Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Others on the Prairie

How and why did Miss Bell come to live in DeSmet? I've read all of the Little House books too many times to count, but I never thought about Miss Bell before this week.  How did a young, single woman end up as a dressmaker in 1883 Dakota Territory?  How is such a tiny town even large enough to support a dressmaker?

Well, I can answer the last question.  Although Laura Ingalls Wilder never describes the physical town after The Long Winter, she mentions how quickly DeSmet grows in both Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years.   The school expands from a dozen students to upper and lower schools (maybe 50-60 students in all), and someone had to live and work in those buildings Pa helped build every spring.  We only meet those who are important to Laura's story, because extraneous characters could become confusing.

But I wonder about Miss Bell.  Laura describes her as young, so she's not a spinster or childless widow trying to make a living.  She's a businesswoman, though, so not as young as Laura, and there's no mention of her family.  Is she the oldest child of a family that went west to stake their claim?  Or did she strike out on her own, deciding that a depot town, even in a remote area, would attract enough residents to support a dressmaker?

As I ponder the question of Miss Bell, I wonder whom else we don't know in 1885 DeSmet.  The school expands, but Florence Wilkins is the "big girl" joins Laura, Mary Power, Minnie Johnson, Ida Brown, and Nellie Oleson in the years spanning the last two books.  I can believe that Laura, Minnie, and Mary were, at 13, the oldest girls in school during The Long Winter because the town was so small then, but did none of the new families send their 15-year-old daughters to school?  We know there's a bank (Mary Powers's new beau works there), and a hotel (one of the first buildings in town), several stores, and two bars.  There's a printer, so there must have been at least a basic newspaper.

I could answer these questions with a little research.  A few hours on Google will bring me links to census data and personal histories.  Do I really want to know, though?  Or would I rather speculate on what would drive a young woman to start a dressmaking business in a frontier outpost.

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