Stella Gilbert was one of the three girls that Laura Ingalls Wilder based the character Nellie Oleson on. The Ingalls and the Gilberts knew each other in both Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Her brother made an appearance in the books under his real name, Fred Gilbert (actually William F. Gilbert)
“What’s wrong, Charles?” Ma asked quietly when Pa came in.
Pa answered, “Gilbert made it to Preston and back. He’s brought the mail!”
It was as if Christmas had happened unexpectedly. Ma hoped for the church paper. Laura and Mary and Carrie hoped that Reverend Alden had sent them something to read; sometimes he did. Grace was excited because they were excited. It was hard to wait for Pa to come back from the post office.
Chapter 18 Merry Christmas, The Long Winter
Pioneer Girl, Laura’s original manuscript for the Little House books, details which parts of the character that would become Nellie Oleson were actually Stella Gilbert.
Some people named Gilbert lived on a farm north and east of town. There were Pa and Ma Gilbert, Al and Fred and Stella and Leona Gilbert.
They had come early in the spring after the hard winter and by the next winter Ma Gilbert had become bedridden and had not been out of her bed since though she looked well enough, with bright eyes and color in her cheeks.
Stella and her father did the work and cared for Leona who had been born since her mother refused to try to get up.
I got acquainted with Stella at Sunday-school and had been out to the house and seen the rest of the family. Now Fred was going to school and seemed to want to be very attentive to me.
Stella Gilbert was the only one of the three “Nellie Olesons” to live in De Smet. So interactions with Stella includes the infamous buggy ride where Almanzo invites both girls on a buggy ride together, not knowing about their rivalry, as well as the flirtatious behavior from Stella towards Almanzo. It was then that Laura refused further buggy rides with Almanzo if Stella was along, and Almanzo chose Laura.
Stella Gilbert married twice, first to John Seth Drury until his death in 1895, and then to Alva Merrill.
Stella had one son, with husband John Drury, Fred.
Stella passed away on September 16, 1944 at age 90 and is buried in Zillah Cemetery in Zillah, Washington.
For more on the three girls behind the Nellie Oleson character, click here.
And for a fictionalized book of the Little House books from Nellie Oleson’s point of view, click here.