Kate Douglas Wiggin is primarily known today as the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. A prolific author of juvenile literature, she also was a highly respected educator and pioneer in the U.S. kindergarten movement.
Born in Philadelphia in 1856, Kate moved with her family to Maine as a young child after the death of her father. Her mother married a distant cousin, Dr. Albion Bradbury, and the family relocated to the small town of Hollis, just outside Portland, Maine. Kate’s happy memories of her young years in Hollis, spent with her sister, Nora Archibald Smith, and half brother, Peter, would stay with her the rest of her life and heavily influence her later fictional efforts.
In 1873, due to her stepfather’s ill health, the family moved to Santa Barbara, into a comfortable home at 221 West De la Guerra Street. Kate temporarily stayed behind to finish the year at Abbott Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, one of the finest boarding schools for girls in New England. Upon arrival here, the 17-year-old was enchanted by the beauties of the South Coast. In her 1923 autobiography, My Garden of Memory, she recounts the dances she attended under the giant Montecito grapevine (Parra Grande Lane is named after this vine) and reminiscences about picnics in the Cathedral Oaks area. The death of her stepfather in 1876 and the consequent financial difficulties of the family effectively ended this carefree period.
She decided to travel to Los Angeles and take a kindergarten teachers’ training course under the direction of Emma Marwedel, one of the leading proponents of the growing U.S. kindergarten movement. Based on the theories of German educator Friedrich Froebel, schooling for young children was seen as a response to the malevolent social consequences of rapid industrialization and its impact on the poorer classes. Kate became one of Marwedel’s outstanding pupils and, after graduation in summer 1877, returned to Santa Barbara to establish the city’s first kindergarten.
She and her sister, Nora, convinced Santa Barbara College, from which Nora had just graduated, to purchase an adobe house on Chapala Street from a Mrs. E.H. Wood. Under the college’s auspices, the sisters began teaching, and dubbed the adobe Nido de la Golondrina (the Swallow’s Nest).
Autumn 1878 saw Kate in San Francisco, where she established California’s first free kindergarten, for 50 children in a loathsome slum known as Tar Flat. During the next few years, she became one of the leading lights of the state’s kindergarten movement, and by the time she moved to New York City in 1884, there were 34 kindergartens up and down the state, staffed largely with teachers who had received their training at the California Kindergarten Training School, founded by Kate Douglas Wiggin (she had married Samuel Wiggin in 1881).
She had also begun to develop her reputation as a writer of children’s fiction. Children were almost always the main characters in her works and she often infused her tales with a social message, lamenting the plight of the urban poor. She also utilized the New England countryside as a setting in a number of her books. By far her most successful work was Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, published in 1903. The book garnished universal praise; it was so popular, Wiggin turned it into a play in 1908 and it became a huge hit.
Upon her death in 1923, Kate Douglas Wiggin was eulogized as one of the foremost educators in the country, a champion of children everywhere. She had come a long way since opening the doors to her first kindergarten, in Santa Barbara, more than 40 years before.