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Highway 14… the road to literary stardom

Retired librarian Kathy Baxter likes to point out that U.S. Highway 14 from Mankato to Walnut Grove could be called “the road to literary stardom.”

“Mankato’s Maud Hart Lovelace, New Ulm’s Wanda Gag and Walnut Grove’s Laura Ingalls Wilder were creators of wonderful children’s books, which have become classics in children’s literature,” she said.

Walnut Grove’s Laura Ingalls Wilder, New Ulm’s Wanda Gag and Mankato’s Maud Hart Lovelace are all well known in children’s literary circles. All three lived in communities on Highway 14 in Minnesota. Contributed photos, graphic by Bethany Hellum

People worldwide know of Wilder’s Little House books, mostly because of the television series Little House on the Prairie, set in Walnut Grove. Although less well known, Maud Hart Lovelace wrote 10 semi-autobiographical books in the Betsy-Tacy series set in Mankato, which she called “Deep Valley,” as well as other books for children and adults. New Ulm author/artist Wanda Gag is best known for writing and illustrating the children’s book Millions of Cats.

When Baxter realized the Highway 14 writers’ connection, she prepared a two-hour presentation on the phenomenon, which she delivers to diverse audiences. Although Baxter grew up in Walnut Grove (and now lives in suburban Minneapolis), her favorite of the three writers is Mankato’s Lovelace. In 1966, when Baxter was a student at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, she made two pilgrimages to Mankato with like-minded friends to see the locations they had read about.

“We walked to the end of Center Street (Hill Street in the books). Betsy’s cottage was still yellow; Tacy’s house was white. They suited the pictures we had in our minds. (The houses are now museums, owned by the Betsy-Tacy Society.) We even climbed the Big Hill behind the houses.”

The young women were fortunate to meet several of the books’ real-life characters. Baxter has memorialized these events in her book My Betsy-Tacy Miracle: A Literary Pilgrimage to Deep Valley, published in 2017 by Minnesota Heritage Publishing of North Mankato.

Maud Hart Lovelace was born in Mankato in 1892 to Thomas and Stella Palmer Hart, who were part of the “society circle.” The second of three daughters, she grew up feeling she was destined to become a writer. She once said, “I remember following my mother around as a tyke, asking her how to spell ‘going down the street.’ See, I was writing a story already. I’d tell the other kids (her friends Bicky Kenney and Midge Gerlach, who are Tacy and Tib in the books) a story, and I’d write everything down later. I wrote stories in notebooks and illustrated them with pictures cut from magazines.”

When Maud Hart was 10, her father had some of her poems printed in a booklet. Not much later, she began sending stories to magazines, selling a story at age 18. After graduating from Mankato High School in 1910, Maud Hart attended the University of Minnesota, where she wrote for two student publications. After a short period of study in several European countries, she married Delos Lovelace. They had been introduced by a mutual friend, an editor, who felt the two young writers were suited to each other. The Lovelaces lived first in Minneapolis and then in New York. A son died a few hours after birth; their daughter, Merian, grew up to take part in the New York literary scene.

Lovelace’s 10 Betsy-Tacy books (in which she is Betsy) resulted from her telling stories of her childhood to Merian. Lovelace wrote three additional children’s books set in Mankato, five other children’s books and six historical novels for adults, all set in Minnesota. She collaborated with her husband on several books, but not on Early Candelight, a fictionalized history of the early years of Fort Snelling. For this book, she was honored with a ceremony at the fort, the first woman ever to receive such an honor. Lovelace died in 1980 and is buried in her beloved “Deep Valley” of Mankato.

New Ulm’s Wanda Gag was born in 1893, the eldest of seven children of Elisabeth and Anton Gag (an artist). Wanda Gag is known as an American artist, author, translator, illustrator and printmaker. She began to write stories in sixth-grade. While still a teen, she had her illustrated story Robby Bobby in Mother Goose Land published in a junior supplement of The Minneapolis Journal. Despite her father’s death when she was 15, Gag finished high school and then taught for a year in a Springfield area country school. After attending art schools in the Twin Cities, she won scholarships to attend art school in New York, eventually working as a commercial illustrator, but always continuing to write. In 1927, Gag’s article “These Modern Women: A Hotbed of Feminists” was published in The Nation. That same year, Gag’s illustrated story Bunny’s Easter Egg was published in a children’s magazine. This led to Gag’s work being requested by a children’s book publisher, resulting in the publication of Millions of Cats in 1928. She had developed it from a story she’d written to entertain her friends’ children. Considered to be a pioneer in the development of the picture book, Gag received numerous book awards for several of her children’s books and also wrote for an adult audience.

Unlike Lovelace and Wilder, Gag did not live into her senior years. In 1943, at age 50, she married her longtime lover, Earle Humphreys. Three years later, she died of lung cancer. Her body was cremated and the ashes scattered.

Of the many people who helped develop Minnesota frontier settlements into little farming communities, perhaps none are as well known as the family of Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder, who was born in the Big Woods of Wisconsin in 1867 to Caroline and Charles Ingalls, the second of four daughters. (A baby brother died as an infant.) Her life included many adventures, but despite a series of misfortunes that befell the Ingalls family during their stay in Minnesota, the most stable years of her childhood may have been those spent on the prairie of Redwood County. In 1874, the Ingalls family moved into a sod dugout in one of the banks of Plum Creek, near the town of Walnut Grove. The next year, Charles Ingalls built a house of sawed lumber, complete with “boughten” windows and a new stove. Both Charles and Caroline Ingalls were charter members of the Congregational Church, and Charles Ingalls was the first Walnut Grove justice of the peace.

The stability was not to last. A grasshopper plague the summers of 1875 and ‘76 led the Ingalls family to move to Iowa, where they ran a hotel. The family returned to Walnut Grove the following year, where another tragedy occurred—one that, perhaps, led to the author’s ability to describe people and situations. The eldest Ingalls girl, Mary, lost her sight, so Laura had to learn to describe things to her sister, a talent that later made her semi-autobiographical books true to life.

Eventually, an uncertain economy and Charles Ingalls’ wanderlust led the family to move westward to Dakota Territory. There, Laura Ingalls grew to adulthood, teaching at a country school and marrying Almanzo Wilder, a man 10 years her senior. After four difficult farming years, which included her husband’s debilitating illness and the death of a son, the frontier girl was no more. The Wilders, including a daughter, Rose, moved to Mansfield, Missouri, in the Ozarks, to escape the severe South Dakota weather.

Although Wilder was a teacher while in her mid-teens, there is no indication she began writing regularly until she was a Missouri farm wife. Her columns appeared in the Missouri Ruralist under the heading The Farm Home and later, As a Farm Woman Thinks.

Wilder was 65 when her first book Little House in the Big Woods was released in 1932. By then, her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was a well-known magazine writer, living on the East Coast. Some critics of Wilder’s Little House series believe that Lane did heavy editing and, perhaps, some of the writing. Recent research indicates the women did collaborate to some extent on the manuscripts, with Lane lending her expertise in preparing the manuscripts for publication and in marketing. It is clear, however, that Wilder wrote the stories. Some of her original manuscripts can be seen in museums, written in longhand on lined paper by the pioneer girl whose memories were still vivid in her senior years. Widowed eight years earlier, she died in 1957, at age 90. The Wilders are both buried in the Mansfield Cemetery.

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