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.
Nice article. I enjoy uour comparisons between the Ingalls family and your own.
While I support the idea of Charles and Caroline’s obvious affection, and have always admired their mutually-demonstrated respect for each other, I must vehemently dispute that there was anything unusual about a marriage of affection during their era. Love was an established expectation within marriage-bound anglo couples in America from its earliest settlement. Sincerely held affection was considered a religious and spiritual requirement for marriage by most people of Caroline Quiner’s and Charles Ingalls’ time and place and culture. What was somewhat unusual is the relative equity they appeared to have within their relationship, but that is easily up for debate, and Almanzo Wilder’s parents by all accounts appeared to have a similarly affectionate and mutually-respectful, evenly-distributed authority structure. Relationships between members of farm families were by nature very interdependent and couples knew their ultimate survival hung in the balance, so while gender roles were alive and well, women (even unmarried adult daughters) in farm families often had far more say in major decisions than other women in other families might, and their work was generally quite highly valued.
One quick FYI: the image you have cited as Charles Ingalls (without the beard) is not Laura’s father. I have seen this photo before and it has been misattributed as Charles elsewhere. But it is most certainly not “our” Charles Ingalls. Somewhere in my books and files I have the correct identification but cannot be certain off the top of my head and do not want to misstate it. If I can locate it I will pass along the information.
Please keep up the excellent work! I very much enjoy your writing.
Thank you!!! I love the clarifications you illustrate. In my suffrage research of Helen, I’ve found so many instances of married couples without the affection, without the equity, without the obvious love that Charles and Caroline had and that Helen and William had. The Ingalls’ relationship seemed much like that of the Starretts— based on love and affection and equity within their marriage. Clearly I need to read more about farm and rural families to balance out the stories of inequality in marital relationships from the suffrage writings! Thank you very much!
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It’s an easy presumption to make. Many of the stories about Suffragettes center around the big-name agitators. Women who had time and luxury to participate in movements were more likely to be wealthy; and, with the full knowledge that this is a sweeping generalization, wealthy people often were trapped in marriages of convenience or marriages of the “business arrangement” type. Not much has changed!! These Suffragettes frequently were women in cities who had either already raised children or whose young children were being tended by others. These were also women who moved among society on a bigger scale, since they tended to live in more urban areas. They saw the devastation of bad marriages on the family unit in multiple homes and on the streets. And in almost every case, they could not petition for divorce without their father or “guardian” male relative’s assistance. Divorce was scandal and more than just a little frowned upon. Lives of relative leisure meant both parties were likely to live a long time. Opportunities for infidelity were rampant. But wives and husbands in those circles somewhat expected their marriage to be more business than affection. (Remember average life expectancy figures include deaths of infant mortality, but once a somewhat wealthy/sheltered urban person made it to adulthood they were unlikely to die young–except women in childbirth who did so at a hospital. So choosing a bad partner could mean a great many decades of miserable attachment.)
Women in smaller/rural communities certainly were well aware of bad marriages even within their own extended families but spent more time much closer to home out of necessity. They were more likely to raise their children with only the help of their older children or possibly an older (single) relative who lived with them or shared the responsibilities of a large brood with close family or friends very nearby who had a brood of their own. They couldn’t exactly go out and protest. But accidental deaths were more common in those places where physical labor was the norm, and epidemics may or may not have any intervention by a medical doctor. So a marriage might end in tragic death shortly after it began. Step- and blended families were extremely common, just as they had been two centuries before on the East Coast.
Sure, plenty of couples remained married even if miserable, but some couples took to living essentially separately if they could. If a woman was abandoned, she could sometimes petition for divorce and do so successfully because it was known that a man could simply disappear–strike off into the unknown and never be heard from again, whether that was his intention or not. In the west, single or widowed women (either over age 21 or as the parent of at least one child) could take their own homestead claim. Women who married a person with an alcohol problem or other condition which rendered him essentially indigent could petition to be named “Head of Household” and take over the family’s interests. Some did so in the form of placing her own homestead claim to keep the family going. Urban women weren’t too likely to strike out to the far west to do things like that, but a few did. Homesteading was brutally difficult for anyone, but about 10% of homesteaders were solo women!
Laura encountered various examples of poorly-matched couples and witnessed the cold and sometimes brutal treatment of spouses toward each other, but in her West, unmarried women had a lot more options for being independent. Women like her sister Carrie and her sister-in-law Eliza Jane could afford to wait to marry (or not marry at all, if they so desired) even if they weren’t wealthy. Both of those women waited until their 40s and they, as well as Grace, married men who were some 2 decades older. Women in cities who were without money were relegated to extremely difficult conditions in factories for miniscule wages or had to find a “position” with a family which was often just as demanding and offered little freedom. So there was a lot of pressure for urban women to marry younger. Urban areas demanded more education if a single person wanted a job that wouldn’t involve risking limbs or acquiring irreversible lung diseases (or both), and women’s pay was almost never enough to allow her to save for the future–single women entire families were often doomed to live in miserable conditions in factory housing which cost an emprmous portion of their income, again, limiting their saving for a better future. So–“get married while you’re still young and pretty enough!” And we all know how easy it is for a young and inexperienced person to make less-than-wise choices sometimes.
In the far west, women could homestead solo and/or go into business for themselves. Hardworking families knew other hardworking families and they had to know quickly who to trust and who not to trust. Since highwaymen and claim jumpers were a constant threat, one knew who the “stranger” in town was. Young people knew each other for a long time and/or their parents were friends before the young couple took the plunge. While there were some “mail order brides,” those stories are exaggerated and not the common experience. And, because in recent settlements the men greatly outnumbered the women, women had their choice of suitors! They could afford to be picky, and sometimes men were almost literally waiting for the little girls to grow up enough to become wives. It’s a bit unnerving to us today. But it is to a degree what happened with Laura and Almanzo. When she first met him, she was 12 or 13. He was ten years older. She thought of him and his brother Royal as her father’s friends.
Scenarios like this would fade out over time, but in the first decade of so of any newly-homesteaded territory in the west, Laura and Almanzo represent a common situation. And while many women married men a decade or more their senior, the women themselves were usually well into their 20s when they took vows. So their autonomy may have been significantly more established than that of their urban counterparts upon the wedding day, thus giving rural wives a better quality of personal life than a wealthy urban counterpart might have.
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You are spot on with your analysis. One of the difficult things I’ve found in researching Helen is that she seemed to drift between the different classes over the years. In many ways, she really defies the paradigm of women of her time in any social class. The more I learn about her, the more I see how she was so far ahead of her time in so many aspects of her life. Like Laura and Almanzo, Helen met William when she was very young, but they were closer together in age. Helen and WIlliam were only about six years apart, but William was in many ways, like Almanzo, one of Helen’s father’s friends since they were both ministers. I think they were “playmates” as children (as she wrote) but then during her adolescent years, he was her father’s contemporary, then they became romantically involved. But they just defied all easily labeled stereotypes. Some of Helen’s writing does point toward the more radical suffragettes as she was friends with Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and that whole group. I like to refer to her as “famous adjacent” because while not many people knew her name, she was right there in the mix almost all the time. She wrote for the Agitator and the Revolution. And Helen must’ve been quite the outspoken woman because according to family lore, she was actually fired by the St Louis Post Dispatch by Joseph Pulitzer himself. (I have Helen’s daughter’s handwritten journal and memoirs written by her sons Paul and William.)
I’m hoping to turn all of my research on Helen into a book. It’s been in my mind for about 20 years, and I finally have the drive and desire to actually do it. My dip into comparing Helen and Caroline came with the arrival of my copy of Pioneer Girl. I’d read several of the biographical books about Laura many years ago, but the arrival of that book while working on Helen’s biography really made me think about the context of her contemporaries.
Through this process, I have realized that there isn’t really much out there about Caroline. I really wanted to get to know her as a person– what she thought and how she felt about things– but those kinds of things don’t seem to be out there. We know how Laura felt, how Rose felt. And we know how Rose felt about Laura and Rose’s perception of how Laura felt about Caroline, but not really much about how Caroline felt about anything other than wanting her girls to be “civilized” and educated, and that she wanted to stop moving around. Now that I am at 1910 on, I’m curious to know how she felt about the suffrage movement. Did she register to vote? Did she vote (since she did live to see the passage of the 19th amendment).
One of the things that truly tickles me is that I have read that the Ingallses had a subscription to the Chicago Inter Ocean. Many of the articles I’ve found about Helen were in the Inter Ocean. Undoubtedly, she would’ve read about Helen. That’s just mind boggling to me.
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Thank you for another wonderful installment, Julie. You weren’t kidding when you said the kids’ herculean feats would surpass even their mothers’ achievements! Though I still think being an independent, free-thinking woman in those days (not to mention providing for your family) was quite a formidable achievement in itself — let alone the legacy Helen founded. Anyway, once again you’ve had me spellbound with your research and your storytelling. Beautifully done.
Thanks!!! I still have another decade to go, and I am REALLY far behind. But the reason I’m behind is that the next decade is CRAZY awesome for Helen! Her story actually DOES get more amazing. There’s just SO much. I’m almost ready with it. Trust me, the next decade (and wrap up) is mind blowing!