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A spirit distilled from grain. In the United States, whisky is generally distilled from wheat, rye, or maize. — Webster, 1882

Whiskey has come to stay until church members vote as they pray. – Kingsbury County News, September 18, 1886

Although the Ingalls family was temperate (not partaking of alcoholic beverages) in the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder mentioned whiskey (sometimes spelled it whisky) in By the Shores of Silver Lake (see Chapter 24, “The Spring Rush”), writing that the men who slept in the Surveyors’ House had a jug of whisky and were drunk and disorderly.

Drinking is mentioned much more often in Pioneer Girl, with its tales of Hairpin dying from fumes igniting in his throat and inhaled into his lungs when he lit a cigar while drunk. In Walnut Grove, Will Masters is supplied with alcohol by Dr. Hoyt, supposedly in hopes that he would die, leaving the doctor’s wife to inherit the Masters money. Even the man organizing the Good Templars Lodge in Walnut Grove secretly had a flask of whiskey in his pocket. In one version of Pioneer Girl, whiskey is used as anesthesia when a young girl’s leg must be amputated after it was frozen in a blizzard. In that story, Wilder wrote that Pa returned to the house and fetched blankets and whiskey, suggesting that the Ingalls family wasn’t opposed to its medicinal use.



In Farmer Boy, Alice Wilder makes wintergreen flavoring by packing a bottle with wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) leaves, then filling the bottle with whiskey and allowing the volatile wintergreen oil to be released. This method is commonly used, as shown below.

Tincture of Wintergreen. Fresh leaves are gathered in the summer. These are chopped to a pulp, and weighed. Twice the weight of alcohol is used, first adding one-sixth of the volume to the leaves, then the remainder of the alcohol. It is put into a bottle, stoppered, and set away in a cool, dark place for a week or more before use. The pulp is sometimes strained from the liquid, and the liquid filtered. The color of the liquid will be reddish brown but will appear black if a great quantity is prepared. — Charles F. Millspaugh, American Medicinal Plants (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1974), 401.


During the early years of De Smet, the local newspapers frequently reported public drunkenness and whiskey drinking, and although many townspeople thought as Charles and Caroline Ingalls did, that “one saloon in town was one two many,” the sale of liquor was legal in town more often than it wasn’t. Even when the sale of whiskey wasn’t legal, the railroad made it easy for people to get it on the sly, as reported in the summer of 1885. Discarded bottles also caused problems of unsightly litter. After Laura and Almanzo Wilder had moved to Missouri, Edward Couse offered young boys a half cent for each empty beer, whiskey or bitters bottle, and five cents a bushel for broken bottles, in hopes of cleaning up the town before Old Settlers’ Day one year. A caveat to the offer was that the boys must collect the bottles in town and not go to the dump for them!

Whiskey consumption may have been frowned upon in De Smet, but a group of young men posed for De Smet photographer H. Warren Cooledge with cigars and a bottle of whiskey, shown above. And one of the items included in the cornerstone of the Kingsbury County courthouse at its construction in the 1880s was… a flask of whiskey!


whisky / whiskey (FB 10; SSL 24; PG); see also wintergreen, Good Templars, W.C.T.U.