Ella attended the local one-room school where she excelled in composition but rarely passed an arithmetic test. In 1867 her parents sent her to Madison where she was a junior in the Female College, a part of the University of Wisconsin. Ella wanted to spend all of her time writing and begged to come home. She also was painfully aware of the difference between her homemade clothes and the dresses of city girls. After one year she was allowed to end her formal education and return home.
Ella became an accepted part of the literary and social life of Madison and Milwaukee. Governor Fairchild gave her his personal congratulations. He had lost one arm in the Civil War, but embraced her, saying, "I wish I had two arms to put around you, little girl. I am so proud of you." Her personal popularity was indicated by financial backing from friends and the support of Milwaukee newspaper literary critics.
The Wisconsin years of Ella Wheeler Wilcox have been called the Midwest's Golden Age of Literature. Transplanted New England cultural roots gave Wisconsin a literary flowering. Ella Wheeler Wilcox was one of the brightest blooms. It has also been said that her life was an autobiography of American history as her writings parallel social and economic changes of the Victorian Era.