The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Aldrich, Bess Streeter
(February 17, 1881–August 3, 1954)

–writer—was born in Cedar Falls, Iowa, into a family that, on both sides, had pioneered in Iowa. Her mother's family had moved from Frazerburgh, Scotland, to Quebec, to Illinois, and then to northeastern Iowa. Her father's family had moved steadily westward through the years, settling first in New York, then Illinois, and finally near Cedar Falls, Iowa. When her mother's family arrived in Cedar Falls, they lived first in a sheep shed with quilts covering the door opening while they built their house. Bess's mother, Mary Wilson Anderson, had little formal education, but at 18 she taught in one of the first log schools in the area, "boarding around" and receiving $20 for three months of teaching. Bess's father, James Streeter, had come to Iowa with his family in 1852. He and Mary married in 1855.

    Bess, the youngest of eight children, was the only one of the children born in town, as her father's health no longer allowed him to farm. Bess attended grade school and high school and, with the aid of an older sister and brother-in-law, graduated with a teaching degree from Iowa State Normal School. She taught for five years, then met (in 1904) and married (in 1907) Captain Charles Sweetzer Aldrich, attorney and Spanish-American War veteran. They remained in Iowa for two years before jointly (with Bess's sister Clara and her husband, John Cobb) purchasing the American Exchange Bank in Elmwood, Nebraska.

    Aldrich had been writing stories since childhood; she had won a camera at age 12 for a story and a $5 prize at age 17. The thrill of seeing her name in print, she said, led her to know she would be a writer. Under the pseudonym Margaret Dean Stevens, she won a larger prize from the Ladies' Home Journal in 1911. She used that pseudonym, a combination of her two grandmothers' names, until 1917. Altogether, Aldrich wrote more than 100 short stories, including "The Woman Who Was Forgotten" (1926), which later formed the basis for her book Miss Bishop (1933) and the film Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941). "The Man Who Caught the Weather" won the O. Henry Award in 1928.

    She continued to see the short story as her forte until 1924, when an editor challenged her to write a book. Four days after her husband mailed off her first novel, The Rim of the Prairie (1925), he suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage, leaving Bess with four children ranging in age from 4 to 14. Writing was no longer an avocation, but a necessity.

    All of Aldrich's books are set either in her first home area of Iowa or in the area of her subsequent home in southeastern Nebraska. The book most closely associated with Iowa is Song of Years (1939), in which she used letters, clippings, and diaries belonging to one of the first Cedar Falls families, the Leavitts. For some time, Harvey Leavitt had been sending Aldrich boxes of material, urging her to use what she wanted to write an Iowa book. She also drew on stories she had heard as a child in Cedar Falls when family members or early settlers came to town for supplies and visited with her parents.

    Early Iowa stories and life were the background of almost all of her books, though they were often transported in families and in relationships across the Missouri River to Nebraska. At the end of a radio talk about her first book, The Rim of the Prairie, which dealt with early midwestern pioneer life, she asked listeners to send her material that she could use to write another book about pioneers. From the resulting letters, diaries, and clippings that came to her Elmwood post office, she wrote A Lantern in Her Hand (1928), which was so popular that it continued to rank third in nationwide sales three years after publication.

    Readers often sent Aldrich articles that they hoped she could turn into a book. Her last work, The Lieutenant's Lady (1942), resulted from the loan of an Iowa family's diary. The book was a tribute to the courageous women who had endured the hardships of wartime separation from the men they loved and to the heroic men who endured the hardships of war. Aldrich maintained the diary format, and she thoroughly researched all of the details, as she did with all of her books.

    Aldrich won awards for various short stories and claimed that she never wrote a story that was not published. She also has to her credit eleven novels and three compilations of short stories. Her stories were frequently reprinted in Canada and England. Her books were translated into most of the European languages, and some were translated into Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese. Many of her books are still in print.
Sources The University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, has Aldrich historical materials, and the Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln, has many linear feet of her correspondence, telegrams, and other materials. There is additional material at the Bess Streeter Aldrich House and the Aldrich Museum in Elmwood, Nebraska. A full biography is Carol Miles Petersen, Bess Streeter Aldrich: The Dreams Are All Real (1995).
Contributor: Carol Miles Petersen