Guest post by Sue Poremba
Around the same time I began reading the Little House books, I began reading biographies of famous Americans – mostly presidents and first ladies. Presidential history now fascinates me as much as the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, so it seems right that this particular section fell into my lap.
For, you see, Cousin Peter comes to Laura and Manly to tell them Mr. Whitehead wanted to sell his 100 purebred Shropshire sheep.
“A presidential election was coming in the fall, and it looked as though the Democrats were due to win. If they did, Mr. Whitehead, being a good Republican, was sure the country would be ruined,” Laura wrote.
So my brain began to spin. This was the “third year.” Laura and Manly married in 1885, so this would be the election of 1888. Something seemed off kilter here, I thought. So I began to do a little digging.
The president when Laura and Manly married was Grover Cleveland, a Democrat. The election of 1888 was between Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. When all the votes were tallied, Cleveland won the popular vote but Harrison won the Electoral College, and it was Harrison, the Republican, who was sworn in March 1889.
So, was Laura saying that Mr. Whitehead was worried that the Democrats were due to win re-election? Or did her memory fail her – after all, there was a long string of Republican presidents during her childhood and young adult years and most people are hard pressed to remember who was president at any given time. She also may have confused this election with the second election between Harrison, now incumbent, and Cleveland, where Cleveland does win and the country enters the Panic of 1893.
What does this have to do with the actual section of the book I’m supposed to be writing about? Well, perhaps nothing, but the fact that the Panic actually happened five years later allowed Laura and Manly and Peter to make a profit from the purchase of the sheep, whereas, if the country’s ruin happened as Laura had written it, it is likely that the sheep purchase would have been a bust.
Laura and Manly took a huge risk with the purchase of the sheep. To buy them, Manly sold the colt bought with the last of Laura’s teaching money. $100 was a fortune and could have helped to pay the increasing debt. They had already seen their share of crop failures. Even though things were looking good – if there was no hailstorm – there were no guarantees. Sure enough, when the time to harvest the wheat was nearing, a severe heatwave hovered over the Dakota prairie and cooked the wheat. It would feed the livestock, but nothing else.
At least the sheep would have something to eat in the winter.
There was something very telling about the personalities of Laura and Manly in this section. When Cousin Peter first presented the idea of the sheep, Laura began to calculate how much money the wool would bring in and how the sheep would pay for themselves in that first year, as well as using the public land next to the tree claim for them to graze. Yes, there were variables (Mr. Whitehead’s prediction of a nation in ruins), but even if the sheep didn’t pay for themselves in the first year, a profit would most likely come eventually. From her life with Manly, she saw how animals on the farm could be profitable.
Manly did some calculations, too. He began to calculate how much wheat he’d be harvesting and how much he’d be able to get for a bushel. He started to mentally pay off their debts. Certainly, he had to know that until the wheat was harvested and sold anything could happen (Manly could have used our pal Barb* to send him some weather predictions!).
Laura was a realist who wanted some guarantees with her risk. Manly was an eternal optimist who believed good things were always just around the corner. But sometimes it is all a matter of luck. When they bought the sheep in 1888, they were darn lucky that the Panic and the country’s ruin wouldn’t come for another five years.
*LIWLRA’s own resident meteorologist Barb Boustead.