Laura Ingalls Wilder And The Power Of Place

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.


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.


Version 2

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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13 Responses to “Laura Ingalls Wilder And The Power Of Place”

  1. Rose Milligan Says:

    I love your post; it makes me want to go a road trip. I really enjoyed the Little House books. I can’t wait to read your Chloe mysteries.

  2. Says:

    Kathleen Thanks so much for sending these interesting notes and pictures of the various Little House sites. Your book has certainly created a re-interest in the books and brought back so many happy childhood memories for many of us. Keep up the wonderful work! Thanks Nancy

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Nancy, thank you! I love the notion that Death on the Prairie might have kindled some happy childhood memories for readers…revisiting “Laura Land” certainly did the same for me. :>)

  3. caroleestbydagg Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your photographs and choosing the perfect passages to go with each. I doubt if I will ever get to visit the sites in person, but your blog is the next best thing.

  4. Diana Belchase Says:

    Reblogged this on Book Smart.

  5. Wilma Snyder Says:

    Kathleen, I have been on the site tour twice, once with my children in 1976 and with my grandchildren about 13 years ago. I ordered Death on the Prairie and then the whole series. I have just finished “binge” reading them. Thanks! I loved them.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Wilma, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! I’m delighted that you enjoyed not just Death on the Prairie but the earlier books as well. Thanks for the kind words. And–how special that you could take the tour with both your children and your grandchildren. My sister and I waited a long time for the opportunity, but we so enjoyed our visits to the sites. I went back alone while working on the mystery, and enjoyed them all over again.

  6. Tess Mulrooney Says:

    Had to go out and buy a copy before this week’s trip. Inhaled it in one day (stranded at airport for 22 hours!). Loved the early reference to the Partridge Family. Enjoyed the comparison of Kari and Chloe to Mary and Laura throughout. Kari was quite wicked!

    Have been to the first two Laura sites. I’m not sure I’d want to do them all in one trip, unless I was spending additional time at other museums. But certainly fun to read about.

  7. Deb Forbes Says:

    I am enjoying your posts. I have been to DeSmet SD but it has been years ago. Just a couple of weeks ago we went to Little House on the Prairie Museum just outside Independence KS. I have been a few times To Laura Wilders home in MO and it is on my list to do again soon

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