Archive for the ‘HISTORIC SITES’ Category

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!

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.

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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!

Laura Ingalls Wilder: Book or TV?

October 24, 2015

Are you familiar with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s bestselling tales of life on the frontier of white settlement? And if so, were you introduced to the stories on the page, or on the screen?

My older sister and I read (and loved) the books as a child in the 1960s.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's books

Well-loved copies on display at the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, IA.

The television series Little House on the Prairie began a decade later, with a pilot movie that aired in 1974. The series starred Michael Landon as Pa and Melissa Gilbert as young Laura.

May 29, 1976

May 29, 1976 – Michael Landon with his three TV daughters. (Melissa Gilbert on left)

I remember watching the first few seasons with my younger sister, and we enjoyed them. Sure, some liberties were taken—starting with the fact that Laura’s book Little House on the Prairie is set in Kansas, and the television series is set in Walnut Grove, MN (the real setting for the book On The Banks of Plum Creek.) Michael Landon did not look like Charles Ingalls (and once, I’ve read, stated that nothing would induce him to wear an “ugly” beard.) But all in all, the programs I remember from the mid-70s captured the spirit of the books.

Only recently, when working on my new Chloe Ellefson mystery Death on the Prairie, did I discover how strongly some book enthusiasts dislike the series.

A docent at one of the Wilder homesites told me she’d had to break up an argument between “book people” and “TV people.” Another, at a different homesite, told me that she’d had children break into tears when they discovered that in real life, Mary Ingalls (Laura’s older sister, who lost her sight as a child) never married.

July 14, 1979 – Michael Landon, Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary), and Linwood Boomer (Mary’s husband Adam)

I hadn’t realized how far from the original books the programs had strayed until very recently, when I sampled a few of the final programs.

I will always love the books the best. The books introduced me to Laura Land, and I like knowing that the stories are presented as Laura wanted them.

KAE w/ LHBW - KK Photo

My original hardcover copy, still treasured.

But there is another important side to the debate. Someone who works at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, MN, explained that most people in her community embraced the television series and its legacy—even though she often has to gently help visitors understand that not everything they watched on TV was true.

Version 2

As many Laura fans know by now, everything in the books is not true either. While largely autobiographical, the books are presented as fiction, with details changed, enhanced, or deleted to serve the purpose of the stories.

The first time I visited the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, IA—a location omitted from the books entirely—a family from France was on my tour. Dad explained that he’d grown up watching Little House on the Prairie on French television, loved it, and wanted to share his enthusiasm with his wife and children.

This is the original building where the Ingalls family lived.

The Ingalls family briefly lived and worked in this building.

I might wish that the television series had not wandered quite so far from the original material. But I remember studying the principles of effective heritage interpretation in college. Freeman Tilden, author of the classic Interpreting Our Heritage, wrote that “the chief aim is not instruction, but provocation.”

If the television programs provoke viewers to learn more, to read Laura’s books, to read Laura historians’ books, to visit the sites—that’s a wonderful thing.

And as a mystery author, the complexities of studying and celebrating Laura Ingalls Wilder’s literary legacy provided rich material to explore. In Death on the Prairie, Chloe—who’s not me, but is a lot like me—tours the homesites. While trying to learn more about a quilt believed to have been owned by the author, and solving a murder or two, Chloe is forced to confront the differing perspectives and opinions within the Laura community. (Her sister Kari, for example, reveals that Little House on the Prairie is her daughters’ favorite television program.)

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

If you’re a Little House fan, what ignited your interest?

Old World Wisconsin: A Photographer’s Paradise

August 11, 2015
I am delighted to welcome Loyd Heath to Sites and Stories today!
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Most of the photographs in Kathleen Ernst’s latest book A Settler’s Year: Pioneer Life Through the Seasons were taken by me at Old World Wisconsin, an outdoor living history museum located in Eagle, Wisconsin. Kathleen invited me to write this post about my interest in Old World, some of my thoughts about photography, and how I got involved in this project.

Loyd Heath

Although I have lived in the Seattle area for over 50 years, my late wife and I are originally from Wisconsin. When we retired in 1998 we took a road trip to Wisconsin to revisit some of our old haunts. Old World was not one of them because it didn’t open to the public until 1976, long after we had left Wisconsin. But after discovering Old World on the web we decided to stop. Our visit was brief but when I discovered the ten working farms, the Yankee Village, the farm animals, and the interpreters and farmers dressed in 19th century period costumes going about their daily activities, I said to my wife “this is a photographer’s paradise, I’m coming back.” I did, and I’ve been coming back to photograph several times every year since.

Kathleen used many of my Old World photos in A Settler’s Year to provide a glimpse into pioneer life but I have many that didn’t make the cut for various reasons.

Although I have photographed all of the farms at Old World, I probably have more shots of the Fossebrekke farm (located in the Norwegian area of the museum) than any other. Several of them are included in the book but the Fossebrekke farm is so photogenic that I have taken hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photos there. The one room cabin is small and spartan but it tells much about how early immigrants to Wisconsin lived and is located in such a beautiful setting with so much activity that I return to Fossebrekke again and again.

Fossebrekke farm in the Norwegian area.

Fossebrekke farm in the Norwegian area.

An interpreter cooks a pancake in the 1845 Fossebrekke (Norwegian) cabin.

An interpreter cooks flatbread in the 1845 Fossebrekke (Norwegian) cabin.

Friends often ask why I keep returning to the same place. They want to know whether I get a “been there/done that” feeling at Old World. They don’t understand that the museum is not a static place; it is a living history museum. Activities are constantly changing, the people and animals are constantly changing, and the light and colors are constantly changing. A photo taken today is different from one taken at the same place on another day – or even another hour or minute.

Photography requires great patience. I spend much of my time just observing what is unfolding before me so I can snap my shutter when the elements in my viewfinder appear “just right” to create the image that best conveys what I want it to say. This is what the famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson dubbed the “decisive moment” i.e. the moment when the elements of an image are best aligned and the action is at its best or peak.

Although the farms and 19th century architecture are great subjects for photography, my camera often leads me to children visitors and their activities. The site is filled with school groups on weekdays and families with children on weekends.

A group of schoolchildren on a field trip enjoy a tug of war with Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen while their teacher and parent chaperone watch and photograph the event. Photo taken in the German area at the at the 1860 Schulz farm.

A group of schoolchildren on a field trip enjoy a tug of war with Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen, while their teacher and parent chaperone watch and photograph the event. Photo taken in the German area at the at the 1860 Schulz farm.

A young boy befriends the farm animals.

A young boy befriends the farm animals.

Windows provide many opportunities for photos. They often provide interesting frames. Here’s a shot I used on the cover of an on-demand photo book I designed featuring the windows of Old World.

WindowsOWW

Windows also provide beautiful soft light for interior shots. When I first started photographing at Old World I used film. Since most of the buildings are quite dark, I often encountered situations where there was not enough light to shoot without a tripod and tripods are not permitted in the buildings. Flash is a poor alternative because it produces harsh contrasty light that destroys the ambiance of those old structures. It also tends to distract subjects who are engaged in some activity. It makes them look up and “smile for the camera,” another look I generally try to avoid.

But photography has changed. Modern digital cameras are far more sensitive to light than film so I am now able to capture high quality handheld images that would have been impossible just a few years ago. Here are a couple of shots I captured recently using only available window light and no tripod.

Windows provided the Kvaale family with light for doing household chores. Here a window provides light for showing a school group how things were done in the "old days."

Windows provided the Kvaale family with light for doing household chores. Here a window provides light for showing a school group how things were done in the “old days.”

An interpreter prepares food in the kitchen of the Kvaale farmhouse.

An interpreter prepares food in the kitchen of the Kvaale farmhouse.

Special events provide great opportunities for photos at Old World. A Civil War encampment is held each year with reenactors portraying events that occurred during the war. Several years ago the Civil War event included a funeral of a Yankee soldier. His casket, surrounded by flowers, was displayed in the parlor of the Sanford House in the Village and the following day was carried to the church where a funeral service was held and the casket was buried with a 21 gun salute.

Civil War Collage copy

Since I switched from film to digital, I now shoot everything in color. But I love the nostalgic or “antiquey” look of black and white or sepia and it seems appropriate for a 19th century living history museum so I often convert selected images to monochrome. Here’s an example that illustrates the different “feel” I can achieve by converting an image from color to monochrome or “grayscale” as it is now often called. I like both the color and the black & white renditions of this image, but they are very different. The color emphasizes the lusciousness of the spring foliage whereas the B&W draws the eye to the shapes of the main elements of the image, the farmer, the oxen, and the wagon.

Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen, haul a load of hay through the German area of Old World Wisconsin on a wet spring day.

Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen, haul a load of hay through the German area of Old World Wisconsin on a wet spring day.

Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen, haul a load of hay through the German area of Old World Wisconsin on a wet spring day.

Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen, haul a load of hay through the German area of Old World Wisconsin on a wet spring day.

Old World is a great place for portraiture. I like my portraits to have a candid look so I sometimes have to ask interpreters not to pose, but that is never true of the animals. Some of them “moon” me when I approach, but this pig went right on with his bath.

Cooling off on a warm summer day.

Cooling off on a warm summer day.

When organizing my photos I have labeled some of them “artsy.” These are creative images that are often somewhat abstract. They tend to be architectural scenes that I find aesthetically pleasing . Here are a couple of examples:

Mary Hafford's bedroom as seen through her bedroom window.

Mary Hafford’s bedroom as seen through her bedroom window.

Grotelueschen blacksmith shop on the left and Peterson wagon shop on the right, both in the heart of Crossroads village.

Grotelueschen blacksmith shop on the left and Peterson wagon shop on the right, both in the heart of Crossroads village.

Note the different shapes in this image, the triangles, the squares, the rectangles, and even a couple of circles. It is these shapes that attract your eye and make the image interesting.

Friends often ask me what type of camera I use at Old World. High quality images can be captured with almost any type of equipment. When I used to judge the Old World photo contest we often awarded prizes to images shot with “point and shoots,” (sometimes dubbed PHD cameras as in “Push Here Dummy”), and even a few with cell phones.

Yet nevertheless I have to admit that I use high-end equipment (professional single lens reflex cameras and high quality large aperture lenses) because it enables me to be more flexible in my shooting and increases my chances of capturing high quality images.  But that also has a downside.  I am often approached by people who comment on what a “beautiful” camera I have.  I know they are just trying to be friendly and mean well but I have difficulty knowing how to respond because in my world cameras are useful but not “beautiful.”

When one of my photographer friends receives a comment of this type, he often responds by relating the story of a magazine publisher who threw a cocktail party for contributors to a recent issue. During the festivities one of the authors approached one of the photographers and commented somewhat haughtily, “I really enjoyed your photographs; you must have a very fine camera” whereupon the photographer retorted “and I really enjoyed your article; you must have a very fine typewriter.” Moral of the story: although a good camera can help, serious photographers believe there is far more to making a good photo than a good camera.

And I use the term making rather than taking because I believe that post processing (i.e., adjusting color, tonal values, cropping, etc.) of an image after capture is frequently as important as clicking the shutter. He didn’t have the digital tools we have today, but Ansel Adams, the famous landscape photographer, was famous in part because of his post processing of images. (He did it in the darkroom, not on a computer.) He once jokingly said that dodging and burning (i.e, adjusting tonal values) is the photographer’s way of correcting the mistakes God made when He established tonal values.

Old World encourages visitors to bring their cameras (SLRs, point and shoots, cell phones or whatever) and it sponsors an annual contest with significant monetary prizes and publicity for photos taken on site. For more information about the contest click HERE.

And for more information about my photography see  www.Loydheath.com.

Immigrant Trunks

July 6, 2015

A Settler’s Year:  Pioneer Life Through the Seasons focuses primarily on newcomers’ experience after reaching their destination. But many of the European immigrants’  diaries, letters, and reminiscences included poignant descriptions of their journey from old world to new.

Museums and historic sites like Old World Wisconsin preserve not only the stories, but bits of the travelers’ surviving material culture. And there is, perhaps, no other object more closely tied to the immigrant experience than the immigrant trunk.

Some were plain, and purely functional.

Chest, trunk. CL*314563.01.

This trunk was constructed of pine, with simple iron fittings, c. 1880.  (Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

2009-5367

This one was used by a Dominican sister from France in 1880. (Smithsonian National Museum of American History.)

Schulz House, Old World Wisconsin

This plain wooden trunk has beautiful ironwork details.  Some immigrants chose trunks with rounded lids, hoping it would keep them from being buried on the bottom of towering stacks of trunks packed in the hold. (Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin, Eagle, WI)

Many trunks were painted with the owner’s name.

DSCF2847

(Swiss Historical Village & Museum, New Glarus, WI.)

Add a description…Elk Horn Iowa

(Museum of Danish America, Elk Horn, IA)

Some had a bit of painted decoration…

DSCF2870 - Version 2

(Swiss Historical Village & Museum, New Glarus, WI)

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Swedish Immigrant trunk, 1867. (Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison,

Trunk used by Halvor Anderson Lovaas on his trip from Norway, 1860. (Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison, WI)

And some, such as these Norwegian immigrant trunks, were exquisitely painted.

DSCF2699

(Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, IA)

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This might be my favorite.  (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, IA)

Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum

Rosemaled trunks in open storage. ((Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, IA)

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Detail on trunk visible in preceding photo. Painted by Ola Eriksen Tveitejorde, Voss, Norway. (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Deborah, IA)

Artistry aside, any immigrant trunk is valuable because it represents the people who struggled to fit their old lives within its confines. How many times did a family pack and repack it in the weeks leading up to departure? What was the most efficient way to pack?

Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum

This exhibit at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum suggests the difficult choices immigrants had to make. What would fit? What had to be left behind?

First must come the essentials: food for the journey, warm clothes, seeds, necessary tools. People didn’t always have accurate information about what was available in America, or how much it would cost.

And surely treasured mementos of home were squeezed in, too.

Kathleen Ernst, Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum

Many ale bowls (which inspired my first Chloe Ellefson mystery, Old World Murder) made their way from Old World to New. Since bowls like this one wouldn’t have been easy to pack, they must have been treasured keepsakes. (Artifacts in storage at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum)

Wisconsin Historical Museum

This trunk, originally brought from Ireland, is shown with items both practical and, perhaps, “for best.” (Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison, WI)

For the earliest immigrants, trunks served as furniture and storage in the New World.

Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

The Schulz Farm at Old World Wisconsin depicts a family which had only been in the US for a few years, so furniture was relatively spartan and basic.  A huge trunk provides storage and, perhaps, a place to leave a shawl or book if needed.

But in time, trunks often ended in attics or outbuildings, filled with old clothes or pressed into service as grain bins. Gorgeously painted trunks were once so common, I’m told, that even museums with a focus on immigration had to decline many offered donations.

Wisconsin Historical Museum

This lovely trunk got a second life when Per Lysne, who many credit with the revival of rosemaling in the US, painted it in the 1930s or 1940s. (Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison, WI)

Every trunk saved is a tangible reminder of the often anguished choices people made about what they might carry, what must be left behind.

Fortunately, hopes and dreams took up no space at all.

(Kay Klubertanz photo)

(Kay Klubertanz photo)

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Want to see more trunks?  Vesterheim has a fabulous collection of rosemaled trunks online.


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