Laura Ingalls Wilder made farm life in the wheat belt during pioneer days sound like a perfect childhood in her Little House on the Prairie books, but her family would have starved if she and her Pa and Ma hadn’t done time serving rough customers at the Chicago and North Western railroad camp when the future authoress was 12.
We aren’t sure of the exact date this (very) old C&NW No. 3 pencil was used by dusty men along the line, which started in 1859 and ran until 1995, but its typography was in use by 1883. Therefore it’s likely this pencil existed in 1879 when Charles Ingalls signed on as the railroad's company general store clerk and surveyors’ house caretaker in what would become De Smet, South Dakota, along the tracks being laid out to the hub town of Pierre. It’s not hard to imagine him using a plain C&NW pencil like this with no eraser to tally purchases and keep track of chores.
The railroad had been peppering potential pioneers with “You Need A Farm!” propaganda erroneously suggesting the hot, dry Dakota Territory climes were great for crops, and in September, 1879 Mr. Ingalls took their word for it and headed to the eastern part of the area to homestead. It wasn’t long before he and his wife and daughter Laura were working for the railroad, all the livelong day, to supplement his income enough to support the family.
Twelve-year-old Laura found herself surrounded by peculiar folks straight out of an old dime novel as she and her mother cooked and served food to the men of the camp. There was the hulking half-French, half-Native worker who spent most of his time gambling, fighting or riding his white pony along the line. There was also a gang of horse thieves that menaced the town during the Ingalls’ time. They were never caught.
Beginning with Little House In the Big Woods in 1932, 65-year-old Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series brought pioneer childhood in the America of the 1870s and 1880s to vivid life for 20th century kids in the throes of the Great Depression still way too familiar with rural struggle but also used to motorcars and radio. Like this no-frills green pencil from her father’s days working for the railroad, her works are fascinating artifacts that survived because they are beautiful and simple and useful. -Jessica Letkemann