Alice Hegan Rice and "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch"
At the turn of the 20th Century, a young Louisville woman used pen and page to put the plight of the impoverished in the spotlight. The woman was Alice Hagen Rice and her story is this Et Cetera.
Born Alice Caldwell Hegan in Shelbyville, Kentucky, Alice began writing as a student at Miss Hampton’s College in Louisville.
As a teenager, Alice taught a boys’ Sunday school class in a poor, truck-farming neighborhood, just west of what is now called Old Louisville. The area was known as the Cabbage Patch.
Using local resident Mary Bass as her muse, Alice penned the story of Mrs. Wiggs, a widow left to raise five children in dire poverty, but who faced life with optimism and hope. The year was 1901.
"Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch" became a best-seller for the next two years and was an international success.
The novel was adapted for the stage and premiered at Louisville’s Macauley’s Theater in 1903. It also made it onto the silver screen four times, including a 1934 version starring W.C. Fields.
In 1902, Alice married fellow writer and poet Cale Young Rice. The two built a house at St. James Court in Old Louisville, collaborated on several books and co-founded the Louisville Arts Club.
Despite her fame, Alice Hegan Rice continued her volunteerism and social work in Louisville. She was on the first board of the Cabbage Patch Settlement House, which was established in 1910, and she even served at the Camp Zachary Taylor hospital, during World War I.
Alice Hegan Rice died in 1942; she and her late husband are buried in Cave Hill Cemetery.
In her career, Mrs. Rice wrote many short stories and 20 books, including several sequels to "Mrs. Wiggs" and an autobiography titled "The Inky Way".
- Alice was a member of the Authors Club of Louisville, with whom she shared her novel "Mrs. Wiggs", prior to publishing. Among the club members was noted author Annie Fellows Johnston, whose popular novel "The Little Colonel" later became a film starring Shirley Temple. "The Little Colonel" series was also set in Kentucky and based on local residents.
- Within six months of submitting the manuscript to a publisher, tens of thousands of copies "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch" were being printed each month, with 650,000 sold in the first two years. Ultimately the novel was translated into several languages and written in Braille.
- According to "The Encyclopedia of Louisville", the stage production "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch" had a seven-year run in the United States and two years in England. The play was written by Louisvillian Anne C. Flexner.
- The Rices have been associated with notables such as Henry Watterson, Ida Tarbell, Mark Twain and even Theodore Roosevelt.
- "The Encyclopedia of Louisville" states that Alice Hagen Rice used her experiences at Camp Zachary Taylorto write her novel Quin (1921).
- Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch was also a radio series from 1936-1938. According to Today In History, the final broadcast occurred on December 23, 1938.
- Alice’s husband, Cale Young Rice, was the first president of the Louisville Arts Club and was on the Board of Governors of the J.B. Speed Art Museum. Hattie Bishop Speed, founder of The Speed Art Museum, was also a charter member of the Arts Club of Louisville, which was founded in 1920.
- Both Alice Hagen Rice and Cale Young Rice received an honorary doctor of literature degree from the University of Louisville in 1937.
- The Rice house built in Old Louisville (1444 St. James Court) still stands. Mrs. Rice lived there for thirty years.
- The University of Louisville University Archives and Photographic Archives, the Kentucky Library & Museum at Western Kentucky University (which house the Rice Literary Collection) and the Filson Historical Society have many photographs, letters, manuscripts and other personal items related to Alice Hegan Rice and Cale Young Rice. Our special thanks to them for providing images for this Et Cetera.
If you enjoyed this Et Cetera, be sure to check out our segment on "The Little Colonel" book series.
- Program 421
- "Louisville Life" examines the Voice-Tribune, celebrates 100 years at the Cabbage Patch Settlement House and learns how the history of the Buffalo Soldiers is inspiring Louisville’s young people. (#421)