Thomas C. Wilkin family
Architect of the 1885 De Smet graded schoolhouse and father of Laura Ingalls’ classmate, Florence.
De Smet Township officers are Charles P. Ingalls, chairman, Thomas C. Wilkin and Robert A. Boast. – January 1888
Little House readers are introduced to the Wilkin family (although Wilder spells the name Wilkins) in These Happy Golden Years (see Chapter 22, “Singing School”), with the daughter of the family, Florence, being a new classmate of Laura’s in the newly-opened De Smet graded school. Although the fictional story places the new schoolhouse opening in the fall of 1884, the building was first used in January 1885.
Thomas C. Wilkin was born in 1833 in Yates County, New York, the son of Mehitable (Bennet) and Lewis Wilkin. He trained as an architect and builder. In Connecticut, Thomas married Mary Jane Wetmore, the daughter of Permelia and Oliver Wetmore, and the couple had three children: Willis (January 1858), Florence (July 1867), and Ethel (July 1879). Thomas joined the 21st Michigan Infantry as a private (age 32) in 1865 near the end of the Civil War, serving ninety days. He may have taken part in engagements in Averasboro and Bentonville, North Carolina, before being mustered out in June 1865.
Coming from Middleville (Barry County) Michigan, Wilkin and his family settled on a homestead in Kingsbury County in February 1882. Thomas served as treasurer of the De Smet School Township Board from July 1883 through June 1884. He was architect of the graded school building in De Smet as well as the Commercial Hotel (which was built on the lot the Garlands owned during the Hard Winter) and the Catholic Church, as well as many fine homes in De Smet. For his job designing and working on the De Smet school, he was paid $140.
The Wilkin homestead, the NW 17-111-56, was about two miles north of De Smet and a mile west of Almanzo Wilder’s tree claim. Nearby claims included those of Little House characters Dan Loftus, Gerald Fuller, Eliza Jane Wilder, Royal Wilder, and Sam Owen. When the Wilkin School was built in 1885, it was located just to the west of Wilkin’s land, on Section 18, James Wells’ homestead. In These Happy Golden Years, Laura Ingalls Wilder writes that she boarded with Mr. and Mrs. Wilkin while teaching the school term. Also living in the home were Willis Wilkin, his wife Martha (Burch), their son Carl (age 1), Florence and her sister Ethel (almost 6).
In addition to farming and building, Thomas Wilkin served as president of the Kingsbury County Sunday School Association as well as a De Smet Township officer, aside Charles Ingalls and Robert Boast. In November 1889, the Wilkins family sold all their farm goods and property and moved to Polk County, Oregon. Willis Wilkin had attended law school in Yankton, and after losing his fall 1888 bid to be district attorney, the family followed him west, where he would practice law. He had briefly practiced law in De Smet, with his office in John Carroll’s First National Bank building (formerly the Bank of De Smet), the brick building constructed on the corner lot sold to Carroll by the Ingallses in 1885; the building now houses Gass Law Office.
According to Nelson Dunning’s 1891 history of the Farmers’ Alliance, Thomas was instrumental in organization of the alliance in Oregon (he had successfully organized the De Smet group), but he died fairly soon after leaving South Dakota, on February 9, 1890, in Independence, Oregon. Thomas Wilkin is buried in Hilltop Cemetery; too see a photo of his headstone, click HERE.
Following the death of her husband, Mary Jane Wilkin and daughters, as well as son Willis and his family, moved to Santa Clara County, California, where Willis worked as an attorney until his death in 1919. Mary Jane’s parents moved to California as well, with Permelia dying at age 81 in 1893, and Oliver dying at age 81 the following year. Mary Jane Wilkin died in 1927.
Florence M. Wilkin was born July 21, 1867, in Thornapple Township (the village of Thornapple is shown above), Barry County, Michigan, the middle child of Mary Jane and Thomas Wilkin. Florence had older brother Willis (January 1858) and younger sister Ethel (July 1879). Prior to moving to Kingsbury County, Dakota Territory in 1882, Florence lived with her family in Middleville, Michigan.
Laura Ingalls Wilder first mentions Florence as a new classmate when the graded school opened. There was no school in Florence’s home district (Number 39) until the spring of 1885, and Florence may have attended school in De Smet prior to its opening in January 1885, since her father served as treasurer on the school board as early as the summer of 1883. Because she attended the Baptist Church in De Smet (her father was a trustee), Florence is not mentioned in Little House stories about the Congregational Church services and events attended by the Ingallses.
Wilder writes that she is offered the job as teacher of the Wilkin school after Florence fails the teaching exam, but the names of those candidates not passing the exam was not recorded.
After Florence moved to California with her mother and siblings, she worked for many years as a clerk, then bookkeeper at the F.A. Taylor stationery and book store in Santa Clara. On September 1, 1922, Florence married fellow clerk Henry C. Christin in Salinas, California; she was fifty-five and her husband was sixty-two. Henry was born in California on February 16, 1838, to French emigrants; he taught private French lessons to soldiers prior to their deployment during World War I. Florence and Henry’s marriage announcement read: The marriage of Miss Florence Wilkin and H.C. Christin of this city had been announced to their many friends. The wedding took place on September 1, the Episcopal marriage service being read in Salinas, after which they motored to Carmel, where they are spending several weeks before returning to make their home in San Jose.
Henry died February 16, 1938, and Florence moved in with her sister Ethel, who had married Charles Cook. Florence died May 10, 1958, fifteen years after the publication of These Happy Golden Years. It is not known if Florence knew her family was mentioned in the book, or if she ever corresponded with Laura after leaving De Smet.
Wilkins family, correct name is Wilkin, see also Wilkin School
Thomas (THGY 22, 26; PG)
Florence (THGY 22, 24, 26-28; PG)
brother, wife and baby (PG)