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The Real Nellie Oleson, Laura’s Prairie Frenemy

People | April 11, 2019

Alison Arngrim played Nellie Oleson in the TV series Little House on the Prairie. Source: (NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images)

If you were a fan of the Little House series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder or a fan of the 1970s TV show, Little House on the Prairie, then you no doubt remember Laura’s frenemy, Nellie Oleson, portrayed by Alison Arngrim on the TV show. The original mean girl, Nellie and her meddling mother were a constant source of aggravation for Laura and the rest of the Ingalls family, even their faithful dog, Jack. Nellie appeared in several of Wilder’s autobiographical books, first as a spoiled little rich girl and then as a wily teen trying to steal away Laura’s beau. Let’s take a look at the real Nellie Oleson who inspired the character in Laura’s books and on the television series. 

Arngrim as Laura's nemesis. Source: (visiontv.ca)

Nellie’s Name Wasn’t Oleson

Only two times in her writing did Wilder purposefully change the names of the real people she wrote about. Both times was because she was portraying those people in a negative light and didn’t want to offend them. One of them was Nellie Oleson, whose name was actually Nellie Owens. The other was the Brewster family, Lew, and Lib and their son, Johnny. Laura roomed with them on the snowbound prairie during her first teaching contract and described them as depressed, sullen, and prone to angry outbursts. The Brewsters were based on real-life Louis and Elizabeth Bouchie. 

Genevieve Masters, one of the three people Laura Ingalls Wilder combined for the character of Nellie Oleson. Source: (pinterest.com)

There were Three Nellies

When she began writing the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder compiled the character of Nellie Oleson from three different girls she knew. One was Genevieve Masters. She was the daughter of Laura’s teacher in Walnut Grove from On the Banks of Plum Creek. She was a spoiled, undisciplined girl who thought she ruled the school because her mother was the teacher. Genevieve, or Genny as she was called, was a beautiful little girl with golden blonde hair that she wore in ringlets, just how Nellie Oleson did in the TV series. Nellie Owens, and her younger brother Willie, also lived in Walnut Grove. Her parents, William and Margaret Owens ran the town mercantile. Nellie and Genny were in a constant power struggle at the school, each trying to gather other girls to her side. When Laura decided she didn’t want to be a follower of either one, she suddenly found herself as the leader of the girls. The Owens family stayed in Walnut Grove, but the Masters family did move to De Smet where the Ingalls family settled. The last girl was named Stella Gilbert. Stella lived just outside De Smet and was described as very poor, but very beautiful. She used her look and charms on Almanzo, getting him to take her for a buggy ride while he was courting Laura, as we see in These Happy Golden Years. But Almanzo had his eye on Laura, not Stella. 

A scene from the town party at the house of Nellie. Source: (littlepodcastontheprairie.com)

Laura and Nellie did have Rival Parties

While living in Walnut Grove, Laura and her sister, Mary, did attend a party at the home of Nellie Oleson. Wilder describes this party in both On the Banks of Plum Creek and in her autobiography, Pioneer Girl. The party illustrated Nellie’s spoiled, boastfulness and her family’s wealth. Laura and Mary then hosted their own party that was a stark contrast to Nellie’s and helped to cement their rivalry. 

Katherine MacGregor's Harriet Oleson was based on the real life Margaret Owens. Source: (canoe.com)

Nellie’s Mother was Kind and Generous

In the television series, Little House on the Prairie, Nellie’s mother, Harriet Oleson is loud, rude, and condescending. In real life, Nellie Owens’s mother, Margaret, was described as warm and generous. Like her TV counterpart, played by Katherine MacGregor, Margaret Owens tended shop at the family’s general store. Her husband, William, farmed. 

The real life Willie Owens and Nellie Owens, with their father, William Owens. Source: (pinterest.com)

Nellie’s Little Brother, Willie

The Owens family had a son as well as their daughter, Nellie. Nellie’s little brother, Willie, is mentioned in the Little House books and was featured prominently on the television show, Little House on the Prairie. We know that Willie grew up, married, and had three children. He lost his eyesight when a firecracker exploded in his face. It is ironic to learn that both Laura’s sister and Nellie’s brother went blind, albeit by different circumstances. 

In the TV series, Charlotte Stewart played a school teacher Miss Beadle, based on the real life Walnut Grove teacher, Mrs. Bedal. Source: (melissasueandersonfan.com)

An Adopted Owens Sibling

Here is an interesting twist…Nellie and Willie had an adopted brother who was actually the son of their teacher, Miss Bedal. You probably remember the schoolmarm, Miss Bedal from the television show, Little House on the Prairie. She was portrayed as a young-ish spinster. In reality, Miss Bedal was Mrs. Bedal, the mother of several young kids. When Mr. Bedal died, she was left destitute and unable to care for her children. As was common in those days, the children were separated and sent to live with different families in the town. Margaret and William Owens took in one of the Bedal boys. Later, when Mrs. Bedal remarried and was more financially stable, she invited her son to come back to live with her. He declined. He remained with the Owens family and even adopted their last name. 

Source: (findagrave.com)

Nellie Married and Divorced

Although history lost track of both Genevieve Masters and Stella Gilbert, we do know some details of Nellie Owens’s life after Walnut Grove. She traveled first to California and then to Oregon where she met her husband, Henry Kirry. The couple had three children, Zola, Lloyd, and Leslie. Nellie and her husband later divorced. We know that at least one of her children noted Nellie’s inclusion in the Little House book series when On the Banks of Plum Creek was first published in 1937. 

Source: (imdb.com)

Television Fiction

We know, of course, that the television series, Little House on the Prairie, is only loosely based on the Little House book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Ingalls family left Walnut Grove and moved to De Smet, South Dakota. Nellie Owens was young girl Laura encountered in Walnut Grove only. Genevieve Masters lived in both Walnut Grove and De Smet, like Laura. And Laura met Stella Gilbert in De Smet. All three of these girls were blended together to give us the Nellie Oleson character we all love to hate. 

Tags: 1970s | Alison Arngrim | little house on the prairie | television

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.