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Thursday, September 5, 2013

I visited two Laura Ingalls Wilder homes!

This past summer while on a road trip to the Midwest, I was glad our route took us close to two Laura Ingalls Wilder homes for me to insist that we visit them! First we went to the Wilder farm in Mansfield, Missouri "Rocky Ridge" where Laura and Almanzo lived for around sixty years. This is where Laura wrote all of her books.

Going to the Rocky Ridge farm was awesome. It was so neat to see things like how low the kitchen counters were, since Almanzo made everything by hand and Laura was not quite five feet tall, so he made it just to her height. Also it was neat to see how changing technology impacted them. When they were able to buy a refrigerator, it didn't fit in the kitchen, so Almanzo built a little bump-out for it.

In the museum I got goose-bumps when I saw Pa's fiddle. That was by far the most iconic thing in all her books, and it was right there, just a foot away from me behind glass. It was also great to see Carrie's china dog and Mary's braille slate, but nothing compared to Pa's fiddle. A lot of their hand-made clothes were also on display and all of them were so tiny!

For the editor in me, I was impressed by the two walls of foreign editions of the Little House books, and also a letter from Laura's editor at Harper & Row about how well The Little House in the Big Woods was being received upon its initial publication, particularly by librarians. I was also awed by seeing Laura's desk, and the seat where she also did a lot of her writing.

You weren't supposed to take pictures inside, we soon discovered, so you'll have to go see the rest for yourself. It sure didn't look like a hand-built one-room-at-a-time house! Once she started writing and the books got big, their daughter Rose did build them a bigger, newer, fancier home, which they lived in for about ten years (on the same property) but after Almanzo died, Laura moved back into the house he built for her. I wished we had a lot more time to hang out, but we made the best time we could that day to get there an hour before closing, and in that time we had to do the tour, look at the museum, and go to the gift shop, so it was a race. The neatest thing we got at the gift shop was a CD for my mother of songs of Pa's from the books, played by famous musicians, and using Pa's actual fiddle! When Mom was reading these books to us as kids, we were lucky that she was familiar with a lot of the American folk songs that Pa knew and could actually sing them, like Clementine and Old Dan Tucker.

Next we went to Independence, Kansas, to THE Little House on the Prairie. In all honesty, it is a replica, but it was rebuilt according to Laura's very specific specifications in the book as well as other documents like Pa's claim, which helped solidify that this definitely was the exact plot of land. Now, Pa did know that this land was not open for development and he went there anyway hoping to get a jump on the claims (this practice is what led to the Nebraska nickname "Sooners.") Also here's an interesting bit of trivia: Carrie Ingalls was born here, in the cabin in Kansas, not in Wisconsin. There's a reason Laura's books are classified as fiction, and here's one example of how she stretched the truth.

Unlike the Rocky Ridge farm, this little house is directly out of the books I know and love, and it was almost spooky to see how perfect it was. Now if you grew up with the Garth Williams illustrated editions like I did, there's a reason for that -- Mr. Williams went to all the Ingalls/Wilder sites and did his research. (Did you know his were not the original illustrations? I find the original covers goofy, but cute. But they've got nothing on Garth Williams who was one of the most brilliant illustrators who ever lived, in my opinion.) The cabin itself is just like the description, down to the hand-hewn planks for the door and the pegs and leather straps. I knew it was small, but it was another things to see exactly how small and picture five people (albeit three of them very small) living there. It was much shorter than I had pictured.


And what was much smaller than I imagined (and I do think Mr. William's dimensions are a little off) was the wagon. I pictured covered wagons the size of an SUV, and in the pictures and in movies and TV shows, they are always pictured at least as wide as a modern conventional car. The wagon pictured here (and there was also one in Mansfield that was the same size) was very small. I'm not sure it was the size of a Smart Car. If two adults were sitting side by side at the front, there was not an inch of extra room on either side of them. Of course they wouldn't have had all the stuff we have to take with them, but it still seemed tiny to hold all your worldly possessions.

In the cabin, you saw a red checked tablecloth just like Ma always used to make the place more cheery, and the beds were a thin mattress on top of rope, woven through a bed frame (this is where the phrase "sleep tight" comes from.) There was a "spider" for cooking (a frying pan with legs) and a churn. In the back in a hand-dug well that, although it is closed off for safety reasons, they believe is in fact the very well that Pa dug in The Little House on the Prairie. There is an adorable barn and farmhouse next door which is the gift shop, and on the other side a couple of other late-1800s buildings have been brought out to the site to make for more of a display, although they are not original to here. There is a post office and a school. There is a lovely little display about Dr. George Tann (yes I know Laura spelled it "Tan" in the book but apparently she misremembered as the research has been done and he did exist and his name was spelled Tann), the black doctor who helped nurse the family through a terrible illness, "the ague" (probably malaria).

We tried to walk to the creek but didn't make it. Jordan did however make friends with a donkey. We bought his niece a bonnet and I bought a half-dozen Laura Ingalls Wilder books that aren't widely available (one on what happened in Burr Oak, Iowa, one is a guidebook to all the locations) although I did already have some of the obscure ones!

This trip was a magical and luminous one for me! I could have stayed there forever. It was amazing to see the actual same land that Laura saw, to be under the same wide Kansas sky, and having the same tiny prairie birds burst out of the grasses in front of me. I really felt immersed in the books, and a closeness to them that I've never experienced anything like before. Jordan enjoyed both the visits very much too, although previously he'd only read half of Farmer Boy. I am glad to say he's now read all of The Little House in the Big Woods and half of The Little House on the Prairie (Pa just built the door. He hasn't dug the well yet.) It was good to see that someone who hasn't read any of the books, and certainly isn't as obsessed about them as I am (my youngest sister is named Laura because our parents were reading The Little House in the Big Woods to my middle sister and me when she was born) could enjoy these two historic sites as well. I'm not sure if he'd ever be up for joining me to go to Pepin, Wisconsin and De Smet, South Dakota, but this was awesome. If you've ever thought about visiting one or both of these places, GO. You won't regret it.

1 comment:

Jeane said...

I knew the Laura Ingalls Wilder books were based on her own life, and you could visit sites, but I didn't know the actual fiddle, precious china dogs and other items were in a museum! How I'd love to go see those for myself.