My Laura Ingalls Wilder tour, Part 3

Well, I definitely saved the best for last. After visiting Laura Ingalls Wilder museums in De Smet, S.D.; Walnut Grove and Spring Valley, Minn.; Pepin, Wis.; and Burr Oak, Iowa, this summer – and greatly enjoying each one of them – my visit to southern Missouri (and Kansas) on the last weekend in August was by far my most fulfilling Laura Ingalls Wilder experience.

IMG_9854

MANSFIELD, MISSOURI

I arrived at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes & Museum in Mansfield, Mo., late last Friday morning after a long drive. I kept thinking, as I drove in my comfortable, air-conditioned car, holy moly, how long and difficult these drives must have been for the Ingalls family and later for newlyweds Laura and Almanzo in the 1800s.

Mansfield is a small town (population 1,450) about 45 miles east of Springfield on Hwy. 60. It’s not hard to find, and it’s definitely worth the 7-hour drive from Ames. (Also, I cheated and spent the night in the Kansas City area with my sister.)

IMG_9857

The first stop is a new Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, located at 3060 Highway A. The exterior of the building looks like a white barn; inside is a spacious museum (by far the most thorough, modern, and professional of all the L.I.W. museums), a small theater, and a gift shop.

I paid my $14 entrance fee and learned that photography would not be allowed inside the museum or the homes. This was disappointing to me. I also learned that a guided tour of the Wilder farmhouse at Rocky Ridge Farm would begin in 20 minutes (tours are given on the half-hour from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with shorter hours on Sunday) and that an 8-minute film would give me a nice introduction to my visit. So I started by viewing the film, and although I feel like I’ve been immersed in all things Laura lately, I learned a few things from the film and also really loved hearing Laura’s voice. She was recorded as an older woman after becoming a famous author.

I learned that the farmhouse was started well after Laura and Almanzo and their daughter, Rose, arrived in Mansfield in 1894, living first in town and then in a cabin on their acreage. Laura’s descriptive skills – which she would later use to become a best-selling storyteller – were honed during all the years she spent describing what she saw to her sister, Mary, who was blind.

IMG_9839

After the film ended, I walked up the hill to the Rocky Ridge Farmhouse and waited with a small group of visitors for our tour to begin. Right at 11:30, our tour guide, Stanley, came out and introduced himself. We were reminded of the no-photography policy and also warned that  touching anything inside the home was not allowed.

IMG_9834

Let the tour begin!

Stanley reminded us that the Wilders’ first house was actually a log cabin. Almanzo added a kitchen to the cabin, then detached it and moved here to the top of the hill. He basically built the farmhouse around the kitchen, one room at a time, over the next 17 years.

In the kitchen, we saw a life-sized cutout of Laura as she looked as an older woman; her actual size was just 4’11” – she was so tiny! The kitchen was built for her, so all of the surfaces are unusually low. Stanley said Laura loved dishes. Her wedding china is on display – in a beautiful blue willow pattern. Everything in this kitchen was actually Laura’s – no reproductions here. This is really what makes this visit soar above all the rest: You’re walking through Laura’s house with Laura’s things, just as they were when she lived here. She died three days after her 90th birthday in 1957, and they left the home exactly as it was when she died, as she was very famous. Stanley pointed out that the wood in the stove has been here for 61 years.

Moving on: There’s an opening between the kitchen and dining room, with steep stairs leading up to the sleeping attic and Rose’s bedroom.

Laura’s favorite rocker is in the next room; this is where she answered her fan mail – averaging 50 letters per day. Stanley said she received 1000 cards on her 90th birthday.

Also in this area is the clock she received as a Christmas present – Almanzo traded a load of hay to buy it, and it’s still in perfect working order after all these years.

Next is the bedroom and a bathroom that was added in 1920; we can see the twin beds, Laura’s makeup table, and an old Montgomery Ward catalog on the nightstand. The floor was ordered through that catalog (beautiful!). There’s a 1950 Philco radio (Laura and Almanzo never had a television), Laura’s sewing box, and many things Almanzo made by hand: a table, lamps, and more. On the wall are framed Currier & Ives prints, taken from magazines and calendars.

The next room is the smallest room in the house: Laura’s office. She was 65 years old when she started writing her books; it took 11 years to finished them at age 76. There’s a small “fainting couch” in her office. It’s a very cozy room.

We continue our tour into the parlor, a 1913 addition to house. Almanzo built almost everything else himself, but he hired help to build this room, using local wood. Stanley explained that Almanzo had a stroke at age 29 and walked with a cane; there are many canes inside the house, all carved by Almanzo himself. He also hooked rugs and built much of the furniture in the home. The parlor has a large window with a window seat; Laura reportedly loved the window seat, saying the window was “like a living picture, always changing.”

A music room has a pump organ and electrola (not to be confused with a victrola) with wooden needles. The Wilders were avid readers; the library is filled with some 300 volumes. Stanley said Laura and Almanzo would read aloud to each other in this room, snacking on popcorn, walnuts, and apples.

Upstairs is a guest bedroom, storage (“junk room”) and Rose’s bedroom; the second floor is not open to the public. All told, the farmhouse has 10 total rooms – nine more rooms than most of the homes Laura lived in growing up.

At the end of the tour, Stanley took questions and expressed his delight in giving tours of Laura and Almanzo’s home. “I don’t go to work,” he said, “I go to play,”

IMG_9830

Exterior photos of the home are allowed, so I walked around the grounds a bit before heading to my car and driving to the Rock House.

IMG_9842

The Rock House is located about three-fourths of a mile away from the farmhouse, along a rugged walking path. The story goes that in 1928, daughter Rose Wilder Lane returned home from her travels abroad and wanted to build a retirement home for her parents.

IMG_9847

The home is open to visitors between 10 a.m. and 4:20 p.m., with a half-hour break at 12:30. I squeezed my visit in just before the lunch break. No guided tours are offered, but a docent, Marie, was in the home to tell visitors about its history and answer questions.

The Rock House is built in an English cottage style, with plans purchased from the Sears & Roebuck catalog. Laura and Almanzo lived here for seven years before moving back to the farmhouse. They kept the Rock House as a rental property until 1943 when it was sold. Laura reportedly said she moved back to the farmhouse because she was “homesick for the old place.”

I liked both houses a lot. The farmhouse feels like home, but the Rock House is really adorable; it made me think of a gingerbread house. And it was filled with all the modern conveniences of the time: Running water, electricity, forced-air heating, and a garage for the car.

There’s a beautiful view from the front room of the wooded, shady lot; the room has French doors and casement windows that let in lots of light. Marie says, “The view is unbeatable” and added that it probably hasn’t changed very much since Laura and Almanzo lived here.

IMG_9848

Photos throughout the house show how the rooms looked in 1929. Displays include Laura’s Haviland china and pink depression glass. There’s a modern kitchen with electric appliances; Laura’s bedroom, with a sewing machine, bed, and dresser; Almanzo’s bedroom; and a bathroom with authentic tile (only the toilet has been replaced).

Laura did some writing here before moving back to the farmhouse. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Foundation bought the house in 1990, and Marie said they were fortunate that the house was cared for so well by its owners.

IMG_9856

After touring the Rock House, I headed to the museum. I already felt like I’d had a nice tour, but the museum really blew me away. As with the house interiors, I wish I had photos to show you, but you’ll just have to make do with my notes.

I started at the front of the museum and then went left, which makes sense to me because you read left to right, but actually if you go to the right and wind your way around you’ll view the books and their attendant displays in the order they were written.

There are so many initial highlights in the front of the museum. Here are just a few:

  • “Little House” stamp issued in 1993
  • Versions of the “Little House” books in many languages
  • Original photos I’ve never seen before
  • Ingalls and Wilder family history
  • Information about the Wilders’ daughter, Rose
  • A timeline of Laura’s life with a backdrop of U.S. history
  • Laura’s life after Almanzo (he died 1949)
  • Replica of a “hack” (wagon) used by the Wilders (this is one of the few replicas in this museum; nearly everything is original)

As I mentioned, many of the displays go along with the times the books were written:

  • “Little House in the Big Woods” – Pepin, Wis.: Laura’s first sampler, a handkerchief she made (how did it last all this time??? It is so sweet!), Mary’s nine-patch quilt
  • “Farmer Boy” – New York to Spring Valley, Minn.: Wilder memorabilia and photos, Almanzo’s watch, license plates (Almanzo saved them), his handmade canes and shoes
  • “Little House on the Prairie” – Independence, Kan.: Quilts Laura appliqued, a TV show display
  • “Banks of Plum Creek” – Walnut Grove, Minn.: Photographs, Laura’s jewel box, Laura and Mary’s school slates, Nellie Owens’ name cards (Laura changed Nellie’s name to Oleson in the book series, one of only two names she ever changed)
  • “Long Winter,” “Little Town on the Prairie” and “Happy Golden Years” – all set in De Smet, with artifacts from the time
  • “The First Four Years,” published 1971, 14 years after her death, found as an unfinished manuscript; it details Wilders’ early married life 1885-1889
  • “West From Home” – Letters Laura wrote from San Francisco in 1915; the letters were discovered after her death
  • “On the Way Home” – Diary of her trip from South Dakota to Mansfield 1894

There’s a display about Laura and her fans; original manuscripts; her sewing machine. Another display shows her travels with Rose, with photos of the train and souvenirs she purchased. Separate display cases highlight the lives of sisters Grace (1877-1941), Carrie (1870-1946), and Mary (1865-1928), with Mary’s gloves and crocheted bed jacket. Other displays show Charles and Caroline’s books, original photos, and wedding certificate; Laura’s Bible, and the Ingalls family Bible. There’s just so much wonderful, original stuff here! I was starting to geek out at this point.

And then, there’s the travel lap-desk she used, her billfold, and a “luncheon set” she made by hand (napkins and tablecloth). Here are clothes she made and wore! My notes say I am becoming emotional. There’s a black velvet dress, a burgundy velvet dress (her favorite), and a white “lawn dress” from 1900. Here’s Laura’s cow creamer, her roosting hen dish, a blouse, her fancy dress-top, her beloved glassware, swan plate, and dishes…all the pretty things she loved.

All this stuff, preserved so beautifully, was starting to make me an emotional wreck. And then I saw it: Pa’s dear old fiddle. I pretty much lost it at that point. Pa’s fiddle played such a huge part in Laura’s childhood and in her stories! It was made in Germany in 1850, and Charles played until he died in 1902. It was sent to Laura in 1944. I’m told the fiddle is still played during special occasions.

I stumbled out of the museum in a daze. What a wonderful experience. But now I have to snap out of it and move along.

In the museum gift shop, I bought two books: “On the Way Home,” and “The First Four Years.” I asked the clerk for directions to the cemetery in which Laura and Almanzo are buried, and I also asked for recommendations for a place in Mansfield where I could find some lunch. She helped me with both requests.

IMG_9887

First, lunch. I ate at Sweet Nellie’s, which looks like an ice cream shop, but they serve breakfast, sandwiches, burgers, daily specials (meatloaf, catfish, etc.), caramel rolls, and huge apple fritters. I had a grilled PB&J from the kids menu (recommended by the cashier after I told her I was a vegetarian). It was gooey and delicious.

IMG_9884

After lunch, I walked around the horseshoe-shaped Mansfield “square” with its historic bank, shops, and other businesses on three sides surrounding a park with a gazebo and a bust of Laura as older woman (above). I got a little bit choked up again. The citizens of Mansfield really loved Laura, and it shows.

IMG_9895

 

Finally, a few blocks away is the cemetery, where you’ll find the well-marked graves of Laura (1867-1957) and Almanzo (1857-1949) sharing a headstone. Daughter Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968) is buried beside them. The headstones are well maintained, framed by bushes and covered with small rocks and toys.

My overall rating for Mansfield: 9 out of 10. It would be a 10 if they’d allow photography inside the museum and the homes. But this place is the BEST if you’re a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan; it’s definitely the site to visit if you can only see one place.

IMG_9991

INDEPENDENCE, KANSAS

The next day I drove to the Little House on the Prairie Museum near Independence, Kan. It was pretty much the exact opposite of my experience in Mansfield: The museum stands on the land where Laura lived with her family in a log cabin in 1870, but there’s absolutely nothing original here.

IMG_9915

I arrived early (the museum opens, theoretically, at 10 a.m.) even though Google Maps took me first to the wrong location. I went into the small town of Independence to get gas and then followed the brochure directions to the museum south of town off of U.S. Hwy. 75. Rain was falling steadily. I waited in my car until after 10, and nobody had arrived to open the buildings, so I decided to get out of my car and walk around. A few other people had also arrived by this point.

IMG_9949

I took some exterior photos, watched burros and a donkey play in the nearby field, and then parked myself impatiently on the porch of the gift shop. Finally, at 10:20, someone arrived to unlock the building, but immediately she put a CLOSED sign on the porch and scurried back inside. Several minutes later she came out and let us know it would be a few more minutes as she went to unlock the other buildings. It wasn’t until 10:35 that the museum site was open to guests.

IMG_9923

At that point, I paid my $3 admission fee and then walked from building to building and took pictures inside. Since nothing is original to the Ingalls family, and since I’d seen the acreage in De Smet and all the other sites, I wasn’t terribly impressed by the turn-of-the-century post office …

IMG_9950

IMG_9968

… or the one-room school house (built in 1872)…

IMG_9953

IMG_9972

… or the reconstructed log cabin.

IMG_9985

There’s some nice signage, with stories and quotes from the Ingalls family’s time here (1869-1871), the original setting of the “Little House on the Prairie” book. One sign says: “The Ingalls family arrived here in 1869, believing the land would soon be available for legal purchase…after over a year in Kansas, they returned to their home in Pepin, Wis…. Charles Ingalls never filed on this land, making identification of the exact location of their log cabin challenging.”

Baby Carrie was born in the cabin in 1870. Charles built a barn and dug a well, had a garden, and hunted for game. Laura wrote that Independence was 40 miles from the cabin when in reality it’s about 12 miles, but, as one sign said, it seemed like 40 miles when riding in a wagon and fording creeks.

IMG_9927

Another sign notes: “It was a perfect location here except that it was on the edge of the Osage Diminished Reserve, and who owned the land was in question. In “Little House on the Prairie,” Laura writes about the tension and fear associated with the land dispute between Congress and the Osage tribe.

The gift shop offers some nice hand-made pottery and Christmas ornaments with the “Little House” logo, but I didn’t buy anything here. I was back on the road by 11 a.m.

Honestly, this is not a bad place to visit. But for the amount of time it takes to drive here from Iowa, I’d say it’s #7 on a list of the seven sites I visited. I’m super happy I was able to check it off the list, but I’m not sure it was REALLY worth the effort, if I had it to do over again.

IMG_1042

So, now what? I’ve gone to each of the places Laura lived and wrote about. I’ve bought a ton of books and a cool map. Now I need to read all of these books, some of which I read years ago and some that are new to me:

IMG_1036

I also think I will re-read “Prairie Fires,” minus the long, drawn-out chapters that deal with Rose, because it will be more meaningful to me now that I’ve seen each of these locations and visited the museums.

Laura Ingalls Wilder lived an amazing life, and she was an inspiration to me as a strong female, a great writer, and a late-in-life modern career woman. I’m happy so much of her story has been preserved for us to experience.

Advertisements

1 comment so far

  1. frejatravels on

    I only seen the tv show and not read the books. But I had no idea she started writing the books so late in her life.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: