.
I don’t know if the Wilders read any promotional booklets advertizing Holmes County, Florida, but if they did, they read the Westville area had many springs (would have sounded good after the dry Dakota summers), “one of the best agricultural counties in the state” with farmland that produces “nearly all varieties of vegetables year round,” (appealing to the farmer in Almanzo), and ranges that support sheep (remember how Laura and Peter raised sheep in DeSmet?). The county also boasted of both Methodist and Congregationalist churches, as well as a Masonic Lodge, all would have appealed at that time to the Wilders.
Sounded too good to be true! It was.
Laura had a very hard time adjusting to the heat and the humidity. According to Peter’s daughter’s Emma, one day Laura tried helping Peter plant corn and used a big black umbrella to shield herself from the sun. Of course, Laura had difficulty holding the umbrella as she planted corn and, in exasperation, Peter ordered her to the house. (Anecdote taken from Laura Ingalls Wilder–The Westville Florida Years by Alene M. Warnock).
Laura also did not feels safe and reportedly took to carrying a revolver. In A Little House Sampler, William Anderson writes, “Laura and the local residents did not mix. While Manly worked with Peter, Laura kept Rose protectively by her side, and the neighborhood women dismissed her as a haughty “up-north” gal.” Years later Laura wrote, “We went to live in the piney woods of Florida, where the trees always murmur, where the butterflies are enormous, where plants that eat insects grow in moist places, and alligators inhabit the slowly moving waters of the rivers. But at that time and in that place, a Yankee woman was more of a curiosity than any of these.”
Emma, recalled hearing how Laura wanted to move back home. Since the climate hadn’t improved Almanzo’s health much, the little family returned to De Smet in August 1892.
Not a lot is really known about the Laura and Almanzo’s time in Florida, but Rose did write a fictional award-winning short story loosely based on their time there called “Innocence”, published by Harper’s magazine in April 1922. “Innocence“ is regarded as Lane’s best short fiction.
Do you have anything to add about the Florida years or the story “Innocence”? I’d love to hear.
Until next time,