Laura, Old World, and Moving On

After a month of tornado cleanup, Old World Wisconsin opened its gates last weekend. The grand re-opening celebration coincided with one of the historic site’s special events, Laura Ingalls Wilder Day.

I’ve been thinking about Laura myself lately because while traveling in Iowa last week, I visited the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum in Burr Oak. It was a site, and a chapter in Laura’s life, I knew nothing about.

The only one of Laura's childhood homes still on its original site.

The Ingalls family moved here in 1876, when Laura was nine. Anyone who has read the Little House series knows that Laura’s family moved frequently when she was young—sometimes looking for new opportunities, sometimes leaving behind some misfortune. The family had been farming in southern Minnesota when clouds of grasshoppers descended, destroying every plant and ruining every farm in their path.

This poster offered a bounty for dead grasshoppers. Officials hoped that the pennies earned would help farm families buy food, and perhaps keep them from moving on.

Mary and William Steadman, friends of the Ingalls’, decided to buy a small hotel in Burr Oak, in northeastern Iowa.  They invited the Ingalls family to help manage the hotel. Desperate, Charles and Caroline Ingalls agreed.

Mary and William Steadman attended the same church as the Ingalls.

The Ingalls family experienced tragedy before even reaching Iowa. While visiting family along the way, baby Freddie, who was nine months old, died suddenly. We can only imagine the mood as  Mary, Laura, Carrie, and their parents traveled the rest of the way.

Upon arrival, they moved into a single room in the basement level of the small three-story hotel.

The hotel, restored to its 1876 appearance.

The prospects for financial prosperity were dubious. The railroad had bypassed Burr Oak, which remained largely a service center for local farmers. Travelers and permanent boarders took lodging for twenty-five cents. A meal was an additional quarter.

One of several bedrooms in the hotel.

The girls were able to attend school, and made friends. Mary and Laura also helped with chores around the hotel—cleaning rooms, perhaps, as well as waiting tables and washing dishes in the lower-level kitchen and dining area.

The pantry where the two oldest Ingalls girls helped at mealtime.

But Charles and Caroline Ingalls were concerned about having their children in close proximity to some of the men who frequented the barroom upstairs. Drunks started domestic disputes, used foul language, and shot holes in the door.

Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls.

The family moved out of the hotel and into a small house before the next child, Grace, was born in 1877.  But despite Charles taking whatever odd jobs he could find, the Ingalls’ financial situation had not improved. It was time to move on.

Now:  Fast forward a hundred and thirty years or so, back to Old World Wisconsin. After the tornado, the site’s Visitor Center area will never be the same. Long-range planning will likely conclude with decisions to redesign the entire area.  Museum employees who live in Eagle are dealing with devastation both at work and at home. (One former colleague told me, “I’m dreaming of a day without the sound of chainsaws.”)

So it’s fitting that Old World reopened on a day devoted to Laura Ingalls Wilder. Wilder’s stories—those fictionalized by her and her daughter, and those stitched together by biographers—provide some perspective on natural disasters and the changes they bring. The Historical Society’s website notes that “Overarching themes of the Little House books are about change, overcoming obstacles, and bettering one’s circumstances.”  OWW’s director, Dawn St. George, decided it was appropriate to reopen Old World with this special event.  “We’re writing the next chapter in Old World Wisconsin’s book,” she said, “beginning today.”

(Wisconsin Historical Society photo.)

I hope the children who visited Old World last weekend had fun, and learned some new skills. I also hope that the families in attendance paused to think more about those larger themes in the Little House books. The characters celebrate the importance of family and friends. They demonstrate tenacity and optimism. And they remind us of the need to accept change with whatever grace can be mustered.

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2 Responses to “Laura, Old World, and Moving On”

  1. Meg Justus Says:

    The Little House books were (not surprisingly) some of my favorites as a child. I still have copies of the entire series, and went to De Smet eleven years ago. But while I knew about their sojourn in Burr Oak (having read Donald Zochert’s biography of Laura), I didn’t know they’d preserved the hotel and made a museum. I would love to follow in more of Laura’s footsteps someday (the other fictional character I want to do that with someday is Anne Shirley [wry g]).

  2. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Several of the people on my tour of the Burr Oak site were on the “grand circle”—visiting every LIW historic site on one trip. A family from France was doing that, with their French editions in hand. The dad seemed most enthusiastic; he said the TV series was very popular in France, and he’d seen the entire series a couple of times while growing up.

    And–oh yes, Anne Shirley!

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