Archive for the ‘HISTORIC SITES’ Category

Chloe’s Book Club: On The Banks Of Plum Creek

June 22, 2016

Plum Creek is one of my favorites. As a child, I loved the notion of living in a sod house, loved vicariously playing in the creek, loved the image of Laura frolicking on the roof among prairie flowers while Ma irons below. And yes, while I’ve had some quibbles with Ma, I do give her full credit for moving in with grace after being informed the deal is done.

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Laura’s descriptions of the new home are enchanting:

The creek was singing to itself down among the willows, and the soft wind bent the grasses over the top of the bank.

Red and blue and purple and rose-pink and white and striped flowers all had their throats wide open as if they were singing glory to the morning.

The book is full of childhood adventures (and misadventures). And, this is the book that gives us Laura’s nemesis, Nellie Olson.

But not all of the challenges are child-sized. Laura made poignant use of foreshadowing to set readers up for the crop tragedy.

Grasshopper Notice

Display at Laura Ingalls Wilder Park & Museum, Burr Oak, IA.

Early on, when Laura laments having cattle instead of horses, Pa promises that they will have horses again one day.

“When, Pa?” she asked him, and he said, “When we raise our first crop of wheat.”

When Ma says living in the dugout makes her feel like a penned animal:

Never mind, Caroline,” Pa said. “We’ll have a good house next year.  …And good horses, and a buggy to  boot! I’ll take you riding, dressed up in silks! Think, Caroline—this level rich land, not a stone or stump to contended with, and only three miles from a railroad! We can sell every grain of wheat we raise!”

Then Pa buys lumber for a new house (and windows, and a stove)  on credit, with a promise to pay when he sells his wheat crop. It’s difficult for repeat readers not to shout, “Don’t do it, Pa!  The grasshoppers are coming!”

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Garth Williams’ illustration.

The enormity of the multi-year disaster the Ingalls family faced when their crop was devoured is hard to absorb.

But as always, faith, hard work, and a determination to make the best of things lead to a happy ending. Ma and Pa demonstrate perseverance to their daughters. It’s one of Wilder’s favorite themes, but understandably so; somehow, crisis after crisis, the Ingalls family did survive.

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Today Wilder fans can visit the dugout site on the banks of Plum Creek.

Is Plum Creek one of your favorites too? What did you like, or dislike? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Note: I am a former curator and love research, but I am not a Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar. For more academic information, see titles by William Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill, John E. Miller, and others. To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, please visit my website.

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Next up for discussion:  By The Shores Of Silver Lake.

Chloe’s Book Club: Little House On The Prairie

May 19, 2016

Little House On The Prairie in some ways epitomizes the view of pioneer life many readers of my generation grew up with. What could be more iconic than a family packing their belongings in a covered wagon and heading west? Garth William’s cover, showing Mary and Laura watching from the back of the wagon, is classic.

Little House on the Prairie

As always, the descriptions are remarkable.  Here’s one of my favorites:

Kansas was an endless flat land covered with tall grass blowing in the wind. Day after day they traveled in Kansas, and saw nothing but the rippling grass and the enormous sky. In a perfect circle the sky curved down to the level land, and the wagon was in the circle’s exact middle.

Prairie landscape, Little House On The Prairie Museum, Kansas

Prairie landscape, Little House On The Prairie Museum, Kansas

Also as always, Laura emerges a real, complex, and thoroughly likable character. When Ma chastises her for complaining:

So she did not complain any more out loud, but she was still naughty, inside. She sat and thought complaints to herself.

And when Mary primly offers to give some beautiful beads she and Laura collected at an abandoned Indian campsite to baby Carrie, Laura—with some silent prompting from Ma—feels compelled to do the same: Perhaps Mary felt sweet and good inside, but Laura didn’t. When she looked at Mary she wanted to slap her. So she dared not look at Mary again.

This book brings out all of my conflicted feelings about Ma. I empathize with her challenges.  Pa takes her to Indian territory—knowing full well that Indian people terrify her! They crossed the ice-covered Mississippi River at its widest point—only to hear the ice breaking up that night; when Pa says they were lucky the ice didn’t break while they crossed she responds: I thought about that yesterday, Charles. The poor woman took the reins during a difficult river crossing when Pa plunged from the wagon to help the struggling horses.

Nonetheless, her fussiness can be annoying. During that dangerous river crossing, the beloved family dog Jack disappears, presumably drowned. When the exhausted dog finally catches up to the family, Ma complains that the happy reunion woke baby Carrie. Really, Ma?

(Wikipedia)

Caroline and Charles Ingalls (Wikipedia)

That said, there is much to admire in Ma. Readers understand that she craves a more genteel life. As an adult, I know what I think I missed as a child:  Ma must have been afraid a lot. On more than one occasion Pa’s life literally is in her hands.  One of the most poignant moments comes when Charles goes down the well to help a neighbor overcome by fumes, and Ma must find the strength to pull him to safety. After everyone is safe: She covered her face with her apron and burst out crying.

She must have feared for her children’s safety too. Still, she always does what needs doing.

This book makes many modern readers uncomfortable due to its portrayal of Native Americans. Wilder signaled something important on page one:  They were going to Indian country. And on page six, she foreshadowed a key scene to come:  Pa promised that when they came to the West, Laura should see a papoose.

While certain scenes and bits of dialogue do make me cringe, it’s important to consider the plot within the context of the time it depicts. Ma hates all Indian people—as she was surely taught to do, growing up when and where she did. Laura is both afraid of and fascinated by Indian people. I see her feelings as a reflection of the personality divide within the family. Ma and Mary are homebodies. Laura and Pa are more intrigued by the outside world.

Little House In The Big Woods ends on such a satisfactory note that at first, it can be hard to understand why the family left Wisconsin at all. Pa’s feelings are explained well, though, and first-time readers take pleasure as they create a new home on the vast Kansas prairie:

We’re going to do well here, Caroline, Pa said. This is a great country. I’ll be contended to stay in the the rest of my life.  …No matter how thick and close the neighbors get, this country’ll never feel crowded.  Look at that sky!

Since I know the story, this type of foreshadowing is all the more poignant. In the end, of course (Spoiler alert!) Charles/Pa discovers that he built his cabin on land that was not, yet, available for settlement.

Replica cabin at the site of the Ingalls home. Little House on the Prairie Museum, KS. (Photo by Barbara Ernst)

Replica cabin at the site of the Ingalls home. Little House on the Prairie Museum, KS. (Photo by Barbara Ernst)

Was it an honest mistake? Did he know all along, and simply presume he could bide his time until the Federal government declared the land officially available to pioneers? Laura scholars are still debating.

In any case, even as a young reader I understood how heartbreaking it was for the family to have labored so hard to create a new home—only to have to pack up and leave it all behind.

How do you feel about Little House On The Prairie? Do you have a favorite, or least favorite, chapter?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Note: I am a former curator and love research, but I am not a Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar. For more academic information, see titles by William Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill, John E. Miller, and others. To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, please visit my website.

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

Next up for discussion:  On The Banks Of Plum Creek.

Chloe’s Book Club: Farmer Boy

April 10, 2016

I’ll start with a confession: as a child, I didn’t particularly like Farmer Boy.

Farmer Boy

Perhaps it was because I’d already bonded with Laura. Perhaps the description of classroom bullies was a bit too scary. Perhaps Father’s brand of child-rearing was intimidating. In any case, after a single reading I didn’t return to the book until I was an adult.

By then I was working in the living history world, and everything clicked. I loved the insights Farmer Boy provided into period activities. Mother was expert at weaving and cooking and everything else I wanted to learn.

Almanzo's childhood home has been beautifully preserved in Malone, NY.

Almanzo’s childhood home has been beautifully preserved in Malone, NY.

Almanzo is a very real boy. He resents his father’s belief that he isn’t responsible enough yet to help train the beautiful colts. He  hates being youngest, and therefore the last served at meals.  In the Birthday chapter, he gobbles his breakfast so he can see what gift is waiting—and is chastised by Mother.

Mothers always fuss about the way you eat. You can hardly eat any way that pleases them.

As always, descriptions of both the natural world and farming are vivid and sensory, such as these passages from Threshing:

The wind howled and the snow whirled and a mournful sound came from the cedars.  The skeleton apple trees rattled their branches together like bones.  All outdoors was dark and wild and noisy.

…The fans whirred inside the mill, a cloud of chaff blew out its front, and the kernels of clean wheat poured out of its side and went sliding down the rising heap on the floor.  Almanzo put a handful into his mouth; they were sweet to chew, and lasted a long time. 

Fanning Mill

Fanning mill.

One of my favorite scenes comes from Keeping House, when Father and Mother leave the children on their own for a week. In very kid-like fashion they bicker and do all the things they shouldn’t, such as eating all the sugar and sneaking into the colt pasture.

The barns at the Wilder Homestead are not original, but have been faithfully reproduced.

The barns at the Wilder Homestead are not original, but have been faithfully reproduced.

I am especially intrigued by Laura’s inclusion of the terrible moment when Almanzo throws the stove-blacking brush at his bossy sister Eliza Jane, leaving a terrible stain on Mother’s prized parlor wallpaper. Miraculously, Eliza Jane manages to patch the wallpaper so carefully that Mother never discovers what happened, saving Almanzo from the whipping of his life.  “I guess I was aggravating,” she tells him. Eliza Jane emerges as such an unlikeable character in later books that I love this glimpse of a softer side.

My favorite aspect of Farmer Boy is simply seeing the boy who became the adult Almanzo I know from later books. At times I’m taken aback by Father’s parenting style (particularly in the Wood-Hauling chapter, when Almanzo is hurt but doesn’t dare say so). But emerging from these episodes is a boy who is learning to figure problems through on his own.

I love the photo on the cover of this DVD, Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura. (Available from Legacy Documentaries)

I love the photo on the cover of this DVD, Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura. (Available from Legacy Documentaries)

Almanzo chooses to buy a piglet rather than spend a precious half-dollar on lemonade. Almanzo manages to get the last laugh during sheep shearing season, when the older workers don’t give him enough credit. In Breaking the Calves, Almanzo takes a chance that leads to a runaway situation:

That night Father asked him:  “You have some trouble this afternoon, son?”

“No,” Almanzo said. “I just found out that I have to break Star and Bright to drive when I ride.”

Most of all, Almanzo dreams of being a successful farmer, and of training horses. We’re not surprised when, in the final chapter, he turns down the offer of a softer life in town.

And then, suddenly, the whole world was a great, shining, expanding glow of warm light. For Father when on:

“If it’s a colt you want, I’ll give you Starlight.”

It’s the perfect ending.

Original cover. (Wikipedia)

Original cover. (Wikipedia)

How about you? Was Farmer Boy always a favorite?  Any favorite scenes? Please share!

***

Note: I am a former curator and love research, but I am not a Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar. For more academic information, see titles by William Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill, John E. Miller, and others. To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, please visit my website.

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

Next up for discussion:  Little House On The Prairie.

Laura Land Tour: Bonus!

February 14, 2016

It’s been great fun to showcase the Laura Ingalls Wilder homesites featured in Death on the Prairie: A Chloe Ellefson Mystery. There are also a few sites I wasn’t able to include (much as I wanted to).

If you’re driving from Pepin, WI, to Walnut Grove, MN, an easy detour takes you to the Spring Valley Methodist Church Museum.

Methodist Church Museum

In 1873, Almanzo Wilder’s parents moved their family from New York to Spring Valley, MN. Six years later Almanzo moved to South Dakota, where he married Laura. After multiple tragedies, Almanzo’s parents evidently encouraged Almanzo, Laura, and daughter Rose to recuperate in Spring Valley. They arrived in May, 1890, and stayed until October, 1891.

Methodist Church MuseumThe museum includes exhibits about the extended Wilder family, as well as other items of local interest.

If you’re heading west, and have even more time for a detour, consider a stop in Vinton, IA, where Mary Ingalls attended the Iowa College for the Blind.

Mary Ingalls School Site

I understand there are exhibits inside. The old building was closed for repairs when I visited, but I enjoyed imagining Mary on the campus.

Mary Ingalls School Site

And finally, Farmer Boy readers should keep the Wilder Homestead in Malone, NY on their travel wish list.

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Almanzo’s boyhood home has been beautifully restored.

Wilder Homestead

We owe another debt of thanks to the local residents who formed the Laura and Almanzo Wilder Association, and purchased the land in the 1980s. Archaeological studies determined that the house was original.

Wilder Homestead

During my tour, it was very easy to picture the Wilder family in those rooms. (Alas, no interior photos allowed.) My favorite moment may have been examining the parlor wallpaper for traces of stove blacking.

The original outbuildings were gone, so the Wilder Association has replicated those structures. They relied on sketches Almanzo made for Laura when she wrote Farmer Boy.

Wilder Homestead

Since so many scenes from Farmer Boy take place in the barns, that part of the tour was equally poignant.

Wilder Homestead

The site is also special because the local landscape remains rural.

Wilder Homestead

Wilder HomesteadI expect the Wilders saw deer in the orchard too.

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AMeet Caroline: An American Girln aside:  Malone, NY, is not close to any other Laura sites. However, it is an easy drive from Sackets Harbor, NY, setting for my Caroline Abbott books from American Girl.

And, I’ve yet to visit the Keystone Area Historical Society in South Dakota.  Carrie Ingalls lived here for 35 years, and the museum’s collection includes family memorabilia. I think another road trip is in order…

Laura Land Tour: Mansfield, MO

February 12, 2016

I will admit that when my sister and I began planning visits to all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder homesites, I was most excited to see the places I’d read about in Laura’s Little House books. That did not include Mansfield.

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After visiting? All I can say is that it is a very special place.

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Wilder fans know from The First Four Years that Laura and Almanzo faced many hardships and tragedies in South Dakota after their marriage. They moved to Florida, but weren’t happy and moved back. After hearing good things about Missouri, Laura, Almanzo, and daughter Rose traveled to Mansfield in 1894. They brought the few possessions saved from the fire that destroyed their tree claim house, and $100 to buy land.

The family settled on a rocky ridge one mile east of Mansfield, and moved into a run-down, windowless log cabin. (They also lived in town for a period.)  Laura and Almanzo worked together for years, as time and money and energy permitted, to create the lovely farm and 12-room house. They lived happily on Rocky Ridge Farm for the rest of their lives.

If you drive from Mansfield, you’ll approach the property just as the Wilders’ friends did.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum

Almanzo built the house with Laura’s wishes in mind. For example, all of the kitchen counters were designed to accommodate her five-foot height. It’s a delight to see examples of his carpentry skills. He also set up a clever pipe system that brought spring water inside, through the wood stove to warm, and into the kitchen sink.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum

When Almanzo built the chimney, he included several stones exhibiting fossils.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum

The house interior looks as if Laura just stepped out for a moment. If you’ve read the 7th Chloe Ellefson mystery, Death on the PrairieChloe’s reaction to seeing the Wilders’ bedroom mirrors what I felt on my first visit. (Sadly, photos are not permitted inside.)

I can show you the small back porch (to the left in the photo below) that was featured in a key scene.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum

Here’s the view when you step into the porch and look to the left.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum

When strolling the grounds, it’s easy to imagine Laura and Almanzo there.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum

They planted the orchard. I was sorely tempted to take a windfall apple home. (I didn’t.)

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum

There is also a museum on the property. Pa’s fiddle, Mary’s nine-patch quilt, and hand-written drafts of Laura’s books are among the many treasures on display. (Sorry—again, no photos permitted.) The Wilder Home Association is currently constructing a new museum a short distance away, which will help restore the period landscape around the farmhouse.

In 1928 Rose gifted her parents with the Rock House, accessible from the farmhouse on a trail through the woods.  Rose wanted to provide Laura and Almanzo with more modern conveniences. Laura began writing the Little House books here.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum

They missed the farmhouse, though, and moved back in 1936.

The area landscape today is much like it was in Laura’s time. It’s easy to see why she loved the region so much.

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Laura, Almanzo, and Rose are buried nearby in the Mansfield Cemetery.

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Laura’s writing career began in Missouri—not as a novelist, but as a regular contributor to the Missouri Ruralist. Her articles paint a pictures of the Wilders’ life in Missouri. You can read a collection in Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist:  Writing From The Ozarks.

To learn more about Laura’s homesites, I highly recommend Laura Ingalls Wilder Country by William Anderson.

To learn more about the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum, visit their website.

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

I hope you’ve enjoyed the armchair tour!

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!

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!

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…

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…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.)

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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!


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