Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 8: Fourth of July

The Fourth of July. Here in Michigan it’s hard to imagine the fourth of July. We’ve barely enjoyed any spring here and I’m having a hard time believing that it’ll ever be summer!

It started, very early, with a BOOM out on the Ingalls homestead claim though. Laura begins to paint a picture, with her words, of a day that is really celebrated in a way that honors our country.

Even the sun, as it rose shining into the clearest of skies, seemed to know this day was the glorious Fourth.

It seemed too special a day to be ordinary, but there would be no picnic without fried chicken.  Laura just feels that it needs to be celebrated though.

Laura throws out the dishwater, after breakfast and sees Pa looking at the oats. Everything is growing tall and lush and hearty. The garden is promising to feed them well and soon. It looks like things are looking up, which to me is one of the best things about Little Town on the Prairie. You can’t help but be happy.

Pa proposes taking a trip into town to enjoy the celebration that seems to be going on. Ma and Mary are happier to stay home on this day, but Laura and Carrie cannot get ready quickly enough.

I love how Laura says that Grace, when she demands to go along, is almost spoiled and her unruliness must be nipped in the bud. Pa sets her sternly in her chair. We never get to know Grace that well and I just thought it was special that they all spoiled her, just a little.

So Pa, Laura, and Carrie walk off toward town to enjoy this day that just needs to be celebrated. The girls just aren’t comfortable in the crowd though. They ask Pa if they can go into his store building so they can enjoy the celebrating from afar.  I wonder do they get chills just thinking of being huddled together during that long winter?

They tiptoe upstairs to the hot bedrooms where they can watch and talk freely until Pa comes back in with a treat of smoked herring to go with their bread and butter lunch that Ma sent with them. And firecrackers. The save some of the smoked herring for Ma and decide to save the firecrackers to take home so Grace can enjoy them too.

When they venture back outside, the American flag was fluttering in the breeze and a man was beside it. They stopped to listen to his speech. He talked about how America had won her freedom (which she still fights for to this day). I thought part of what is said is pertinent even today:

“Well, so here we are today,” the man went on. “Every man Jack of us a free and independent citizen of God’s country, the only country on earth where a man is free and independent. Today’s the Fourth of July, when this whole thing was started, and it ought to have a bigger, better celebration than this. We can’t do much this year. Most of us are out here trying to pull ourselves up by our own boot straps. By next year, likely some of us will be better off, and able to chip in for a real big rousing celebration of Independence Day. Meantime, here we are. It’s Fourth of July, and on this day somebody’s got to read the Declaration of Independence. It looks like I’m elected, so hold your hats, boys; I’m going to read it.

Laura and Carrie knew the Declaration of Independence by heart. How many could say that these days? And it meant something too. It gave them a solemn, glorious feeling to hear the words. When he was done, no one cheered. It was more of an “Amen” moment. There were really no words. When was the last time that we heard the Declaration recited on Independence Day, or any day really?

Pa begins to sing, and soon, everyone is singing:

My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing…

Long may out land be bright
With Freedom’s holy light.
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King!

And Laura had a thought. The Declaration and the song came together in her mind and she thought: God is America’s king. Americans are free. They have to obey their own consciences. This is what it means to be free.
“Our father’s God, author of liberty —”
The laws of Nature and of Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free.

Laura had no more time to think about it. The others were urging her on. Lemonade! Such a treat, especially for Carrie who had never tasted it before.  But sharing the dipper with everyone in the whole town? I don’t think that fact bothered me until I was an adult.

On to the races! Laura liked the black pony with the coat that shone in the sunlight and a long mane and tail blowing silky on the breeze. “Go!” They were off!  It was the prettiest…but not the fastest.

The excitement of the race was about to get more exciting.

The buggy race was next. Laura hardly saw any of the other teams because she was struck with one team that she recognized.

“Oh, look, Carrie, look! It’s the brown Morgans!” She cried.

I think, for Laura, there were no other teams to look at after the Morgans (and their owner)  came onto the track. Even though he doesn’t stand a chance pulling his brother’s peddler’s wagon since he doesn’t have a buggy and (being the independent young cuss he is) he’d rather lose with what he’s got rather than win with a borrowed buggy.

Laura was truly heartbroken that Almanzo and the Morgans didn’t stand a chance, even crying out, “Oh, it isn’t fair!”

The race starts and the other teams, pulling their light buggies came fast, leaving the beautiful brown horses in the dust. Soon that peddler’s wagon, with the Morgans never breaking their trot, passed one buggy, then two.

Laura felt that her wishing was pulling them. And maybe it was. 🙂

There was no way they could win, but Laura kept wishing them on. “Faster, faster, only a little faster. Oh, come on, come on!”

Soon the Morgans caught up to Mr. Owen’s buggy with his bays and slowly, smoothly crept by it. They were at a tie, but not for long. While Mr. Owen used a whip on his horses, Almanzo leaned forward and seemed to be speaking to his beautiful horses. He needed no whip. Fast and smooth the Morgans passed the bays and won the race!

I love Laura’s emotion here:

Laura found that she had been holding her breath. Her knees were wobbly. She wanted to yell and to laugh and to cry and to sit down and rest.

She really had put a lot of wishing into helping Almanzo and those beautiful horses win!

Then Laura found out about the prize and was glad she hadn’t known that they were running for a five-dollar prize.

The day of celebration was coming to an end then. As they walked along Main Street, with Mr. Boast, Pa told him of the Wilder’s sister who was a schoolteacher back East in Minnesota. She had taken a claim near town and was interested in teaching the next winter.

Laura thought, “Maybe, If I am a very good scholar and if she likes me, maybe she might take me driving behind those beautiful horses. ” 🙂

Posted in Little Town on the Prairie
14 comments on “Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 8: Fourth of July
  1. Lara says:

    NPR does an annual reading of the Declaration every Independence Day. I can remember many times getting a choked up in the car going somewhere and listening to it.

  2. LauriOH says:

    When Pa’s looking at the oats and they are doing well, I’m waiting for the grasshoppers to start dropping out of the sky.
    I cringed as a child reading about the shared lemonade dipper. My mother would freak if I drank from it. I wonder if they told Ma and what she said.
    I find it interesting to compare the Almanzo who won’t bother a buggy to the Almanzo who ends up so in debt during The First Four Years.
    Notice that everyone thinks Laura is such a good girl, but here she’s wondering if she become teacher’s pet, she’ll get to ride behind the horses. Not all that different from Nellie now is it?

    • Naomi says:

      They didn’t really know about germs yet in 1881, so sharing a lemonade dipper wouldnt’ have given anyone a second thought.

      Your comment about Almanzo and the buggy is interesting. I’ve wondered recently (having just re-read “Farmer Boy” for the first time in a while) if the extreme miserlyness of Father Wilder might have been responsible for Almanzo’s inability to manage money well later on. (Rebellion and all that… Father squeezed every penny, so I’ll throw MY money away.) Father Wilder who was RICH, but when his son asked for a nickle for lemonade at the fair, gave him a lecture instead. Father Wilder who made more money selling surplus potatoes than Pa Ingalls made in 9 months of bookkeeping for the railroad, but rarely hired help and when he did, paid them in pork. (And insisted that his wife (in her spare moments between child-rearing and cooking and baking and mending) spin and weave the cloth for the family clothing from wool sheared from the family sheep.

      • Daria says:

        I like to consider that Father Wilder wasn’t independently wealthy, but that his frugality led to that condition. The Wilders lived in a time where homespun fabric was the norm, and much cheaper than new-fangled machine-made fabric. And what else did Mother Wilder have to do – it’s not like she could watch TV or turn on the radio. Work was a good way to pass the time, and weaving a good winter chore. I also imagine that the Wilders made some business decisions that were not risky in the East with its more frequent rains, but in the West became dangerous propositions. Hence the future loss of their fortune in Louisiana, with Eliza Jane’s spurious recommendation in land investment.

        • naomi says:

          “Farmer Boy” would have been set just after the Civil War.
          Machine woven cloth was widely available (though cotton cloth would been higher and scarcer during the war) and while it was certainly more expensive than homespun (which cost nothing but Mother’s time and the pork paid to the two French-men who helped shear the sheep), it was far less costly than it would have been, say, 100 years earlier. (Machine spinning and weaving had begun in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, and had brought the prices of textiles down dramatically. Particularly in Northeastern New York state, they weren’t far from the mills at Lowell Massachuetts, so fabric would have been affordable.

          What else did Mother Wilder have to do? Cook large meals for her family 3 times a day. Make butter. Sew and mend and preserve and work in the garden and keep the stove going and polish the lamps. Maybe she could have even taken over some of the tasks her children did, so they could have gone to school more than 3 weeks out of the year. Or relaxed for half an hour with a book or some fancy needlework.

          • Holly says:

            It wasn’t about just being miserly, it was about being independent Yankee farmers. You had sheep, you sheared them for their wool and made your clothes, and when they were past lambing, you had mutton. That’s just the way farmers lived back then. You did as much as you could on your own. And with three daughters, there were plenty of hands to card, spin and weave.

  3. Dr Laura says:

    Michigan is the only place I’ve been where, on the 4th of July, I’ve had to wear mittens and drink hot chocolate to stay warm!

    I can just hear Laura singing “faster, faster” from the musical.

    • LauriOH says:

      Where were you? I have spent so many 4th of Julys in Michigan probably more than I have in Ohio.

  4. Jaime Brooks says:

    When I was younger, My grandpa had a small farm in Michigan, On the the side of the house by the outdoor faucet, hung an old metal sauce pan. If you were outside and wanted a drink of water, that is what everyone used. You would fill the dipper up with water from the faucet and drink. Now I cringe when I think of sharing a dipper, but no one thought of germs even 20 years ago as we do today. I always laugh becuase my mom would not let us drink out of the garden hose, but we could all share the dipper.

  5. Monica says:

    We can do a really cold 4th here in Seattle too! Sometimes I say that summer doesn’t start here until July 5th.
    I’ve always loved this chapter, Thanks for the roundup!

  6. Since several people seem to be really uncomfortable with the shared dippers, it seems appropriate to share some thoughts on 19th Century hygiene…

    As disturbing as it is to us, we have to understand that Laura is no stranger to the shared dipper. As the story is told, she and Mary shared a tin cup until Christmas in Kansas. On the train from Walnut Grove, she uses the single, railroad-provided tin cup to draw water from a spigot and drink, then refills it to bring to Ma and the girls. Nothing unusual to her in the least! In a time of no -cillin drugs nor Neosporin, the human body simply had to build a much stronger immune system. Everyone was used to a great deal of germs and parasites; their bodies were immune to a lot of things which modern humans in first-world societies could not safely tolerate.

    In Laura’s day, germs certainly could kill a person, but people were often almost as likely to die from invasive treatments (calomel and laudanum were popular medicines; the former contained mercury, the latter was an opiate) or unstoppable bleeding. Germ theory existed in Laura’s childhood, but old habits die hard, and new practices take decades to become general practice. Standards for cleanliness in all things have changed vastly in the last 200 years. For example:

    When Laura’s grandparents were growing up in the early 19th century, very few people bathed their whole person often, and fewer did so even on a weekly basis…it was thought that dousing oneself entirely, especially during the cold months, was gravely detrimental to one’s health. Most people owned only a few clothes, and bedlinens were rarely changed or washed. Dishes were scraped and washed in water, rarely with soap, to the appearance of clean, perhaps, but not scoured and scrubbed in scalding water between each use. Babies’ diapers…well, let’s just say if it was only wet, it may not have been rinsed before it was hung to dry. Truly.

    The next generation, when Pa and Ma are growing up in the 1830s-40s, will see the introduction of the concept of more regular bathing practices. A pitcher and basin on a dry sink become more commonly found in estate inventories, and soaps are being commercially manufactured, meaning more families were bathing–at least their hands and faces–on a regular basis. This is also when women begin wearing drawers. Prior to that, such a garment was not generally found to be worn by women. These things are commented upon in “Medical” or “Household” companions (books for married women which often combined cookery, medicine, childrearing, housekeeping, and marital relations advice to new brides), as well as pictured in various political satires and cartoons of the era. Business records, too, will show the items which groceries and mercantiles stocked, and those which midwives and doctors purchased for their practices.

    By Laura’s youth and early marriage, a great number of changes have occurred in the standards of cleanliness, but like anything else, some changes are embraced more readily than others. Laura famously made a note to Rose when writing about Plum Creek, regarding her suspicion that the family drank creek water without boiling it; she did not want readers to think they were “dirty–which we were NOT,” so a little of the detail was altered to give a cleaner impression of the family’s living habits. I see this as yet another sign of the changes taking place over her life’s experience. Some bits of evidence which point to the hygienic standards of the late Victorian Era can be found in rather mundane items–by the 1890s, the Montgomery Ward and Sears and Roebuck catalogues are selling all manner of “medical devices” for household/hygienic purposes, and one new-fangled item among them: toilet paper!

    As for the universal dipper, two final bits:

    When ice cream became a popular sidewalk vendor item in big cities in the late 19th century, it was originally sold by small portions dished in glass containers. The patron would eat the ice cream immediately and return the glass…which was not necessarily washed between customers. Eventually, the spread of certain diseases was linked to practices like this, and some municipalities banned the ice cream vendors from reusing unwashed dishes. This spurred the invention of the ice cream cone: disposable paper cones first (too much litter attracted rodents, which, with their disease-carrying parasites, made them just as bad) and finally the edible cone…problem solved!

    Furthermore, the polio epidemic of the early- to mid-20th century has been linked to the rapid implementation of indoor plumbing, which served to keep streets and yards far cleaner than they had ever been, since wastewater of all kinds was now kept much farther from the ground’s surface. Because of this cleaner environment, it is suspected by many researchers that children lost the opportunity to be exposed to many common diseases in small, regular doses as the previous generations had been, and the lack of exposure over the next few generations weakened the immunity of an entire generation of the populace.

    That is to say, a child playing outside as a toddler would not be exposed to the amount and variety of germs which his parents or grandparents had been, and consequently did not have the opportunity to develop the same level of natural immunity to many infections. Add to this the increasing number of children being breast fed for comparatively short duration (no longer the one-to-two year span of earlier generations), and yet another previous source of immunity-building in the child disappears. By the third generation of indoor-plumbing households, the stress on the weakened immune systems was too great, and the theory goes that this vulnerability manifested itself in a mass outbreak of polio.

    • Melanie, thank you so much for the insight into hygiene in Laura’s time! It is an interesting conundrum that the cleaner our society becomes, the more vulnerable it becomes.

    • Holly says:

      When I read above, I was thinking that there’d already been examples of communal dippers in LHOTP. The tin cup on the train and the water bucket at school, with a dipper in it that all the children drank from.

  7. Tamara says:

    I can’t help but think about the late 1800’s version of freedom for all and the 2015 version.