My Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

Home is the sweetest word there is. – Laura Ingalls Wilder

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The home on Rocky Ridge Farm where Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the “Little House” books. Mansfield, Missouri.

Reading the Little House series as a child, I was enthralled by the many adventures, big and small, of the Ingalls family: fording the river with a horse and wagon, fights with Nellie Oleson, twisting switch grass into kindling. I identified with tom-boy Laura, climbing trees and failing to keep her dress clean. Her detailed descriptions of home life also mesmerized me, as I read about Pa making his own bullets for hunting and Ma churning butter. Re-reading the books as an adult left me with an impression of a family always searching for home and never really finding it. (Of course, we now know Charles Ingalls, Laura’s father, brought on some of his own trouble by attempting to stake claim to land that belonged to Native Americans, and a couple of similar questionable actions.)

After such a nomadic upbringing, Laura finally found her forever home when she and husband Almanzo moved to Rocky Ridge Farm near Mansfield, Missouri. She settled in as a young wife and mother in her twenties and lived there for more than sixty years, until her death in 1957, at age ninety. In the late 1920s, the Wilders’ daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, had a more modern house built for her parents half a mile down the road, and they stayed in it for a few years before homesickness brought them back to finish out their years in the house they’d built themselves.

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The Rock House that Rose Wilder Lane had built for her parents, Laura and Almanzo.

 

I live only a three-hour drive from the Wilder homes. After decades of talking about it, I finally made the pilgrimage last week. My husband was a good sport and went along with me. There may have been mentions of a fishing pond near our rental cabin to lure him into the adventure.

Both Rocky Ridge houses have tours on a regular schedule, and there’s also a separate museum building on the grounds. In case you’re planning a trip, the museum is where you buy the tickets for the tours. I wish they allowed photography inside any of the facilities, but since they don’t, you’ll have to take my word for what we saw.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Mansfield, MO

Pa’s fiddle! The museum has Pa’s fiddle in a display case. It’s in remarkable shape, and looking at it brought to mind many scenes from the books, from Pa playing the children to sleep with lullabies to big dances at the grandparents’. They also have Laura’s blue china cow creamer. I don’t remember which book has the description of it; but I do remember it being mentioned.

The homes themselves have been restored and preserved with as many original furnishings as possible, much of it hand-crafted by Almanzo. There’s some incredibly durable linoleum in the frame house that is not reproduction, or so we were informed. The Christmas Clock Almanzo gifted to Laura still hangs on the wall, ticking away. Laura’s writing desk is there. The original house is well-designed, but the ceilings are low. Our tour guide reminded us the Wilders were not big people. Laura topped out at 4’11” and Almanzo stood 5’4″. Keep that in mind when you think of him hauling bushels of wheat through a blizzard to save the town in The Long Winter.

I have a hard time on tours like this. It means so much to me to get to be in Laura’s home and see the actual objects described in her books, lending immediacy to the stories. But you can’t touch anything and you have to move on through when they tell you to. No standing and studying the details of any one thing until you’re satiated. I understand why and agree with it on principle. Gee willikers, though (sorry for the wooden swearing, Ma Ingalls), I wanted to soooo much. I experienced an intense desire to stay for hours, to sit it in her chairs and run my hand over her desk. Don’t worry, I kept control. Barely.

The final step of our literary mission took us to the Wilder resting place.

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Gone, yet still here in so many important ways.