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Farmer Boy – historical perspective

The James Wilder Family in Franklin County. The purchase of James Wilder’s farm (south of Burke in Franklin County, New York) took place in the same month in 1840 that he married his first wife, Mary Shonyo. She died in 1842; the couple had no children. James Wilder married Angeline Day in 1843. Six children were born to the couple while living on the farm: Laura (1844), Royal (1847), Eliza Jane (1850), Alice (1853), Almanzo (1857), and Perley (1869). Two of the Wilder children do not appear in Farmer Boy: Laura (either to avoid confusion with the author’s name or because Laura Wilder was not living at home at the time the story takes place) and Perley (who was not born at the time the story takes place).

James Wilder’s father, Abel Wilder, had moved from Vermont to Malone, New York, around 1817, and three of the sons farmed in and around Malone. James’ sister Sarah married Angeline’s brother Andrew; their family and that of Angeline’s brother Charles Wesley Day are Almanzo’s aunts and uncles and cousins of Farmer Boy. Both the Wilders and Days were prosperous farmers and businessmen and well-respected members of the community.

The Wilders remained in Franklin County until the early 1870s, moving west to Spring Valley, Minnesota. The move was prompted by both the failure of hops, the Wilder’s cash crop, and favorable moves west made by other family members. In April 1875, James and Angeline Wilder sold their eighty-eight acre farm to Mary and Francis White for $5000. Although the existing manuscript for Farmer Boy includes pages about the Wilders’ discussion and decision to move west, this was not included in the published version.

The Wilder Farm. James Wilder began purchasing property in Burke Township (Franklin County), New York, in late 1840. In November of that year, he paid $342 for eighty-eight acres of land lying in Lot Number 11 in Township Number 7 of the Old Military Tract, lands originally surveyed to be awarded as bounty to Revolutionary War soldiers who protected the North from Indians, but eventually sold as wild lands (believed uninhabitable because of the harsh climate). The Wilder farm was located about eight miles southwest of Burke and a similar distance east of Malone, the much larger county seat of Franklin County. Franklin County lies in upstate New York, just south of the Canada border. In addition to this farm, James Wilder briefly owned property north of the town of Burke.

The Wilder farm is bisected northwest to southeast by Stacy Road, and the Wilder farmhouse was built on the east side of – and facing – the road. The big barns described in Farmer Boy were close behind the house, and the Trout River flowed across the southwest corner of the farm. Place your mouse over the map at left to see an aerial photograph of the Wilder farm; the original 88 acre parcel is outlined in red. The Wilders raised cattle and horses, and had sheep for both food and the wool they provided. They had extensive pastures, acreage in potatoes and corn, and a large garden to provide food for the family.
The Wilder home was a four-square frame farmhouse with a kitchen / pantry wing that could have pre-dated the larger two-story portion of the house. The main floor contained two bedrooms, parlor, dining room, and kitchen with woodshed and pantry. Downstairs was the cellar. Upstairs were bedrooms, workroom, and attic.

Burke, New York. Although Malone is the “town” of Farmer Boy, the Wilders also lived near the village of Burke, in their own township of the same name. Almanzo’s uncle’s potato-starch mill was in Burke, as well as a wagon maker, saw mill, flour mill, hotel, telegraph office, drygoods store, blacksmith, attorney, and multiple churches. The Northern Ogdensburg Railroad line ran through Burke, and the railroad bridge in Burke was the first in the area. It was also the first railroad to operate a refrigerated railroad car, called the “Icebox on Wheels.” Multiple cars of butter were shipped on the Northern. On one run in 1850, eight tons of butter were shipped out of Burke, perhaps even some of Mother Wilder’s good butter! The photo at right shows Main Street through Burke in the early days.

Malone, New York. “Town” to the Wilders meant Malone, the county seat of Franklin County, just a thirty minute ride behind swift Morgan horses from the Wilder farm. It was founded in 1812, having been known in earlier years as Harrisonville and Ezraville. At the time of Farmer Boy, there were well over three thousand people in Malone, as well as multiple churches, two banks, and many stores. There were flouring mills, a tannery, machine shops, a sandstone quarry, iron foundry, newspaper office, and woolen mill.

Malone was bisected north and south by the Salmon River, and east and west by Main Street, shown at left. At the heart of the town was its “three cornered” city park, bisected by the railroad tracks. Although there had exhibitions by the Franklin Agricultural Society as early as 1820, the first official County Fair was held in 1852, with the fifteenth annual fair being the one included in Farmer Boy. The fairgrounds occupied twenty-five acres west of town.

Franklin County Township Schools and Franklin Academy. The first school in Malone was built in 1806 and called Harison Academy. Settlers desired a school accredited by the State Board of Regents, but this depended on having a guaranteed income of at least $100 per year (in 1810) or $250 (in 1830), which proved impossible until 1831, when seventy-four farmers and townspeople mortgaged their property to obtain the money. Franklin Academy was chartered and incorporated in April 1831, the schoolhouse being a log building on four donated acres in the village of Malone. The school building was also used for religious services, and served as a courtroom and jail!

In 1836, a three-story stone building, 36 by 64 feet, was built to serve as the Academy. This is where Royal, Eliza Jane, and Alice attended school; it was torn down in 1870. It is not known if Almanzo ever attended Franklin Academy, but it is likely that he did.

The Wilder children must have attended a Township School prior to entering the Academy, although there has long been debate over the location and identity of this District School. On the deed for school property dated 24 February 1851, James Wilder was named a trustee of (joint) District School No. 5 & 8, Burke and Belmont Townships; this school was called the Skeelsboro School (after trustee Lyman Skeels) and in later years, was located near the corner of Perham and Vincent Roads, just southeast of the Wilder farm. However, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s description of the walk to school in Farmer Boy suggests that the school Almanzo Wilder attended in 1866 was across the Trout River and just south of the farm in Belmont Township; again, the site of a known schoolhouse in later years. The historical “Hardscrabble Settlement” was in Spring Valley, Minnesota, the name being borrowed for use in Farmer Boy.

For more information:
* “Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura.” From Legacy Documentaries with executive producer, Dean Butler. Available from the Wilder Homestead.
* Anderson, William. The Story of the Wilders. Davison, Michigan: Anderson Publications, 1973.
* Dumont, Diane Selkirk. Reflections: A Brief History of Burke from 1797-1976. Burke, New York, 1976.
* Farmer Boy News, a newsletter published by the Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder Association, P.O. Box 283, Malone, New York 12953. See the Wilder Homestead website for details.
* Smith, Dorothy. The Wilder Family Story. Malone: The Industrial Press, 1972. Distributed by the Laura and Almanzo Wilder Association, Malone, New York.


Farmer Boy, historical perspective