When Laura Ingalls and her family said goodbye to their log house in Wisconsin to seek a new life as homesteaders on the Kansas prairie they left their cat, black Susan, behind. I was about 5-years-old when my mother began reading the “Little House” books to me, and that was my big takeaway from the first of Laura’s stories about her childhood.
Since then, children and adults all over the world have been captivated by the lives of Laura, Mary, Carrie, Grace, Ma and Pa as they tried their luck over and over again on the prairies of Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota. They lived in a log house, a sod house, frame houses, in town and out of town and they faced one calamity after another ranging from Indians to grasshopper plagues to dust storms to the scarlet fever that left Mary blind and caused Laura to hone her observation skills so she could share what she saw with her sister and later, all of us.
A long-running television show starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert enchanted a generation, and with the popularity of the TV show, Laura’s books about her childhood and the first years of her marriage were translated into dozens of languages.
The places where Laura grew up—Independence, Kansas; Pepin, Wisconsin; DeSmet, South Dakota; Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and Burr Oak, Iowa—all have museums where visitors from as far away as Japan and South Africa have come to learn about the Ingalls family and American pioneer life.
Another place, this one just an hour-and-a-half south of the Lake, is the home where Laura spent more than half of her long life, wrote her beloved books and is buried. Laura and Almanzo’s Rocky Ridge Farm just a mile outside Mansfield is now a museum and bookstore. In September it was be the center for an annual Laura Ingalls Wilder Days celebration and a Laura’s Memories pageant.
For anyone who is a “Little House” fan, a day trip to Mansfield is a must. When my friend and I made the trek to Mansfield a few weeks ago, we spent a lot of the trip remembering favorite parts of the books (me) and television show (her) as the house and museum reminded us of the days when we were immersed in Laura’s stories.
The Wilder Home is a real treat. Closed up immediately after Laura’s death in 1957 and opened a few months later as a community attraction, this museum is the real deal. That means everything in the house, from Laura’s blue willow China to the chairs that Almanzo made to the bed she slept in are true artifacts and not, as in so many museums, “of the time” or “just like she would have had.”
Page 2 of 3 - Our house and museum tour began with a short video that gave us a sense of Laura’s history and the role that Missouri played in her life. Next door to the white frame farmhouse, a small museum displays a host of items mentioned in the books, from Pa’s fiddle to a hand-stitched handkerchief Laura made as a child and a patchwork satin quilt. We loved looking at the old photographs that confirmed Laura was far and away the most attractive member of her family.
Besides the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home, there is another house a mile down the road, this one of stone, that was built by Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane for her parents to live in when they retired. Laura and Almanzo dutifully lived in the rock house eight years then moved back to their beloved Rocky Ridge. This house is interesting because it was a Sears-Roebuck design and because Laura and Almanzo did live there, but it was sold several times before being purchased by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association, and is unfurnished.
After visiting Laura’s homes, we drove the short distance back to the town square looking for lunch. A cute coffee shop at Weaver Inn B&B offers a variety of espresso drinks and baked goods, and the Lion’s Den café turned out to be an easy place for our club sandwich and salad lunch. Mansfield also has a historic museum, a used book store, and Laura’s Sweet Memories shop where a visitor can buy the “Little House” books, cards and hand-made souvenirs from overall-clad and straw-hatted Rev. Jim Kaiser.
For those who want to stay overnight, the Weaver House Bed & Breakfast upstairs from the coffee shop has five comfortable rooms overlooking the park-like town square and bandstand.
Since the drive is a relatively long one, it’s important to know that between here and there, there are two other intriguing places to stop: Rosewood Farms a few miles north of Hartville for Grandpa Joe’s Old Fashioned Chocolates, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, a nationally known seed company, lunch stop and “frontier village” just a few miles north of Mansfield.
The first of the Little House books was published in 1932. By the 1940s and 1950s, Laura was a regular visitor to the local schools and libraries in the area and recipient of thousands of fan letters. In the 1950s, she wrote a letter to the children who read and loved her books.
“The ‘Little House’ books are stories of long ago,” she wrote. “Today our way of living and our schools are much different; so many things have made living and learning easier. But the real things haven’t changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with the simple pleasures and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong…”
Page 3 of 3 - Her life, and books about a family that picked themselves up again and again to start over still resonate today. And I still wonder what happened to that cat they left behind in Wisconsin…