Posts Tagged ‘Burr Oak’

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.)


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.

DSCF0185 - Version 2

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, Old World, and Moving On

July 31, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hotel, restored to its 1876 appearance.

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

One of several bedrooms in the hotel.

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

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

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

Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls.

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

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

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

(Wisconsin Historical Society photo.)

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