By Paula Chin
Updated November 01, 1999 12:00 PM

It had been a typically stressful week at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Library in Mansfield, Mo. First, smoke began billowing from the ceiling—the result of a faulty light fixture—requiring the fire department to be summoned. Next, the long-crumbling roof sprang a leak perilously close to the computers. Then the photocopier went on the blink.

“Come on!” said library director Carrie Cline, 32, tapping the machine in exasperation. Finally, the director of a nearby funeral home offered to make copies for her. It was a standard quick fix for the 50-year-old institution, which is in such disrepair that Cline regularly tapes Styrofoam sheets to windows to cut the draft, and staffers bundle up in jackets all through the frigid Ozark winters.

Such conditions would be trying under any circumstances, but for Cline, an enthusiastic woman who took the job two years ago, the library’s dire straits have lately become even more maddening. While preparing a grant application to finance a makeover for the 2,000-sq.-ft. cement and concrete building, library volunteers asked a lawyer to review the 1957 will of the institution’s celebrated benefactor Laura Ingalls Wilder. The author of the phenomenally popular children’s book series that spawned TV’s Little House on the Prairie had specified that the library should receive all royalties from her works after the death of her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. But when Lane died in 1968, the rights went to Connecticut lawyer Roger Lea MacBride, Lane’s longtime confidant and executor of her estate.

Library officials had long been aware of the stipulation, but they thought the $28,011 check they received from Wilder’s publisher in 1972 was all they were due. “It’s not like it was a hidden will,” says Cline. “We just assumed that we had been dealt a fair hand.” A closer reading, however, has changed their minds. Last month they filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the library and Wilder’s estate, seeking an unspecified amount in damages and unclaimed royalties from the estate of MacBride, who died in 1995; his daughter and heir, Abigail MacBride Allen, 30; and HarperCollins, publisher of the Little House series. One expert recently estimated that publishing royalties alone could be as high as $100 million.

Residents and visitors in Mansfield’s Wright County, whose poor soil and remote location are reminiscent of the hardscrabble life depicted in Wilder’s books, are deeply saddened by the allegations. “It feels like I’ve been kicked in the stomach,” says Pat Bernard, a first-grade teacher from Louisiana in town for Rocky Ridge Day, an annual October event that draws Little House devotees from across the country to Wilder’s rugged hilltop farm. Like many people, Bernard viewed the MacBrides, both of whom have appeared at the gatherings to sign autographs and mingle with fans, as the last links to the beloved author.

For his part, Manhattan attorney Alan Shulman, who is defending Abigail Allen and Joseph Cox, a representative of Roger MacBride’s estate, says the lawsuit is “unfounded” and that he will “defend the matter vigorously.” A spokeswoman for HarperCollins says the publisher is “confident it has all the appropriate rights.”

As for Cline, she says she simply wants to find out why Wilder’s wishes weren’t carried out. “It’s a search for knowledge,” she says. “I want to know what happened.” Not that the library couldn’t use the money, of course.

Wilder was 27 when she, husband Almanzo, a farmer’s son, and baby Rose traveled by covered wagon from South Dakota to southern Missouri in 1894. For nearly 40 years the couple grew apples and raised hens before Rose, by then a bestselling nonfiction author and a contributor to the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines, encouraged her mother to write about her childhood on the mid-western frontier. Little House in the Big Woods, the first of Wilder’s 11 memoirs, was published in 1932; since then, the books have sold more than 50 million copies worldwide and spawned an empire that includes cookbooks, calendars, toys and, of course, the hit TV series, which starred Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert and ran on NBC from 1974 to 1982.

Even after she became famous, Wilder lived an unpretentious life. Townspeople fondly remember the 4’11” author’s arriving at Mansfield Methodist Church in her immaculate Oldsmobile and walking briskly through the town’s center on errands. “She had a lot of energy—a real bounce in her step,” recalls Juanita Parker, a longtime Mansfield resident. Wilder often stopped by the local Wright County library to borrow Westerns and other books. “She grew up on the frontier, where books were hard to get,” says Ann Romines, an English professor and Wilder scholar at George Washington University, “so they were precious to her. The library became a lifelong commitment.” When town officials named it after her in 1951, the 84-year-old Wilder attended the dedication in a red-velvet dress, her white hair, noted the Springfield News and Leader, “piled high and held in place with a gold comb that matched her large earrings.” Six years later, her final gift was announced elsewhere under the headline “Local Library to Get Royalties from Wilder Works.”

At the time, daughter Rose, then 70 and a fiercely independent woman who had traveled to Russia and the Balkans, was living divorced and childless in Danbury, Conn. Fourteen years earlier, she had befriended Roger Lea MacBride, the 14-year-old son of an editor she knew at Reader’s Digest. He became her agent and attorney after he graduated from Harvard Law School; when she died in 1968, she left him her entire estate.

But MacBride, who referred to himself as Rose’s “adopted grandson,” never acted on Wilder’s wish that her royalties go to the little library after Rose’s death. He began transferring Wilder’s copyrights to his own name and helped develop the TV series. After the $28,011 in royalties from two of Wilder’s books, the library never saw another penny.

According to Gerald Johnston, a professor at George Washington University Law School, it appears Wilder’s wishes were thwarted. “It seems clear that if the author gave her daughter a life estate only, and then [the royalties] to the library,” he says, “once the daughter died, any rights revert to the library.” But Georgetown University law professor Paul Rothstein predicts a hard-fought and close contest. “There are ambiguities in [Wilder’s] will,” he says. It does not say “whether Rose can dispose of the estate any way she wants during her life. And federal copyright laws have changed since Wilder’s death. I see a lot of maneuvering room for each side.”

MacBride—who, as the Libertarian party’s candidate for President of the United States in 1976, espoused the elimination of the income tax and public schools—has his defenders. “I found him very honorable and decent,” recalls Ed Friendly, the coexecutive producer of the TV series, who now holds Little House movie and TV rights. “When the smoke clears, the rights will clearly belong to MacBride.”

If not, Carrie Cline has already drawn up a wish list for her cash-strapped institution, beginning with a new roof and a pay raise for the two part-time librarians, who earn $6.10 an hour for doing everything from shelving books to sweeping. “It would be a shame if some money doesn’t go to the library,” says Larry Dennis, editor of The Mansfield Mirror. But he’s not holding his breath. “We’re from Missouri, the Show Me State. We’ll believe it when we see it.”

Paula Chin

Hayes Ferguson in Mansfield, Margery Sellinger in Washington, D.C., and Edmund Newton in Los Angeles