Laura Land Tour: Independence, KS

February 5, 2016

The Kansas prairie is the setting for Little House On The Prairie, the second book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic Little House series. Today, fans can visit the site where the Ingalls family briefly made their home.

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

Laura was only two when the family began the trip to Kansas. Decades later she relied on her parents’ memories to write Little House On The Prairie. She wasn’t sure of the actual spot where her family settled. It wasn’t until 1969 that local historian Margaret Clement succeeded in identifying the location.

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

As at Walnut Grove, MN, the homesite was part of a family farm. Property owners and volunteers created a replica of the Ingalls’s cabin at what is now known as the Little House on the Prairie Museum, and offer Laura fans a warm welcome.  I’m grateful!

Independence Cabin

The interior is simple, and suggests how the family’s cabin might have appeared.

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

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Laura fans will recognize this replica of Ma’s china shepherdess.

One of the features that helped identify the spot was an old hand-dug well. Historians believe it was the one dug by Charles Ingalls and a neighbor.

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A couple of other historic buildings have been moved to the site, including this one-room schoolhouse.

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

A display shared information about doctoring in Laura’s day. (Fans will remember that the family was tended through illness by Dr. George Tann, a black physician.)

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

I love Laura’s descriptions of seemingly endless prairie in the book. The area is mostly farmland today, but a prairie has been re-established across the road.

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

If you’ve read Death on the Prairiemy latest Chloe Ellefson mystery, you may recall the dramatic scene at the Kansas site involving Chloe and her sister Kari. Chloe went to cool down along that treeline in the distance.

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

I’m happy to report that my sister and I had a fine time when we visited.

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

Logistically, it’s difficult to visit the Laura homesites in the order they appear in the books. However, the Kansas site is only about three and a half hours from Mansfield, MO, where Laura and her husband Almanzo spent most of their married years. Travelers might want to consider including both sites in one loop.

For more information about the Kansas site, visit the Little House on the Prairie Museum.

For more information about Death on the Prairie, including links to other tour stops, photographs, maps, and much more, please visit my website.

Next stop:  Rocky Ridge near Mansfield, Missouri!

Laura Land Tour: De Smet, SD – Part 2

January 28, 2016

As I mentioned in my last post about De Smet, avid Laura Ingalls Wilder fans can easily spend more than a single day in the area.

De Smet banner

I suggest picking up a copy of the booklet “Explore De Smet,” a walking and driving guide to many of the sites mentioned in, or relevant to, the books set in South Dakota.

Explore De Smet

It’s fun to walk the streets and discover the locations of homes and businesses Laura mentioned in her books. In addition to the guide, interpretive signs help visitors get their historical bearings.

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The signs are nicely done, with period advertisements or photos, a location summary, and a quote from the pertinent book.

You can visit the Loftus Store.  In The Long Winter, Cap Garland and Almanzo Wilder risked their lives to bring wheat back to the town’s starving residents, only to have storekeeper Loftus try to cheat his customers by asking an exorbitant price.

Loftus Store

After exploring the town, jump in your car to see sites in the area. The Big Slough, described in By The Shores of Silver Lake, is located just south of town. It’s much smaller than it was in Laura’s day, but worth a stop.

 

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I also wanted to see Silver Lake, but had a hard time finding it. Finally one of the Historic Homes guides gave me good directions. A lane into a small industrial area led to a vantage point where I could see the lake.

De Smet

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One of my favorite places in all of Laura Land is the Memorial Site, one mile southeast of De Smet.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Site De Smet

An interpretive kiosk marks the site.

In 1880 Charles Ingalls (Pa) filed a homestead claim for this land. The Memorial is in one corner of that original property.

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The tiny cottonwood trees Charles planted for his family are still there, and now enormous.  It is very special to walk among them.

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Ingalls homestead memorial

For hands-on fun (especially with kids) you can also visit “The Ingalls Homestead:  Laura’s Living Prairie” right up the hill.

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Homestead brochure

Laura married Almanzo Wilder in 1885. The site of their homestead is on private land, but a sign marks the spot.

Wilder Homestead De Smet

Wilder Homestead De Smet

Many Laura fans also visit the De Smet Cemetery, as Chloe Ellefson does in Death on the Prairie:

Chloe drove next to the De Smet Cemetery, a peaceful place on a hilltop between the town, a remnant slough, and farmland. It didn’t take long to find the graves of Ma and Pa, Mary, Carrie, and Grace. Then – “Oh.” She stopped in front of a low stone that said simply, Baby son of A.J. Wilder.

De Smet Cemetery

“Why?” she demanded softly. Why just note the father? Why was Laura’s name left off the stone? The omission was exasperating, perplexing, and terribly sad. Even sadder was the fact that Laura and Almanzo had evidently not named their son.

But…perhaps Laura named him in her heart.

If you visit, you’ll find stones for Laura’s parents and sisters nearby.

When my sister and I toured De Smet for the first time we also wanted to see where Cap Garland was buried. Again, a guide at the Historic Homes gave us great directions (to a different cemetery), and described the stone so we could find it easily.

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The guide also suggested we visit the area where Almanzo took Laura courting. We were running out of daylight—but that only made it easier to imagine the couple getting to know each other during buggy rides.

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(Photo by Barbara Ernst)

If you’d like to see more I highly recommend Discover Laura, the official blog of Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes. It features a virtual tour of De Smet, family artifacts, and site news. (Here’s a post about Cap Garland and his family.)

For more information about Death on the Prairie, including links to other tour stops, photographs, maps, and much more, please visit my website.

Next stop:  Little House On The Prairie museum in Independence, Kansas!

The Year Ahead

January 19, 2016

Happy 2016! I’m a bit behind because I’ve been working hard to meet a couple of deadlines. But I want to share some news about the coming year.

Programs

Nothing is better than connecting with reader-friends in person!

Kathleen Ernst library program

I’ll be visiting a number of libraries, bookstores, and other venues this year. I’m particularly excited about several special events:

In February, I will be in Door County, Wisconsin, for a residency with Write On, Door County. Write On is collaborating with Peninsula Music Festival on the final performance of Feb Fest III, a concert of Scandinavian music inspired by… my Chloe novels! How cool is that? I’m thrilled.

logo2010

The February 27th performance will feature works by Carl Nielsen, Edvard Grieg, Franz Berwald, and Jean Sibelius. I’ll read excerpts from my work, and sign books.  You can find all the information here.

While in Door County I will also teach a workshop called Writing Your Family Stories, Your Way on February 29.

Speaking of workshops, I’m teaching a weekend class called Exploring Your Heritage:  A Writing Sampler at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in March.

Vesterheim

You don’t need to be of Norwegian descent to participate! I developed these classes because so many people tell me they’d like to write about their family or community history, and don’t know where to begin.

You can always keep current with my schedule by visiting the Calendar page on my website. If you sign up for my email list, you’ll get—among other goodies—a personal invitation whenever I travel to your area.

Chloe Ellefson Mysteries

The seventh Chloe Ellefson Mystery, A Memory of Muskets, will be published in October. My first draft was much too long, and I’m still trimming, but it’s almost ready to turn in. As soon as I do, I’ll start developing the next Chloe adventure. A new location, and new ethnic group to explore…that’s all I’ll say for now.

I’ve been delighted to hear that Death on the Prairie is resonating with so many readers. Lots of us grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books! I plan to finish my blog tour of Laura homesites in coming weeks, and I also want to begin a Little House book discussion. Stay tuned.

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

If you need a Chloe fix, two of the historic sites featured in the books are open year-round:  Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and the Mill City Museum.  If you can, schedule your visit to the MCM to coincide with one of the ticketed Washburn A Mill tours, which takes visitors behind the scenes.

American Girl

Many of you have asked if I have any more children’s books on the horizon. Yes, I do! I’m working on a new book for American Girl now. It won’t be published until 2017, and I can’t talk about it yet, so again…stay tuned.

Gratitude

Although this post is about looking forward, I need a moment to look back, too. I’ve heard from many lovely readers in the past twelve months or so.  Some are children.

child

Isn’t this sweet?

 

Thalia

Yes, I most certainly did write back.

And some are adults.

You have created such wonderful characters – I feel like I can drive
to Eagle and meet up with Chloe and Roelke for lunch!!

I adore Chloe! Her stories keep me entertained and wanting to see
where she takes us next.

I finally read A Settler's Year and all I can say is I wish it were
called A Settler's YearS because I wanted more!

Writing books has connected me with old friends, and brought me many new ones!  Huge thanks to you all.

Char.Joanne, Kathleen Ernst

I wish you and yours a most wonderful year.  Happy reading!

Evelyn

Laura Land Tour: De Smet, SD – Part 1

December 13, 2015

My advice if you head to De Smet:  plan to stay a couple of days.  As Laura Ingalls Wilder fans know, By the Shores Of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town On the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years were all set in and near De Smet. The First Four Years, published posthumously, also takes place here. And there is a lot for visitors to see.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society operates the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes. Start your visit here to purchase tour tickets, browse the gift shop, and see family artifacts.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes De Smet SD

The Society currently maintains more than 2,000 original artifacts pertaining to Laura and her family. Photos are not permitted in the exhibit area, but it contains some real treasures.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes De Smet SD

A glimpse of the artifact storage area. Although not normally open to the public, it gives a hint of the Society’s holdings.

 

Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society De Smet SD

The former Society director gives young fans a glimpse during a special behind-the-scenes tour.

The first building on the Historic Homes tour is the Surveyors’ House, where the Ingalls family spent the winter of 1879-1880. When the family moves in, Laura is so excited that she runs ahead to explore.

It was a big house, a real house with two stories, and glass windows… The largeness of the empty house seemed to wait and listen. It seemed to know that Laura was there, but it had not made up its mind about her. …This would be by far the largest house she had ever lived in. (By The Shores Of Silver Lake)

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes De Smet

A guide told me that many visitors, remembering Laura’s delighted description, are surprised by how small the house feels by modern standards.

Laura also wrote of finding three closed doors. The first (visible on the right in the photo below) led to a small bedroom. The middle led to a staircase. (For safety reasons visitors can’t climb to the second story, but an ingeniously placed mirror provides a good look.) The third door led to a stocked pantry. Laura was astonished by the bounty:  A squeal of excitement came out of her mouth and startled the listening house.

Surveyors house - Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes De Smet SD

Photo courtesy the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society.

Silver Lake is one of my favorite books, and it was a treat to visit. How fortunate we are that the building was saved!

The newest building on the grounds is the First School of De Smet, which Laura and her younger sister Carrie attended.  (Remember when Laura defends frail Carrie after Eliza Jane Wilder, teacher and Laura’s future sister-in-law, singles her out for punishment?)

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes De Smet SD

The building is the newest addition, and when I last visited, was still being restored. Happily, visitors are permitted to watch the process. It’s fascinating to see the structure’s layers.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes De Smet SD

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes De Smet SD

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes De Smet SD

Guests can also see a replica of the Brewster School, where Laura taught for the first time. In These Happy Golden Years Laura described some harrowing experiences–and her surprise when Almanzo Wilder arrives in his sleigh to take her home.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes De Smet SD

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes De Smet SD

(When I was writing Death on the Prairie, I wanted my main character Chloe Ellefson to reflect upon her own changing perspective—how rereading the books brought new understanding. As a child, Chloe was terrified to read of Mrs. Brewster threatening her husband with a knife; as an adult, she is better able to appreciate the challenges some women faced when isolated on the prairie.)

The final stop on the formal Homes tour is the Ingalls Home on Third Street. Charles Ingalls (Pa) built the house in 1887.  Laura was married by that time, and so never lived in the home.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes De Smet SD

Since I hadn’t read anything about the house before visiting De Smet, I wasn’t sure what to expect here. Neither was Chloe:

Inside, the group bunched up in the parlor where Ma and Pa had spent their evenings. “After Mary graduated from the school for the blind in Iowa,” Edna Jo added, “she lived here as well.”

All interesting, Chloe thought. But there was no point in looking for Laura in this house.

“The night before Laura and Almanzo and Rose moved to Missouri, everyone gathered in this room,” Edna Jo continued. “After supper Laura asked Pa to get out his fiddle. He played almost until sunup. Laura didn’t know if she’d ever see her parents or sisters again. Pa told Laura that he wanted her to have his fiddle when he died.”

Chloe’s throat thickened. So much for not looking for Laura here.

“When the Wilders drove away in their wagon, Laura broke down and wept,” Edna Jo said softly. “She told Almanzo that she didn’t think the Ingalls family would have survived if it hadn’t been for Pa’s fiddle.”

Pa's house De Smet

That scene took place in the front room on the left. Mary Ingalls’ bedroom is to the right.

Mary's bedroom - Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes De Smet SD

Photo courtesy the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society.

Death on the Prairie readers may also recall a key scene that take place in the kitchen, in the back. During my first visit a guide told me that visitors often have emotional reactions to some of the displays there.

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De Smet, SD, is located about two hours west of Walnut Grove, MN. You may wish to stop at the Wheels Across The Prairie Museum in Tracy, MN on the way. In The Long Winter men struggled, and ultimately failed, to get a desperately needed train full of supplies from Tracy to De Smet.

Wheels Across The Prairie museum

Wheels Across The Prairie museum

For more information about Death on the Prairie, including links to other tour stops, photographs, maps, and much more, please visit my website.

Next time, a glimpse of some of the other special places to visit in De Smet, South Dakota!

Cooking With Chloe: Steamed Puddings

December 11, 2015
Last spring I invited Chloe readers to try one of the old recipes I collected while writing Tradition of Deceit.  Mary M., who is experienced with period foodways, volunteered to try a couple of steamed pudding recipes. I decided to save her report until the holiday season. If you’ve always wanted to try a steamed pudding, read on!
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Old cookbooks tend to assume the users have a lot of experience/knowledge.
Mary kindly shared some general instructions; read through those before trying one of the recipes.
* * *
Steamed puddings are basically a cake baked in moist heat and a covered container, as opposed to baking in an oven’s dry heat in an uncovered pan. Steaming was a practical method of baking in the days when ovens were small and stoves were kept burning all day (for example, to heat water).
 
EQUIPMENT

Use:  A pudding mold with a lid. You can find these in specialty kitchen stores or online. It’s important to butter or coat mold with nonstick spray, and equally important to butter/spray the lid, too.

 

Equipment -steamed pudding

Or use:  A large coffee can, buttered or sprayed. Don’t use the original plastic lid of the coffee can! Instead, tie heavy-duty foil over the top of the coffee can, and remember to butter/spray the foil.
pudding 1

(Note from Kathleen – A few years ago my younger sister and I experimented with a Christmas pudding. Since we didn’t have a mold, we used coffee cans.)


You can use: A metal mold intended for desserts or decoration. I tried using my mom’s old decorative copper mold (with a foil “lid”). It worked fine for the pudding, but was a nightmare to clean…and my mom’s mold never looked the same again.

RACK
Use:  I found a round metal rack that fits perfectly in my Revere Ware dutch oven. It sits a good 1/2″ above the bottom of the dutch oven.

Or use:  If you have trouble finding a rack small enough, you can use 2 or 3 metal rings from canning jars. (Don’t use the flat removeable metal lids that go inside the rings; just use the rings.) This works fine.

 

pudding 2

(From Kathleen:  I used canning rings, just as Mary suggests, for the rack.  I fastened them with twisties.)


Don’t use:  Once I tried using a decorative cast iron trivet that barely sits above the bottom of my dutch oven. This did NOT work! There has to be room between the bottom of the pot and the bottom of the mold so that the water can circulate.
OTHER TIPS:

Keep the water in the pot boiling or simmering throughout the steaming process.

The water should come up at least halfway up the pudding mold. Check the water level and add more boiling water if necessary. (Just don’t let the water level get so high up that it goes under the lid and gets into the pudding.)

 

mold steaming

Once steaming is done, take the mold out of the pot and remove the lid. IMPORTANT! Don’t unmold right away!  Test the cake for done-ness (with a toothpick or skewer, or check to see that it’s pulled slightly away from the sides of the mold). If the pudding is done, let it sit for at least 15 minutes. This allows extra steam to escape and helps the pudding keep its shape.  Unmold and then let cool.

After you butter/spray the mold, you can put a little sugar inside, put the lid on and shake to distribute. This can add a tiny bit of “crust” (for a nice “mouth-feel”) before you add the batter.

I have also spooned some seedless jam into the bottom of the mold before adding the batter, to add a nice color and flavor. (Unfortunately, this didn’t work well with the Whole Wheat pudding.)

 

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The puddings Mary steamed came from the Gold Medal Flour Cookbook (1909).

WHOLE WHEAT PUDDING
 
The verdict:  Hands down, this was the easiest pudding I’ve steamed, though at 3 hours, it was the longest steaming, too.  Results were like a moist, less-spicier-than-gingerbread type of cake.
 
2 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 t. soda
1/2 t. salt
1 c. milk
1/2 c. molasses
1 c. stoned dates
Sift soda and salt with the meal; add dates until they are thoroughly floured; add milk and molasses. This will make a soft batter but the dry flour absorbs a great deal of the moisture. Steam three hours in a closed mould. Serve with any plain pudding sauce or whipped cream.
If sour milk is used add one level teaspoon of soda. Raisins, figs, prunes, or chopped apples make a pleasant variety.
Mary notes:

It didn’t taste heavy like I expected of whole wheat flour, though I used King Arthur Unbleached White Whole Wheat.

Final thoughts:  very easy, made with usually-at-hand ingredients, pleasant tasting, not exciting, but a simple recipe that would be good for a first-time steamer.

 

Pudding cut (800x600) - steamed pudding

Instead of dates, I chopped up a honeycrisp apple. And I also tried one thing that’s worked well for me with other puddings; I put a bit of seedless raspberry jam in the bottom of the mold. With other puddings, I’ve found that adds a nice color and flavor once the pudding is unmolded. But with this pudding, the jam never melted into the cake and remained a slightly gooey mess once I unmolded it. On the good side, the jam actually stuck with the cake and came cleanly out of the mold. But I wouldn’t add the jam the next time I make this.

BLUEBERRY PUDDING

The verdict: 
I have a new favorite pudding recipe!  This one is just as easy as the Whole Wheat pudding. But it’s tastier and steams for only 1 hour (instead of 3). 
3/4 c. sugar
1/4 c. butter
2 c. flour
3 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
3/4 c. milk
1 egg
1 pint blueberries
Mary notes:

I creamed the butter and sugar, then added an egg. Then I added half the dry ingredients, alternating with half the milk, then dry, then milk.  The batter was smooth and thick
.

I used frozen blueberries. I wasn’t sure how much flour to use to flour the berries, but I wound up using two tablespoons.
 
I steamed the pudding for just over an hour, then took it out, removed the lid, and let it sit for 15 minutes still in the mold.
finished pudding still in mold
 When the pudding was still in the mold, the bottom looked pale and not so appetizing. But unmolded, (and flipped right side up), it had a nice brown color. (Although sadly, the blueberries hide my pudding mold’s decorative fluting on top.)

finished pudding from side

The pudding is surprisingly light tasting and refreshing…though the batter was heavy, the final cake is not. Very good and I’ll look forward to making this again.  I wonder if it works with apples or currants or other fruits…

finished pudding cut

The recipe suggests serving the Blueberry Pudding with Creamy Sauce:

1/4 c. butter
2. c. powdered sugar
1 egg
1 t. vanilla

Cream the butter, add the sugar; cream together; add the cream, the egg well beaten, and flavoring.  If it should separate set it over hot water and stir until smooth.  Serve cold.

# # #

If I’d had Mary’s instructions, I probably wouldn’t have had trouble unmolding our Christmas pudding. (It tasted fine, though, and we enjoyed it anyway.)

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But now I’m psyched to try one of these puddings. If you steam a pudding, let us know how it goes! And huge thanks to Mary for sharing her time and knowledge.

Laura Land Tour: Walnut Grove, MN

December 6, 2015

In 1874, when Laura Ingalls was seven, her parents purchased 172 acres of land two miles north of Walnut Grove, MN. As readers of On The Banks of Plum Creek know, the family moved into a dugout on a rise above the creek.

My older sister and I visited together—just as Chloe and her older sister Kari do in Death on the Prairie:  A Chloe Ellefson Mystery.

Plum Creek

In 1947 Garth Williams, tapped to illustrate a new edition of the Little House series, identified the dugout location on a farm.  As I’ve heard the story, he knocked on the farmhouse door and explained his discovery to the surprised family.

Plum Creek

Not only has that family graciously permitted Laura seekers to visit their property, they have enhanced the locale to help guests imagine Laura’s time here. Their generosity of spirit—and work—have made this one of the most special stops along the Laura trail.

The property is still a working farm. Admittance to the Dugout Site is on the honor system.

Plum Creek

A narrow lane leads to a small parking area. Some of the cropland has been turned back to prairie.

Plum Creek

Oh my, Chloe thought as she got out of the car, this is the place. Prairie grasses and flowers rippled in the breeze. Birds were serenading the new day. And just ahead, lined by mature trees—

“It’s Plum Creek,” Kari whispered reverently.

Plum Creek

A modern bridge provides safe access.

Plum Creek

Nothing remains of the dugout but a hollow in the ground…

DOP-PlumCreekDugoutSign-Color300dpi

…but wild plums, dragonflies, and other landscape elements have changed little since Laura’s time here.

Plum Creek

Plum Creek

Walking trails allow visitors to wander in this special place, and to imagine young Laura at play.

Plum Creek

A couple of picnic tables are available, but that’s it. No souvenir shops or other modern intrusions. It’s lovely.

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To learn more (and buy souvenirs), head to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in nearby Walnut Grove.

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One room is devoted to the family’s experience.  Some of my favorite artifacts on exhibit include a sketch Laura made from memory many years later…

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove

Laura’s sewing basket…

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove

And some of Laura’s china.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove

Guests can learn more about the people mentioned and/or fictionalized in the books.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove

An exhibit devoted to Garth Williams’s illustrations shows how some of the images evolved.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove

Another room displays memorabilia from the Little House On The Prairie television series.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove

The museum complex also includes a number of other buildings, and a covered wagon display.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove, MN

(Note:  I’m very grateful that photography is permitted at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, so I can share these glimpses with distant Laura fans.)

When I visit Walnut Grove, I always have lunch here. Just because.

Walnut Grove, MN

Travelers should note, however, that Walnut Grove is a small town with limited amenities. More information about the Dugout Site, the Museum, the annual pageant (more about that later) and visitor services can be found HERE.

The drive to Walnut Grove from the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, IA, takes about four hours. If you’ve got a bit of extra time, and want to experience all things Laura, build in a stop at the Spring Valley Methodist Church Museum.

Spring Valley Methodist Church Museum

After Laura married Almanzo Wilder, they experienced a number of disastrous heartbreaks and in 1890 briefly moved to Spring Valley, MN, to stay with with Almanzo’s family. Among the local history exhibits are records and documents related to Laura and the Wilder family.

I’ve enjoyed, and learned from, both museums. But if I’m driving through Minnesota and time is short, I’m always drawn back to Plum Creek…

Ingalls Dugout Site

…where the spirit of young Laura Ingalls can always be found.

Plum Creek

For more information about Death on the Prairie, including links to other tour stops, photographs, maps, and much more, please visit my website.

Next stop:  De Smet, South Dakota!

Laura Land Tour: Burr Oak, IA

November 29, 2015

From Pepin, WI, it takes less than two hours to reach Burr Oak, IA. If you’re unfamiliar with the name, it’s because Laura Ingalls Wilder did not include this period in her famous books. The site, however, is well worth a visit.

Laura and her family lived here in 1876, when she was nine. Grasshopper plagues had devastated their farm near Walnut Grove, MN. The Steadmans, family friends, asked the Ingalls to help them run a hotel in Burr Oak, IA. “I felt sorry to Leave Plum Creek and our playground by the footbridge,” Laura wrote later, “but it was nice to be on the wagon again going on and on.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum

Early photo of the hotel, Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum.

By the time the family packed for the move, Laura had a baby brother named Charles Frederick. Tragically, the baby died en route. “We felt so badly to go on and leave Freddy, but in a little while we had to go on to Iowa to help keep the hotel.  It was a cold miserable journey…” (Freddy was buried near South Troy, MN, but his gravesite has been lost to time.)

DSCF4579

Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum.

Burr Oak had once been a bustling town, but its heyday had passed. Hard times continued after the Ingalls family moved into the hotel. “Ma was always tired; Pa was always busy,” wrote Laura.

Caroline and Charles Ingalls didn’t like the rough men frequenting the saloon next door. They also had some conflict with the Steadmans. After a few months they moved out of the hotel.

Masters Hotel, Burr Oak, IA

Charles took what jobs he could find, but money remained tight. “I knew that Pa and Ma were troubled,” Laura wrote. “I knew we needed money, and besides Pa was restless.” The family left town in the middle of the night.

Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane visited Burr Oak in 1932. Decades later residents wrote to Laura, asking for confirmation of her time there. There was some confusion about which structure had actually been the hotel, but in 1973, local residents purchased the Masters Hotel—now vacant, and in poor condition—and began raising funds for restoration.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum

The building in this photo, on exhibit at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum, is almost unrecognizable as the Masters Hotel.

The historic site opened in 1976. Laura fans are very fortunate that the Masters Hotel—the only childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder that remains on its original site—has been saved.

Masters Hotel, Burr Oak, IA

The hotel, built into the side of a hill, is larger than it appears from the front.

Masters Hotel, Burr Oak, IA

On the first floor, a variety of exhibits help tell the Ingalls’ story. If you’ve read Death on the Prairie, the 6th Chloe Ellefson mystery, you’ll particularly enjoy seeing this quilt block.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum

In the mystery, Chloe is eager to find something of Laura:

(The director showed them) three beautifully embroidered handkerchiefs, carefully preserved beneath glass.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum

“These were Laura’s,” she said proudly. “The museum in Mansfield gifted them to us when our site opened nine years ago.”

“Ooh.” Chloe reached toward the glass, almost touching it. She wanted badly to sense something of Laura. She longed to know that Laura had been OK here despite serving food and scrubbing dishes.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum

All other items displayed in the Master Hotel are from the period, but not original to the Ingalls family.

On the hotel’s top floor, guests can visit the boarders’ rooms, where young Laura made beds.

Masters Hotel, Burr Oak, IA

The kitchen and dining room are in the lowest level…

Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum

…where Laura and her sister Mary helped cook, wait on tables and wash dishes.

Masters Hotel, Burr Oak, IA

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum welcomes guests in summer and fall. Purchase tickets in the building across the street, which also contains a small shop.

Visitor Center Burr Oak IA

After touring the hotel, take some time to imagine Laura’s happier moments in Burr Oak. She wrote, “When our school and work were done we played out by the pond.” Silver Creek still flows behind the hotel.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum

From there it’s a short walk to the Burr Oak Cemetery, where Laura loved to wander.

Burr Oak, IA cemetery

The cemetery, which Laura described as “a beautiful place,” is also site of a key scene in Death on the Prairie.

Burr Oak, IA cemetery

When I visit Burr Oak, I love watching families explore the site—especially the children. Schoolchildren helped raise fund for the restoration by  holding “Pennies for Laura” drives. “This building belongs to the children,” one guide told me.

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Laura would probably like that sentiment.

Note:  Quotations are from draft copies of Laura’s autobiography. To learn more about her time in Burr Oak, see Pioneer Girl:  The Annotated Biography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill (South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014)

And, Chloe fans should note that Burr Oak is only 12 miles from Decorah, IA, setting for Heritage of Darkness.

Have fun exploring this lovely area!

Gratitude Giveaway!

November 22, 2015

Congratulations to Patty Collins, Theresa Echols Haack, Nancy Gielow Hawkins, Amy Laundrie, Mary Luchsinger, and Audrey Tollefson! These names came out of the hat as winners in my Gratitude Giveaway. Thanks to everyone who entered.

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In thanks for the wonderful support you’ve given me this fall, six winners will receive a signed and personalized Chloe mystery of their choice.

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To enter, leave a comment below before midnight, Monday 11/23. One entry per person. Six names will be chosen at random from all entries here and on my Facebook Author Page. Winners will be posted on Tuesday, 11/24.

To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson mysteries, check my website.

Good luck!

Laura Land Tour: Pepin, WI

November 19, 2015

Thanks for joining me for a blog tour of Laura Ingalls Wilder homesites!  Whether you’re an armchair traveler or planning your own road trip, I hope the tour helps you envision the many places Laura called home.

Replica of the Ingalls family cabin near Pepin, WI. (Kay Klubertanz photo.)

Replica of the Ingalls family cabin near Pepin, WI. (photo by Kay Klubertanz)

Laura was born seven miles north of Pepin, in western Wisconsin’s wooded hills above the Mississippi River. Many decades later she immortalized the location in the first book in her Little House canon, Little House in the Big Woods.

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1932 edition. (Wikipedia)

Today Pepin, which marks the starting point of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway (linking Laura sites across the Midwest) is often the first stop for fans.

For those steeped in the setting Laura described, the initial glimpse of the Pepin homesite can be a bit of a shock.  In my new mystery, Death on the Prairie, protagonist Chloe Ellefson and her sister are taken aback when they arrive:

Chloe felt a puppy’s tail happy wiggle inside when she saw a sign for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Wayside. She pulled into the small lot and parked.

Little House Wayside, Pepin, WI

Then the inner happy wiggle subsided. “But…where are the woods?” she asked. The Wayside was a grassy picnic area, with a replica cabin representing the home were Laura was born. The few saplings sprinkled through the grounds were too young to provide shade. Picnic tables were scattered about, most occupied by other Laura sojourners wearing sunglasses and hats.

“Evidently the Big Woods have become the Big Cornfields.” Kari’s voice was hollow.

clipping, Museum Pepin WI

Clipping showing the Wayside as it looked in 1979 during the official dedication. Death on the Prairie is set in 1983, and the landscape would have looked more stark to Chloe and Kari than it does to visitors today.

The Wayside was created on a triangle of land that had been part of a large modern farm.

countryside

Countryside beyond the Wayside.

Of course I wish that the woods remained,  but on my first visit I was soon caught up in the magic of simply being right there—the place where Laura and Mary played. I wrote a blog post about that visit titled “Looking For Laura,” a phrase I later used as name for the fictional conference Chloe attends in Death on the Prairie.

Laura fans need a place to linger, and the Wayside is important. If you can, take a picnic and give yourself a chance to savor the day.Wayside

Dedicated volunteers in Pepin have also created the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in downtown Pepin. (Open May – October.  It’s always a good idea to check hours before traveling.)

LIW Museum Pepin

Visitors can see Wilder family heirlooms and artifacts relating to local history.

Rose Wilder Lane doily

Rose Wilder Lane was Laura’s daughter.

The Pepin beach and Marina are just a few blocks away.  Although the beach area has changed dramatically since Laura was a child, it’s still a pretty place to stop and reflect.

Lake Pepin is actually a wide stretch in the Mississippi River. Historians believe that the Ingalls family crossed the ice-covered lake a bit north of Pepin (closer to Stockholm) when leaving Wisconsin.

Alfred Waud, 1874

This 1874 print by Alfred Waud suggests the local landscape as it was in Laura’s day.

If you can, take drive along the river on Highway 35, which is quite scenic. If you’re coming from the east/southeast, leave Highway 94 at Osseo and take Highway 10 west, which is also lovely.

Mississippi River backwaters near Pepin

And if you want the true Chloe experience, you can stop in Osseo for coffee and pie at the famous Norske Nook .

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There are other Nook locations, but Osseo is where it all started.  (Photo by Carol Highland, Library of Congress.)

 

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A waitress told me that the Cream Cheese-Maple-Raisin pie is one of the favorites. The things I do for research…

If you’re eager to visit Pepin, the Museum will also be open Saturday, December 5, 2015, for Pepin’s Hometown Holiday celebration.  Or, put Pepin’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Days (held annually the second full weekend in September) on your 2016 calendar. This festival is also an all-volunteer effort, and it’s charming.

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Some of the excited young “Lauras” at the 2014 event.

Or, simply wait for some soft spring day, and go relive some memories from a favorite childhood book.

KAE cabin

Laura Ingalls Wilder And The Power Of Place

November 9, 2015

A strong sense of place is an essential element of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic books. Thematically, the series is all about place—finding a place to call home.

Kathleen Ernst Laura's Travels Map

Laura excelled at evoking her settings for readers. Yes, I know her books were edited by her daughter Rose. But some of Laura’s original, unedited writing is rich with vivid detail. I suspect that her descriptive skills were honed after her sister Mary went blind.

When I was a child growing up in suburban Baltimore, she brought the Big Woods and endless prairies to life in my imagination. These days I reread descriptive passages for pleasure and inspiration. Consider these examples:

Far away the sun’s edge touched the rim of the earth. The sun was enormous and it was throbbing and pulsing with light. All around the sky’s edge ran a pale pink glow, and above the pink was yellow, and above that blue. Above the blue sky was no color at all. Purple shadows were gathering over the land, and the wind was mourning.  (Little House On The Prairie)

Kansas Prairie Laura Homesite

Kansas prairie at Little House On The Prairie Museum.

Now plums were ripening in the wild-plum thickets all along Plum Creek. Plum trees were low trees. They grew close together, with many little scraggly branches all strung with thin-skinned, juicy plums. Around them the air was sweet and sleepy, and wings hummed.  (By The Banks Of Plum Creek)

plums, Plum Creek

Plums growing by Plum Creek. One day I’ll catch them when they’re ripe.

It was so beautiful that they hardly breathed. The great round moon hung in the sky and its radiance poured over a silvery world. Far, far away in every direction stretched motionless flatness, softly shining as if it were made of soft light. In the midst lay the dark, smooth lake, and a glittering monolith stretched across it. Tall grass stood up in black lines from the snow drifted in the sloughs.  (By The Shores Of Silver Lake)

Silver Lake

After several false starts, I finally found Silver Lake, on the outskirts of DeSmet, SD.

Laura fans often feel compelled to visit such places. Happily, due to the hard work of dedicated people in the communities Laura once called home, there are homesites to explore in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Kansas, and Missouri.  (Not to mention her husband Almanzo’s home in New York.)

Masters Hotel Burr Oak IA

Laura did not include the family’s time in Burr Oak, IA, in her classic canon. However, the Masters Hotel is the Laura’s only childhood home that remains on its original site, and is well worth a visit.

I am in awe, actually, of how hard many people have worked to provide a special experience for those who come looking for Laura. One of my own favorite Laura stops is the Dugout Site in Walnut Grove, MN. When Garth Williams was hired to illustrate new editions of the books, he searched for–and found—a depression that marked the spot along Plum Creek where the Ingalls family lived.

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As I’ve heard the story, the farm family which owned the property was surprised when Mr. Williams knocked on their door and explained his discovery. Since then, the family has made the site accessible to visitors.

Quilt at Plum Creek

Laura and Mary worked on their quilt blocks in On The Banks Of Plum Creek. When Linda Halpin  made me a (gorgeous!) quilt featuring the blocks mentioned in Laura’s books (and in my mystery Death on the Prairie), we felt compelled to photograph it at the Dugout Site.

Something similar happened at the Kansas homesite, which was identified much more recently. Laura fans owe these generous people a debt of gratitude.

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

Prairie restoration, Little House on the Prairie Museum, KS.

It would be easier to fund a single, central Laura Ingalls Wilder museum, but that would never do. We want to experience the landscape for ourselves.

There is also something powerful about walking the ground where Laura and her family walked.

Ingall Family's Cottonwood Trees

Ingall Family’s Cottonwood Trees, near DeSmet, SD.

 

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I love this – make a purchase at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes gift shop in De Smet, and your bag will be adorned with a twig gathered from downed sticks in the cottonwood grove.

When I began planning Death on the Prairie, the 6th Chloe Ellefson mystery, I knew I needed to get Chloe on the road. Chloe and her sister Kari had long dreamed of making the tour, and the need to authenticate a newly discovered quilt once owned by Laura spurs the sisters  to visit the primary Laura homesites.

For those readers who savor armchair travel, I’ll be posting about each place in the coming weeks. If you’ve visited the sites, I hope you’ll share some memories!


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