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Horace Woodworth family

Baptist minister and wife whose son Jim was first depot agent in De Smet, and son Ben was classmate of Laura Ingalls.

“His name is Woodworth. He has consumption, and came out here to take the prairie-climate cure. He’s been living on his claim all summer and was going to stay all winter.” -By the Shores of Silver Lake, Chapter 15, “The Last Man Out”

Horace Gideon Woodworth was born in 1827 in Ohio, son of John Woodworth and Chloe Bridgman. Horace Woodworth became a Baptist minister while living at Hudson, Michigan, and he served as Chaplain of the 96th Illinois Infantry during the Civil War. He was married to Frances Jane Jurney, and the couple had eleven children. The eighth and ninth children were James and Benjamin; they were the characters “Jim and Ben Woodworth” in the De Smet Little House books.

In the summer of 1879, Horace Woodworth came to Dakota Territory from Lafayette County, Wisconsin. In July, he first filed on a homestead, the NW 26-111-56. This is less than a mile northeast of where the Surveyors’ House stood; it is hard to believe that Charles Ingalls wouldn’t have known of Rev. Woodworth’s existence or noticed his claim shanty, especially if he had been living in it all summer. Rev. Woodworth did suffer from consumption.

While the Woodworths’ son, Jim, was depot agent, the family lived in the new depot, which stood two blocks east of its current location. It was here that Laura Ingalls attended her first “grownup” party, in the rooms upstairs.

The Woodworth family didn’t remain in De Smet after final homestead proof in 1883. This final proof was less than five years from first filing because Woodworth could apply time served in the Union Army against his residency requirement. The Woodworths moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Here, Reverend Woodworth died in 1899.



Jim Woodworth. James Grant Woodworth was born in October 31, 1864, in Hillsdale, Michigan. Jim began his long career working for the railroad in 1879 when he served as office boy in the freight department of the Chicago & NorthWestern Railroad. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that Jim Woodworth was the telegraph operator in De Smet, but he also served as the first Depot Agent.

The job was listed in his father’s name because – at age 16 – Jim was considered too young for the job. Prior to the Depot being built, Jim worked the telegraph on open ground before being given an empty boxcar to operate from.
Jim left De Smet in March 1883 to become a railroad agent in Chicago. Through his long career, he worked for the railroad in Dakota Territory, Illinois, Oregon, Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota, rising to Vice President of the Northern Pacific Railroad. He married Helen Burnside in 1895; the couple had no children. They settled in St. Paul, Minnesota. Here, Helen Woodworth died in 1937; Jim Woodworth died in 1952.



Ben Woodworth. Benjamin Holland Woodworth was born July 8, 1867 in Illinois. Prior to moving to De Smet, he lived with his family in Darlington, Wisconsin. Although Laura Ingalls Wilder suggests in Little Town on the Prairie that Ben’s 1882 party (see Chapter 20, “The Birthday Party”) was a birthday party based on the title and presence of a “white frosted birthday cake,” Ben’s birthday was in July, not January (the month of the supper in De Smet). Laura’s original handwritten invitation is on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder / Rose Wilder Lane Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri. It reads:

     Ben H. Woodworth
     requests the pleasure of your company at his home
     Saturday Evening
     January 28″
     Supper at Eight O’ Clock

Ben moved to Minneapolis with his family the following year. He worked for the Interior (grain) Elevator Company, eventually becoming the successful president of his own grain elevator company. He married Elizabeth Cushman in 1896; the couple had two sons, Benjamin and Robert. Ben Woodworth died in 1943 in Minneapolis; Elizabeth Woodworth died in 1967.



Ben Woodworth’s Birthday Party. In Little Town on the Prairie (Chapter 20, “The Birthday Party”), Laura Ingalls Wilder writes much about her first grownup party, celebrating Ben Woodworth’s (15th) birthday on January 28, 1882. This is the date on the original party invitation, but in real life, Ben’s birthday was July 8 and Jim’s on October 31, so the party probably wasn’t to celebrate a birthday at all. Have you ever wondered where Ben’s father was during this party? He’s not mentioned; he’s nowhere to be found.

Horace Woodworth wasn’t in De Smet for most of January to March, 1882. He had been appointed one of twenty-eight delegates from Dakota Territory who traveled by train to Washington, D.C. to present A Bill to enable the People of the Territory of Dakota to form a Constitution and State Government, and for the Admission of the State into the Union on an equal footing with the original States. The group spent planning time in Chicago before going on to Washington. Rev. Woodworth regularly sent letters home to tell about his travels and experiences.

Surely, Rev. Brown and Charles Ingalls not only went to the Depot that evening to escort their daughters home from the party, but to ask Mrs. Woodworth and family, “What’s the latest word from Washington?”

In one of his letters home, Rev. Woodworth wrote: “Washington is a splendid city, of which everyone may justly be proud. It may be Boss Shepherd is not so bad after all. He certainly has redeemed the Capitol of the Nation, from mud to cleanliness. Men, women, children, and horses, move about strictly in parlor style. No one hurries. No one is rude. The prospect of the admission and division of Dakota is flattering. Both the Committees on Territories for the Senate and House are favorable. David Davis, Pres. of the Senate, says he will vote for it. We have a committee, who will put into pamphlet form a statistical showing of the facts. After that three to five will be all that need to stay longer, unless they choose. We shall certainly be admitted unless discord amongst Dakotaians beats us, which I think is not likely. The great advantage of admission is, that capital will lose its shyness, and come to our young communities more freely.” South Dakota become a state in 1889. [from blog originally posted February 11, 2008]


Woodworth family
     Horace (SSL 15; LTP 17; PG)
     Frances (LTP 17, 20; PG)
     Jim (LTP 20; PG)
     Ben (TLW 9, 11, 14; LTP 16, 18-21, 24; THGY 16-17; PG)
     Ben’s birthday party (LTP 20; PG)