For my tenth birthday I was given a present. My mother could not have predicted that this particular present would give me so many decades of pleasure. Thank you Mum. (It was definitely just her choice – I mentioned it to my Dad yesterday and he didn’t know what I was talking about!!). The wonderful life changing gift was a boxed set of the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” books.
I loved those books and have reread them countless times, as recently as last year, and would happily pick them up again today (if they weren’t sitting in my Edinburgh home!). Laura was my friend, in fact I was Laura a lot of the time. I laughed when snooty Nellie was punished (remember those leeches!!). I shared Laura’s tears when her best friend, Jack, was lost in the river then wept again when a dark shadow crept towards their prairie campfire weeks later. I travelled under the wide sky over the wagon as it travelled across the wide prairie. I remember so vividly the little black eyes of the Osage baby wrapped up on its mother’s back as she rode past the little house. I could smell the food as it was prepared and cooked.
Wherever the family travelled and settled, there was always familiarity and stability – Laura and Mary shared a bed, Laura had red hair ribbons and Mary had blue, Laura didn’t like to be constrained by bonnets or rules while Mary always managed to be such a good little girl. Pa played his fiddle and their few possessions were installed to give a feeling of home. Ma’s china shepherdess, Laura’s little teaset ornament and Carrie’s brown dog were lovingly placed together on the mantelpiece of every home they lived in.
In my teens, I discovered that Laura, Almanzo and their daughter, Rose, had finally settled on Rocky Ridge Farm, near Mansfield, Missouri. Here they established a successful farm, built a house over several years and made it their permanent home. I learned that a museum had been built there and that one could visit their house and see some of their belongings and learn more about them. When I found out about it, I thought how wonderful it would be to go there and somehow connect with Laura and her family, but realistically, when was that ever going to happen?
Well, it just so happened that, after a year of living in Massachusetts, my very kind husband asked me if there was anywhere in the States that I’d really like to visit, given that we had less than a year to fit in everything that we’d like to see. I gave him a ‘bucket list’ which included visiting Laura’s house. This past weekend, my dream came true!!
This is me outside Rocky Ridge, Laura and Almanzo’s home in the Ozarks.
We began our visit in the museum. There was a short film before we entered the huge display area I was very impressed by the museum with its large collection of Laura-related items, well displayed with lots of information. There was a timeline leading us in the right direction and cabinets were arranged according to specific books or family members. We saw photographs and personal items, including Pa’s violin(!!), clothes which Laura had made and worn, ornaments (her little china teaset box!) and jewellery, books and letters, certificates (school leaving certificate and teaching certificates) and newspaper cuttings, her crockery and Almanzo’s tools. Every so often I would become quite emotional by an item, not quite believing that I was seeing something I had read about so many times. I loved the little piece of lace which her friend Ida Brown had made and given her as she was about to marry Almanzo as well as quilts and cushions she had made. There was her first shaky sampler, obviously made when she was well under five years old, and a start of a lifelong love of sewing and clothes. We learned in the books that she quickly became more competent than her older sister, her pride in begin given a more complicated quilt pattern to create.
There were lovely Garth Williams illustrations from the books all around and large banners hanging from the ceiling with either photographs or quotes from Laura. When I think of the stories, it is these images which come to mind and I cannot imagine one without the other.
Half way through our browsing we were called for our Rocky Ridge House tour. We were actually going to visit the house which Laura and Almanzo built and lived in for over twenty years! They had started with a much smaller house in a different location, but (as was common at the time, people who have visited the Alcotts’ Orchard House will know) this house had been moved by rolling it on top of logs to its current location! Gradually the couple added rooms to their house, as more money became available. This meant that each room had a slightly different style and feel to it.
Our guide explained that the house was opened to the public only three months after Laura’s death, and as a result, it is almost exactly as she left it! This seems very soon after her death, but Laura had already become very popular, receiving regular letters from fans. On an almost daily basis, people would just stop by and be shown round the house by Laura herself.
The house is full of her own things – books, photographs, paintings, items of every day (cookware, crockery, cutlery), furniture, bedding, home-made rugs and cushions. Almanzo had filled the house with wooden creations – tables, lamps (prepared for the new-fangled electricity!), wide-armed chairs, boxes. The kitchen was built to suit Laura’s 4’11” height and there was even a lifesize cardboard cut-out of her standing in the corner so that we could appreciate how small she was. I could feel her presence everywhere and was able to imagine her sitting at her desk and writing her stories.
Outside The Rock House
Afterwards we finished our tour of the wonderful museum and then visited The Rock House, which was built by Rose for her parents. Completed in 1928, the Wilders moved in and remained there for seven and a half years. This is where the first four books were written. After this time, they moved back into the farmhouse (Rose had been living there but she moved out). They had missed it!
Rose purchased The Rock House from a Sears, Roebuck and Co catalogue and it was shipped out to Missouri. An English Cottage plan was chosen, the style was “The Mitchell.” It was empty of furniture but did have a very enthusiastic guide who shared her knowledge and love of the place and its people. I particularly liked the bathroom which was very similar to the bathroom in my brother-in-law’s house in Twickenham – definitely the same shade of green!
We had lunch in Ma and Pa’s Restaurant – we had to really!
Speaks for itself
Our final stop in Mansfield was the cemetery to visit the graves of Laura, Almanzo and Rose. I felt sad but not as sad as I thought I’d be. After all, my old childhood friend, Laura had lived a long and happy life with her beloved Almanzo, having become “America’s Favourite Pioneer Girl” and selling over sixty million copies of her books in over a hundred countries (well that’s today, I’m not sure how many she’d sold on her death). Her stories reached an even wider audience with the creation of the “Little House on the Prairie” television series, which ran from 1974-1983 and can still be watched all over the world.
The Ingalls Wilder Lane family graves
What a fantastic experience and now I feel that I’d like to visit the other Ingalls family houses! Perhaps we’ll do a road tour!
Would you like to find out more?
We were not allowed to take photos inside the house or museum, which was such a shame, especially as there was no guide book in the shop, but you can gain an impression from these websites:
The Washington Post printed an article in February about the enduring popularity of the Little House books: https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/at-150-laura-ingalls-wilder-still-speaks-to-readers-old-and-new/2017/02/05/81eefb24-e98e-11e6-b82f-687d6e6a3e7c_story.html?utm_term=.3f74155fe6d4