My Laura Ingalls Wilder tour, Part 2


I continued my Laura Ingalls Wilder tour last weekend with three stops: Pepin, Wis., Spring Valley, Minn., and Burr Oak, Iowa. All three were very much worth the drive.



I started in Pepin, Wis., the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder. This is where her story begins: “Once upon a time…a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.”


There are actually two L.I.W. sites in Pepin. The first is the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, located right on the main street through town (306 3rd St). For a $5 entrance fee, you can tour the museum, which includes original quilts belonging to Laura and her sisters. When the Ingalls family left Pepin, they took all of their possessions with them. So the only items that actually belonged to the family that are displayed at this museum are two quilts and a doily. These items were sent from Mansfield, Mo., after Laura’s death.


Displays in the museum include Ingalls photos and documents, dolls, clothing and artifacts of the time period when the Ingalls family lived here, and a “world-wide Laura” exhibit. (The Little House books have been translated into more than 40 languages and have created a number of pop-culture spin-offs including lunch boxes, board games, dolls, and other items, below.)


There are also some interactive exhibits here for kids: a log-cabin dollhouse, covered wagon display, riverboat replica, and costumes to try on.


The gift shop has some interesting prints and posters for sale. I bought a map of Laura’s travels for $3 and got directions to the log cabin, which is the second L.I.W. site in Pepin.


I ate lunch at the Pickle Factory, a bar and grill located on the shore of Lake Pepin, took a walk along the lakeshore, and then drove around town (highlights are a pretty winery, a small depot, and a farm stand) before heading out to the cabin.



The Little House Wayside, 7 miles north of Pepin on Country Road CC, marks the spot where Laura was born on Feb. 7, 1867, in a small cabin built by her father.


The original cabin is gone, as are the big woods, replaced by fields of corn and soybeans. But still, this feels like a pilgrimage to the shrine of Laura – truly hallowed ground.

On the site is a replica of the cabin that became the famous “Little House in the Big Woods.”


Late in 1868 or spring of 1869, the Ingalls family left Wisconsin and traveled by covered wagon to Kansas. But they returned to Pepin in late 1870 before again leaving the area in 1873 to move to Minnesota.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Days are held in Pepin during the second full weekend in September. The event includes a Laura contest, cabin activities, fiddle contest, spelling bee, square dance, craft demonstrations, a parade, and a “famous” chicken dinner.


Spring Valley is just south of Rochester, Minn. This Laura Ingalls Wilder experience is a bit different because it focuses mostly on the Wilder side – Laura’s husband, Almanzo, and his family.


I arrived in Spring Valley before the museum opened at 10 a.m., so I walked around the small historic business district (below).



The Wilder museum is housed in the Methodist Church at 221 W. Courtland, just two blocks from the main highway through town.


The Wilder family, made famous in the book Farmer Boy, moved to Spring Valley in the 1870s. Construction of the Methodist Church began in 1876, and the Wilders helped support the building costs. After Laura and Almanzo were married, they lived in Spring Valley with their daughter, Rose, in 1890. So there’s plenty of history here.

Museum entrance is $7, and for that, you get a guided tour of the displays, most of which consist of photos and historical documents. My tour guide was Alexys, age 14.


Alexys really knew her Wilder history. I may have thrown her off script a time or two with questions and interjections, but she did a great job. Displays told the story of the extended Wilder family in the town of Spring Valley. Photos show their original home, where Laura lived as a young mother. A letter from Laura to a fan of her books in 1952 is on display.



If you’re interested in more than Wilder history, the museum also includes an 1874 fire wagon, the Richard Sears exhibit, camera collection, old-fashioned kitchen display, and other historic items. I walked through these areas quickly without a guide.

I’ve been trying to complete my Little House book collection, and I didn’t own Farmer Boy, so I bought it at the gift shop before leaving the museum. It seemed only right to buy it here.


Spring Valley has two more sites worth visiting: An acreage just a few blocks northwest of the church houses the Wilder family’s original barn and farmland (below). This is private property, so I parked down the block and photographed the barn with a long lens so as not to be annoying.


Before leaving Spring Valley, I visited the cemetery where some of the Wilder family is buried.





I then headed to Burr Oak, Iowa, about a 45-minute drive from Spring Valley. I honestly wasn’t expecting much from that visit, but it really exceeded my expectations. The Masters Hotel in Burr Oak is actually the only place Laura lived as a child that exists today on its original site.


In 1876, when Laura was 9 years old, the Ingalls family left Walnut Grove, Minn., and moved to Burr Oak to help manage the Masters Hotel, owned by William Steadman. Laura never wrote about her Burr Oak experience in the Little House series. Apparently she was eager to forget about her time there, as she didn’t enjoy living in town and working at the hotel.

The old Burr Oak Savings Bank is the first stop on the L.I.W. tour, where you pay $8 for a guided tour. I joined a group of four with a tour already in progress, led by a tour guide named Annastacia. She gave us some background information about Burr Oak: When the Ingalls family lived here, it was a bustling town of 200 with frequent stagecoach stops, two hotels, a saloon, grocery store, and schoolhouse.


As a group, we walked across the street to the Masters Hotel, built in 1851. Much of the building has been renovated, but you can still see some original floorboards and many other original parts of the structure. We watched a short DVD telling the history of Laura’s time in Burr Oak as well as a brief history of her other homes. I was reminded that after living in the hotel, the family moved in Kimball’s grocery (two doors down) and then to a home they rented just north of the main road, where Laura’s sister Grace was born in 1877.



We toured the hotel, which is furnished with period items and also contains some Ingalls history displays. There’s a place setting from Laura and Almanzo’s wedding china, first editions of some of Laura’s Little House books, a brick from the house where Grace was born, and documents from when Laura’s sister Mary attended a school for the blind.


The first floor consists of one bedroom, a lobby, and parlor. Annastacia played “Sweet By and By” on the pump organ in the parlor, one of the songs Charles is said to have played.


Borders stayed in small bedrooms upstairs, often sleeping three to a twin-sized bed (men only, side by side, feet on the floor) for 25 cents a night.



The lower level is where the Ingalls family slept (below) and where Caroline cooked and served three meals a day, six days a week.



Outside, you can see the creek Laura played in and the hill on which she sledded in the wintertime. In this back area, during Laura’s time, you would have milked cows and parked your wagon. A church bell has been relocated here – the exact bell that rang at Laura’s church.



I loved this tour! After it was over, I grabbed a walking-tour map of Burr Oak and walked to the cemetery and the Methodist church (built in 1893 by Almanzo’s uncle) and the mercantile (below)…


… and to the Advent Christian Church (built when the Ingalls family lived in Burr Oak, below), to a park with a pretty bridge, and to the site where Grace was born.


Today, Burr Oak’s population (166) is smaller than when Laura and her family lived here.

I’ve now visited all of the northern Laura Ingalls Wilder museums (in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa). Next up: A trip to Mansfield, Mo., where Laura lived as an adult and wrote the Little House stories.


1 comment so far

  1. Dawn Maroushek on

    Those of us at the Burr Oak site are extremely happy to hear you loved your tour! I personally enjoyed reading your post about your Laura Road Trip!

    Dawn, Board President
    Laura Ingalls Wilder Park & Museum
    Burr Oak, Iowa

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