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Lost and Found: A letter from Laura Ingalls Wilder

letter & envelope

Letter from Laura to the children of Alliance, Ohio
June 15, 1945

Now in the Collection of Rodman Public Library, Alliance, Ohio

Normally, when my Laura Ingalls Wilder LORE arrives, I drop whatever I'm doing and read the news from De Smet cover to cover. For some now forgotten reason, the Spring/Summer 1993 issue was dutifully punched and put into my notebook for future reference and there it sat for two years - unread.

During that period, my interest in Laura Ingalls Wilder mushroomed from a hobby to an avocation. Friends and groups began asking me to do "programs" for them and I volunteered to set up a display in our Alliance, Ohio, public library. As more and more people inquired about my presentation, I kept adding more books, dolls and related "artifacts" to my collection and bought a van so I'd have room to transport everything. In order to keep my facts straight, I began taking detailed notes as I read new material. It was during my preparation time that I decided to go back through my notebook of old LIW LORE.

Leaping through the 1993 LORE, I noticed the page headline, "Clara Webber, Founder of Wilder Room, dies at 87." Hmm... I'd been in the LIW room of the Pomona Library when I lived in California (the same library my husband always visited as a child.) Wondering if that's where this obituary was referring to, I read on. In the fourth paragraph, something jumped off the page and grabbed my attention: "The Wilder books had been favorites of her patrons in Alliance, Ohio, and to gain answers to their questions, Clara Webber struck up a correspondence [which lasted until Laura's death in 1957] with the author." ALLIANCE, OHIO??!! MY hometown library??!! The rest of the article gave me the only clue as to when Miss Webber had been in Alliance - sometime before 1950 - 45 years previously.

Since historical research is my passion and a week at the National Archives is my idea of a perfect vacation, the mere thought that someone with such a close association to Laura had lived in Alliance was a puzzle begging for a solution. I went immediately to the Alliance Library's Children's librarian and shared my find from the LORE. She knew nothing about Miss Webber, but did indicate that in the late 1940's, the library was in the original Carnegie building - now long gone. I made the same inquiry of the always helpful ladies in the reference department, but they just shook their heads at my request. However, they offered a ray of hope in my quest: A now retired librarian who "might" have worked with Clara Webber, often filled in for vacationing librarians. I made a mental note to come in to meet Bertha Rogers at the end of the week.

"Oh, yes. I worked with Clara Webber for 5 years at the old Carnegie Free Library back in the early 40's," Bertha recalled when I questioned her for the first time.

As with someone who finally bites into a juicy steak they have hungrily waited for, the next question almost dripped off my tongue. "Do you recall if she left copies of her correspondence with Laura Ingalls Wilder when she left Alliance?" I studied Bertha's face for signs of an affirmative answer.

"Yes, she left some letters that I kept in my file drawer, but when I retired, I don't know what became of them."

Somewhat dejected, I still had hope for a treasure when Bertha promise to do some checking in the library office at her next opportunity.

Bertha's phone call the next day put me on the proverbial "cloud nine." "Penny, I found something in a file drawer that you may want to come down and see."

Minutes later I was reading the original words of Laura Ingalls Wilder, dated June 15, 1945, written to the children of Alliance, Ohio, from Rocky Ridge Farm. The 50 year old letter had been preserved in a non-glossy laminating film. The 3 postal envelope that accompanied it had not. In addition, there was a typewritten copy (no Xerox in those days!) of an earlier letter that Miss Webber had taken with her when she left Alliance.

Touching the letter and envelope reverently, I wondered how many other letters there might have been during Clara Webber's tenure in Alliance and decided to contact a librarian at the Pomona Library to find further information.

Marguerite Raybould, head of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Room, kindly sent me other obituaries and a copy of the original Jan 25, 1943, letter addressed to Miss Webber, in which Laura spoke of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane: "You may know of her and likely have some of her books in your library for she is quite famous as a writer. Her latest book, "the Discovery of Freedom", is just published. I think it an outstanding work, very interesting and worth a serious reading."

In the letter Bertha found in the file drawer, Laura told the children, "If any of you come past here, I would be glad to have you call on me, but perhaps you would be disappointed to see Laura so grown up for it has been many years since she was the girl in the stories."

Imagine, such a famous author inviting CHILDREN to her home!! I had heard that Laura received bags of fan mail and, as long as she was able, answered every letter by hand. Since I was 12 years old when Laura died on Feb. 10, 1957, it occurred to me that had one of my teachers or my parents read the Little House books to me as a child, I might have been one of those fans who today would have a treasured letter from Laura in their box of childhood momentos. But for me, having not read a Little House book until I was in my mid 30's, this letter - lost in a file drawer - was more than a just a consolation prize.

We placed the letter from Laura in a glassed-in display case for one month of that summer of 1995 where hundreds of people were able to view it along with an assortment of related letters and photos.

As a postscript to this story, the following year, HarperCollins published _Dear Laura - Letters from Children to Laura Ingalls Wilder_. This delightful book highlights 100 of the letters, photographs, and drawings that Laura received from fans during those early years while she was writing her book series. As we have treasured HER letters, she also saved all those messages she received from readers of her books.

But the big thrill for me in 1996 was a trip to California that included a long visit in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Room - the same room that Clara Webber helped start back in 1950. I cannot begin to express the pride I felt as I read display letters with letterheads that read, "Alliance Carnegie Free Library." Thank you Clara. Thank you Laura.

Please note: I do not own this letter. The library in Alliance, Ohio, does and asked me not to publish the letter or share photocopies of it. I have only included a photo of the front page above. Please do not ask me for a transcription, as I wish to abide by their request.

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