Looking For Laura

Like countless other girls, one of my earliest introductions to historical fiction came in the pages of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic “Little House” series. Since I went into museum work and now earn my living writing historical novels (or, in the case of my Chloe Ellefson series, novels about history), those books and others like them obviously had a big impact on me.

Although I’ve lived in Wisconsin for decades now, I only recently made my first visit to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House Wayside, outside Pepin, WI. My older sister was visiting from the east coast. She loved the books too, so we made our way there to the spot where Little House In The Big Woods was set.

The big woods are long gone. Aside from a few trees scattered about the picnic area, the cabin is surrounded by cornfields. (Not suburban sprawl, thank goodness.)

Today, a replica log cabin sits on the site of the original Ingalls cabin. There is no museum. No interpreters. No gift shop.

Aside from a single display, the cabin is largely empty.

My sister and I knew all that, and we went anyway. We wanted to see the spot where Laura and her family had once lived.

When we arrived, two little girls wearing sundresses and bonnets were racing in and out of the cabin.  “They’re so excited,” their mom told me. “We’ve been re-reading the book in the car.”

The next car that parked at the wayside carried three adults. Flanked by a younger couple (her children, perhaps?) an elderly lady walked slowly across the lawn and visited the cabin.

While we lingered, a slow but steady stream of people came and went. One van held what appeared to be three generations of Little House In The Big Woods fans.

Watching the visitors became as meaningful as visiting the site itself. All of us, young and old, had felt compelled to visit this place that we felt we knew so well. What a testament to Wilder’s storytelling! As a reader, it was moving to walk on this ground, so many years after reading the book. As a writer, it was moving to witness the power that stories still have, even in this modern age of computer games and sound bytes.

A brochure printed by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, Inc., of Pepin, Wisconsin says this:  “We trust that all who come to Pepin through the inspiration of Laura’s books will visit …Little House Wayside at the site of her birth.  …It may not be what you expect, but as Laura said, ‘Now is now. It can never be a long time ago.'”

Except in our imaginations, and in the pages of a talented author’s books.

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8 Responses to “Looking For Laura”

  1. Arletta Dawdy's Blog Says:

    This is delightful…layers of stories within the story: Laura’s, you and your sister, the girls in their bonnets and the other visitors.
    Thanks for taking us along for the visit.

  2. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Arletta! It was a special place to visit.

  3. Meg Says:

    I finally got to visit De Smet, South Dakota, the “little town on the prairie” twelve years ago, and was absolutely enthralled. There are several sites there to visit, including the Surveyor’s House (with a replica of Laura’s tiny claim shanty schoolroom from These Happy Golden Years on the property), the house “in town” where Laura’s parents spent the last years of their lives, and a memorial plaque on the site of their claim shanty, with a lovely view back towards town and several of the now-venerable cottonwood trees the Ingallses planted.

    I loved that place. And I would love to visit the rest of the “Laura ” sites. Maybe someday…

  4. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    My sister and I have De Smet on our list! I know we’d love that too. I hadn’t realized how much was there.

  5. Mary E. Trimble Says:

    What a thrill to see that homestead, Kathleen. A few years ago we visited the site of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island home, author of Anne of Green Gables and subsequent sequels. It almost brought me to tears, since that is one of my all-time favorite books.

  6. Pam De Voe Says:

    And, may your books have a similar impact as you tell the story of Wisconsin and its people!

  7. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Pam, what a lovely thought!

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