Once the Twentieth Century rolls around, it becomes increasingly more and more difficult to talk about Helen and Caroline and not their children. There’s no arguing that both of these women were pioneers in their own lives, each woman having forged trails that we still travel today. Throughout this journey, I’ve learned so much about these two remarkable women, and even for me, it’s hard to imagine that they each had children who, well, kinda left their mothers in the dust.
Not that this is a particularly bad thing because the accomplishments of their children were, inarguably, pretty dang significant. It was because of these wonderful women—these amazing mothers—that their children succeeded to the lengths they did. Though neither of them set out in life to blaze such lasting, and deeply rutted trails, each woman did so in her own unique way.
Almost everyone knows about how Caroline’s daughter Laura went on to become one of the most beloved American authors in history. But Helen is another story. All of Helen’s children went on to, quite literally, change the face of the world as we know it.
While Caroline’s daughter would show us our past from the vantage point of the back of a covered wagon, Helen’s children would show us our future from an entirely different angle.
~~~~~~~~~~~ Caroline ~~~~~~~~~~~
Caroline Ingalls entered the twentieth century exactly the way she left the nineteenth. Quietly. Her serene, familiar routine of household chores and domestic duties remained her priority. Laura, Almanzo, and Rose had moved to Missouri, but her other three daughters, Mary, Carrie, and Grace, were still close to home.
Carrie Ingalls contributed significantly to the family’s income over the years. Like her mother and sister before her, Carrie became a teacher and briefly taught school in the area. In addition to the various jobs she had within the community of Desmet, she learned about the printing trade at the Desmet News & Leader and became an accomplished typesetter.
Their youngest daughter, Grace, went away to Redfield College after graduating from the Desmet School. Like her mother and sisters before her, she studied to become a teacher and taught school for a few years. It was while teaching in nearby Manchester, South Dakota, that Grace met Nathan Dow, a local farmer 18 years her senior. In 1901, Grace and Nate married in the Ingalls family home in Desmet and moved to Nate’s farm about seven miles away in Manchester.
On June 8, 1902, after several weeks of a lingering illness, Charles Ingalls passed away in the little house in DeSmet. Although he had been expected to recover, years of hard frontier life had taken its toll on his body, and his heart gave out.
For the first time since before she was 20 years old, Caroline was without her partner. Unlike some couples of their time, Charles and Caroline genuinely loved and cared for one another. Even in photographs of them, Charles outwardly displays his affection for him wife by putting his arm around her, or resting his elbow on the back of her chair behind her shoulder. Even in her daughter’s memoirs, Charles acknowledged his wife’s contributions to the family.
“You’re a wonder, Caroline,” said Pa. “It’s only a little light, but it makes all the difference.”
The hands-on dad with perpetual wanderlust would travel no more. The father who sang and told stories to his family while he played his fiddle by the fire was now silent. For the time being, at least.
Eight years earlier, on the night before Almanzo, Laura, and Rose left DeSmet for Missouri, the entire family gathered in the Ingalls home for what would be their last meal together. After dinner, Charles played his fiddle by the fire in their snug little house, as he had done on countless other nights. After he finished his last tune, instead of retelling another of the girls’ favorite stories, Charles took a moment to acknowledge his own mortality. He told his family that when the time came, he wanted Laura to have his fiddle.
Laura and her father had always shared a bond she never shared with her mother. Although Caroline had shown a talent for writing as a child, she didn’t have the same gift for storytelling that her husband did. She was the caretaker, the teacher, the homemaker. Caroline was the silent force of strength, pragmatism, and continuity—the perfect balance to her more spontaneous, spirited, easy-going, peripatetic husband.
Charles Phillip Ingalls was buried with full Masonic rites in the Desmet Cemetery, and his obituary in the News & Leader paid a fine tribute to his memory. He was recognized as a pioneer, the first man to build a house in the community, a founding member of the Congregational Church, an honest and trustworthy friend and neighbor– and as a faithful and loving father and husband.
Sadly, after his death, the Ingalls family was in no better financial shape than they’d been during their entire lives. Charles hadn’t left his wife with much in the way of savings or income, so Caroline and her girls relied on the skills they’d learned throughout their lives to make a living without their patriarch.
Caroline took in laundry, sold fruit from their trees on their property, and even took in boarders. Mary hand-tied horse fly-nets and other sewing and handicrafts to contribute to the household income. The two women were constant companions, and remained an active presence in the community. Carrie learned the mechanical and printing processes of melting lead into letters for type as well as the editorial, advertising, publishing, and binding side of the newspaper business in addition to other jobs in and around Desmet. She travelled to visit relatives in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and visited Laura in Missouri.
~~~~~~~~~~~ Helen ~~~~~~~~~~~
By 1900, Helen had been on her own for over a decade, and she could’ve been able to slow down a bit. Could’ve, but wouldn’t. But Helen simply could NOT slow down. Now in her 60’s, she was as active as ever. In the preceding decade, all seven of her children had gotten married and five of them had given her a total of eight grandchildren. Within the next decade, her kids would add seven more grandchildren to the family—and even more after that. Her children’s successes had caused them all to move away from Chicago, so Helen picked up and travelled to visit them.
But for Helen, the twentieth century wasn’t only about being a grandmother. Her Starrett School for Girls had become one of the finest schools of its kind in the Midwest. The school’s reputation and curriculum attracted students from around the country and sent graduates to Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, the University of Chicago, and other colleges. Her students adored her, and she adored them. Although she wasn’t as active in the day-to-day operations of the school as she had been in its earlier days, she still considered all of the students in her school to be “her girls,” and they considered her to be another mother.
With scores of honorary daughters in her charge, it could’ve been easy to overlook her own children, but when the trail your children have chosen to blaze leads straight up to the clouds, overlooking their accomplishments is nearly impossible to even attempt.
After William died, Helen’s three oldest boys quit school and found jobs so they could contribute to the support of the family. By the turn of the century, her eldest, Theodore, had made a name for himself putting up impressive buildings in short periods of time. His first building, the Hyde Park Hotel in Chicago, was a marvel of modernity. He followed it with structures in Syracuse, Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus, and more in Chicago. In 1899, he formed a partnership with Henry Sofle Thompson—a company they called the Thompson-Starrett Co. and immediately got to work putting up some of the country’s most impressive fireproof skyscrapers in history. Landmarks—like the Woolworth Building in New York.
Theodore wasn’t the only one to make a name for himself. Helen’s second son, Paul, was making headlines alongside—and sometimes competing against—his big brother. A few years after the Worlds Fair, Paul left Daniel Burnham’s offices and went to work for his brother Theodore’s old partner, George A Fuller. With Fuller, Paul built some more amazing skyscrapers and landmark buildings, like the Flatiron Building in New York.
As Fuller’s vice president, Paul Starrett lured his little sister’s husband, Will Dinwiddie, away from his government job in Louisiana back to Chicago with the promise of his first job as a construction superintendent on a major structure. Paul put Will on the new Chicago Tribune Building (the one finished in 1902), and the Dinwiddies came home to Chicago. When Theodore opened up Thompson-Starrett, he brought Will Dinwiddie over to head the Chicago offices. (You can read about that incredible story here!)
You’d think two of Helen’s boys finding success so early would be enough, but…
Ralph went into business with his brothers—first at Thompson-Starrett and then on his own. When Goldwin graduated from the University of Michigan, he went to work for Burnham & Root—and then into the “family” business with his brothers as an architect and builder.
And the baby? Yeah. William too. William found great success as a builder too. Katherine’s husband, Frederick Whitton was even in the game. Seven kids—five sons, two daughters, and two sons in law—all of them successful builders beyond their mother’s wildest dreams.
I often wonder what their father would’ve thought. No doubt, the intellectual scholar with the heart of a builder would’ve been more proud of his sons than even he could have expressed in words or on paper.
(To my Starrett cousins: I’m not glossing over anyone, I promise!!!! I’ve got to leave the carrot dangling over the edge of the cliff….)
Although I am not done with this series, I wanted to add a quick note here to everyone:
A quick note about photography and photo credits: I always do my best to give credit to the original sources of the images I use, because as a photographer, it’s the right (and legal) thing to do. However, in the age of Pinterest and Google and other online sources for posting and sharing images, proper credit is not always given and not always easy to find. It is not my intent to represent others’ work as my own, and I will always do my best to track down and credit the original source when I can. The Ingalls images have been so widely copied and posted that I’ve found it difficult to track down original sources. I assume they belong to the Wilder Estate, and I give credit to them accordingly. I also would like to thank the Laura Ingalls Wilder House for their assistance. Also, special thanks to Theresa Lynn for her amazing research on Masonry, for her kind words of encouragement, and for her shares of my blog! If you’re a Laura fan, I highly recommend her book, Little Lodges on the Prairie: Freemasonry & Laura Ingalls Wilder.
All Starrett images used in this blog have come from family papers, family photo albums, and other original sources. Special thanks to my second and third and fourth cousins who have blessed me with emails and messages and helpful information. You have helped make this project so much more fun, and I am thrilled beyond comprehension that this has helped bring Helen and William Starrett’s descendants together.
© Julie Dirkes Phelps
Photographer, Author, Researcher, Archivist, and Storyteller.
© Copyright 2015.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, reposting, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without prior written permission. Be cool, don’t plagiarize. If you want to use something, just ask.