Anyone who knows me, knows that Almanzo Wilder has long been one of my favorite Little House on the Prairie characters. While not the most complex of people, Almanzo's temper and stubborn pride could get the better of him at times.
As I began compiling this character profile, I thought about the wonderful ways in which Dean Butler made the Almanzo from Laura's books real to me. While Dean's physical appearance--most notably his height--did not resemble the real Almanzo's, I've always felt Dean captured the essence of the strong, quiet man that I've read about in Laura's books and the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder biographers such as William Anderson, John E. Miller, and Donald Zochert. Dean might not have known it, but some fans of the show noticed how he tucks his napkin into his shirt, as Almanzo did in Laura's books. I've long wondered, but never have had the courage to ask Dean about that crooked smile Almanzo sports, usually when talking with Laura. It's the mannerism that I mention in almost all my fan fiction stories because it is what makes Almanzo unique to me.
I hope you enjoy my impressions of Almanzo Wilder as portrayed by Dean Butler in Little House on the Prairie.
WARNING! CONTAINS SPOILERS!!!
The moment Almanzo Wilder came into town looking for his sister, the new school teacher, Miss Wilder (Back to School), Laura Ingalls’s life was never the same. Stumbling over her words, Laura was immediately attracted to Almanzo, who was several years older than she. Perhaps it was Almanzo’s twinkling blue eyes or his full mane of wavy blonde hair that captured her attention. Or perhaps it was the crooked smile that often crept across his face.
But no matter what caused Laura’s love at first sight attraction, one thing was certain—she was going to make Almanzo Wilder see her as a woman one day.
Not many attractive young men wandered into Walnut Grove, so when Mrs. Oleson catches a glimpse of the tall, strong Almanzo, she immediately sees a suitor for her daughter Nellie. Having given Nellie a restaurant and hotel for a graduation gift, Harriet invites Almanzo to supper. When Caroline refuses to work on Sunday to prepare a meal for Nellie and her potential beau, Laura offers to help out. Seeking to wipe out the competition for Almanzo’s affections, Laura laces the cinnamon chicken with cayenne pepper and Almanzo storms out after his first bite.
By this time Almanzo and Laura call each other Manly and Beth. He gave Laura her nickname after she mistakenly called him Manly instead of Mannie, and as Laura is quick to point out, it's a grown up nickname-—much to Charles’s dismay. And in some ways, this might give Laura the wrong impression of their relationship. But when Nellie exacts her revenge, Laura discovers that Almanzo only sees her as a little girl, and is heartbroken.
Laura would have other rivals for Almanzo’s affections, namely snippy Christie Norton (Annabelle) and Sara in Silent Promises. All Laura can hope is that Almanzo waits until she gets old enough.
Mr. Slater and his son Bart come to Walnut Grove and the schoolhouse is turned upside down (The Werewolf of Walnut Grove). When Miss Wilder is unable to maintain control at the school, the school board decides to replace her, and the Wilders plan to move on. Beth and Manly share a touching conversation where Almanzo admits that he will miss his young friend. Luckily Laura convinces the children to stand up to Bart and he agrees to behave so that Miss Wilder can return to school.
But as soon as Perley Day Wilder saunters into Walnut Grove, things begin to change between Beth and Manly (Wilder and Wilder). Charles sees Perley Day as the perfect suitor for Laura, and out of spite, Laura invites Perley Day to supper. It is Perley Day who points out to Almanzo that Laura isn’t a little girl, and perhaps the wheels start turning in Almanzo’s mind that Perley Day might be right.
The relationship between the Wilder brothers is tense. Perley Day is living a less than desirable life and has hurt the family. When Barnum is injured, Almanzo forces Perley Day to leave town and then takes Barnum to the Ingalls’s barn. Having spent all night tending to Barnum, when Charles tells Almanzo that it looks like the horse will be fine, an excited Almanzo embraces Laura and kisses her on the top of the head, saying, “We did it Beth. We did it.”
And it is at this moment that Charles realizes Almanzo will be playing a larger role in his daughter’s life…even though Almanzo doesn’t know it yet. Charles has never been thrilled over Laura’s fascination with Almanzo because of the difference in their ages. Perhaps seeing Almanzo as a rival for Laura’s affection in some odd way, after watching Almanzo forfeit an arm wrestling match to save his horse, Charles finally accepts him.
Right before Laura’s sixteenth birthday, Laura earns her teaching certificate and is given a job in Curry (Sweet Sixteen). Almanzo agrees to drive her back and forth to work because Charles is busy with work and the farm. While at first telling Laura that her new clothing and hairstyle don’t make her look grown up at all, when Almanzo returns to pick Laura up at the end of her first week, he admits she looks older.
Almanzo is confused by this sudden change in Laura, or more accurately, by how he suddenly sees her. He nervously asks her to the church social, to which Laura says she’ll have to think about it, adding to Almanzo’s confusion.
After punching one of Laura’s students because he thought he was making advances to her, Almanzo has a heart to heart talk with Mr. Ingalls and admits his growing feelings for Laura. At the social that night, Beth and Manly have another sweet conversation and share their first kiss. Their courtship has begun.
But it won’t be an easy one. Almanzo finally works up the courage to ask Laura to marry him, but he doesn’t want to wait until she turns eighteen (He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not). When Charles insists they wait, Almanzo leaves Walnut Grove and moves to Sleepy Eye. A heartbroken Laura keeps busy helping Mary and Adam set up the new blind school, but they don’t have enough money to pay for the building.
Unbeknownst to Laura, Almanzo takes a second job to help cover the rent. When Almanzo comes down with pneumonia, Charles brings Laura to Sleepy Eye to care for Almanzo, who admits he’ll wait two years or twenty years to get married.
Almanzo’s stubborn, prideful side appears again in the episode, Laura Ingalls Wilder. When he loses his first crop and the land that he had bought to build a home for Laura, he won’t allow her to take a job in Radner to help get him back on his feet. Their engagement is called off twice before they finally reconcile and get married at the blind school in Sleepy Eye.
Eliza Jane has now moved to Minneapolis, so Almanzo and Laura settle in the white house that he used to share with his sister. Early married life is filled with disagreements, a visit from two impossible nephews, and a separation while Laura moves into the hotel to support her mother in helping to get women the right to vote. But it will be Almanzo’s illness and paralysis that tests their marriage like nothing before.
Now awaiting the birth of their first child, Laura has no idea how deeply into debt they are, and it is possible that the Wilders will lose their home (Days of Sunshine, Days of Shadow). Distraught over how poorly things have turned out, Almanzo can’t seem to find the will to get better and prays he’ll die. Eliza Jane’s surprise visit does nothing but hamper Almanzo’s recovery. It takes a tornado wiping out the house and Laura giving up and retreating to bed, before Almanzo is able to find any hope of making a good life for Laura and his newborn daughter, Rose.
This will not be the last test of their marriage, however. The Ingalls family moves to Burr Oak, Iowa and Almanzo’s older brother, Royal—now a widower—returns for a visit with his daughter, Jenny (Times Are Changing). When Royal dies of heart disease, the Wilders take Jenny in. Jenny tries to kill herself so that she can be with her parents and later she nearly drowns while trying to retrieve her locket from the swimming hole (Marvin’s Garden). Laura, Rose, and Jenny are taken hostage by an unstable neighbor (Rage) and the railroad threatens to come right through their property (The Empire Builders). The Wilders welcome a son, but he soon dies and Rose comes down with small pox (A Child with No Name).
The Wilders are thrilled when Charles and Caroline pay a visit to Walnut Grove, but that visit soon turns tragic when the railroad once again threatens to take over the town. Even though the Wilders have made it through many trials in the first few years of their marriage, this is truly The Last Farewell for them in Walnut Grove, as they are forced to blow up the house they inherited from a rich widow, say goodbye to all their friends, and watch as their beloved town is blown up, one building at a time, so that the railroad gets the message.
Almanzo’s story will always be closely interwoven with Laura. While we get a glimpse of his early life in the episode A Christmas They Never Forgot, it is his relationship with Laura that propels this character forward. A young man who has always depended upon his older sister, when he must take a stand for his family and start over, he does so strongly, on both feet. While at times, stubborn and full of pride, for the most part Almanzo is an easygoing, happy man who loves being a farmer. And even when he is forced once again to start over after the railroad takes everything that is precious to him, he holds onto hope for the future, a future that includes his beloved Laura and their children.