Butler’s Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura Earns Five Stars

Greetings from Oregon by way of Colorado! I’ve been at the mercy of finicky hotel wireless connections. I’m crossing my fingers that this time, my review of Dean Butler’s impressive ode to Malone, Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura, will load.


Legacy Documentaries’ project for the Malone homesite, Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura, was released this month and is now available exclusively through the Almanzo Wilder Farm in Burke, NY. The documentary covers Almanzo’s life from the time of Farmer Boy up until he joins his life with Laura’s in De Smet. Order your copy here.

“TV Almanzo” Dean Butler’s made-for-radio voice smoothly narrates the 53-minute DVD; his wife, actress Katherine Cannon, brings book excerpts to life. The story reaches back to the first Wilders in North America in the 1600s, the moves forward using historical realities of economic life and daily living to illustrate the unfolding of migration to the West. The production’s special effects, simultaneously impressive and understated, wouldn’t be out of place on any cable TV special. In my favorite trick by far, the camera zooms in and pans over Garth Williams’ illustrations (the colorized ones) from the pages of Farmer Boy. Specialized animation turns each illustration into a series of moving segments independent from one another, infusing each of Williams’ renderings with unexpected life and movement. Although Mr. Corse’s blacksnake whipping was never my favorite scene, I was drawn to – and into – its drama and tension as the camera hovered in turn over each character as Katherine read.


Morgan horses play prominently in the documentary, enhanced by comments from a Morgan expert from New York. Dramatic scenes – the black splotch, the silver dollar at the County Fair – are reenacted by human actors. William Anderson lends his expert analysis to the story, offering bumper commentary between segments on this period in history in context of Farmer Boy. Also on hand is Barbara Walker, author of the Little House Cookbook, because if there’s any book in the Little House series that commands the commentary of a food expert, it’s Farmer Boy.


I was impressed. So smooth and professional was the production that I found myself getting lost in it, as I would any decent TV show. In fact, I decided that Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura wouldn’t be out of place on the A&E cable channel. It’s a testament to Legacy Documentaries that “Life Before Laura” watches like it belongs. Its biggest weakness is the dramatic real-life reenactments, but that’s usually what I like least about any documentary-style TV show.


The DVD uses footage of the school sessions held at Ingalls Homestead in an admirable use of cross-marketing the rest of the homesites would do well to emulate. Seeing brief mentions of the other homesites is an additional breath of fresh air to any fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s homesites. (Note to site directors: Fans love this!)


In addition to the biographical sketch of Almanzo, the DVD offers a segment on the history and evolution of the Wilder homesite, from its purchase by the Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder Association in 1988 through years of restoration to the extraordinary, picturesque Little House destination it is today.


As Little House homesites go, Malone stands slightly off-center. It isn’t the easiest to get to. The book commemorating it is the only one in which Laura Ingalls does not appear. It’s outside of the Midwestern enclave of most of the homesites. You’re not that likely to pass through its northern New York location, just south of the Canadian border, on your way to somewhere else; chances are if you go to Malone, you’re going with a purpose, and on purpose. For those whose geography or finances won’t allow this kind of dedicated trip, Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura is an apt stand-in. From the farmhouse kitchen to the parlor’s wallpaper to the barns and the animals that once were housed there, to the acres of land, fields and trees that surround the farmhouse, the camera takes every opportunity to reveal the farm we learned to love in the pages of Farmer Boy. If you can’t be there, this DVD’s virtual visit is the closest you can get.


Now … how about the same treatment for the rest of the sites? 🙂


Note: the DVD is selling for a reasonable $21.95. However, I suspect the fact that the price does not include shipping, and that said shipping brings the total to $31.45, might mean that the site earns fewer orders than anticipated.



2 Responses to Butler’s Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura Earns Five Stars

  1. Dakotagirl says:

    Thanks for the review Sandra, it’s the best one I have read! I would love for the other home sites to follow up with a production of their own.

  2. Laura says:

    How long did it take to get yours?

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