Saturday, June 21, 2008

If You Enjoy Laura...Then You May Also Like

From the book "I Remember Laura" by Steven W. Hines:

One day, Mrs. Wilder came into the library and said, "I want you to have lunch with me. I got a surprise in the mail this morning."
"What was that?" I asked.
"Well, I got a $500 royalty check that I wasn't expecting!"
Although we didn't usually close over lunch hour, she said, "I'll go on up to the cafe and order us a shrimp dinner, and then you can come up to the cafe and take time to eat a shrimp dinner with me." So I did.

-Nava Austin, Head Librarian, Wright County Missouri. (retired)

Isn't it befitting that among Laura's many friends, she counted the local librarian? Laura loved to read and learn, and it showed. The book shelves in her Ozark home were filled, the same for Ma and Pa Ingalls' home in DeSmet. Laura would donate her own used books to the library. According to the librarian, they were mostly fiction, mysteries, westerns, "and some bird books."

Of westerns she preferred Luke Shot and Zane Grey. She said the small paperbacks were easy to hold, and she enjoyed them.

Once in a while, someone will tell me how much they enjoyed the frontier stories of Laura's childhood, and that they wish for "Little House" that they can enjoy as adults. The good news is that there are many wonderful books that capture the time, place, and spirit of Laura. I wanted to share my compiled reading list of books that you might also like, now that you're a grown up!

The Children's Blizzard, by David Laskin (A true account of a blizzard in 1888 that ripped across the Great Plains- very good!)

A Lantern in Her Hand, by Bess Streeter Aldrich (Wonderful novel of faith and frontier life.)

Cimarron, by Edna Ferber

The Thread that Runs So True, by Jesse Stuart

The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig

High, Wide and Lonesome, by Hal Borland

"Little Britches", "The Man of the Family", and "The Home Ranch", all by Ralph Moody

"The Emigrant" series by Vilhelm Moberg

The Backwoods of Canada, by Catherine Parr Traill

Mrs. Mike, by Benedict Freeman

Tisha: The Story of a Young Teacher in the Alaskan Wilderness by Anne Purdy, as told to Robert Specht

The All True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, by Jane Smiley.

Letters from Yellowstone, by Diane Smith.

Mountains Ahead, by Martha Ferguson McKeown

Come Spring, by Charlotte Hinger

The Wedding Dress, by Carrie Young

Letters of a Woman Homesteader, by Elinore Pruitt Stewart (true!)

These is My Words, by Nancy Turner

The Journals of Corrie Belle Hollister (series) by Michael Phillips

The Diary of Mattie Spenser by Sandra Dallas

The Change and Cherish Historical Series, by Jane Kirkpatrick.

Winter Wheat, by Mildred Walker

Let the Hurricane Roar, by Rose Wilder Lane (Don't miss Rose's interpretation of her parent's pioneering!)

A Sudden Country, by Karen Fisher

And if you still can't get enough of Laura, don't forget to read:

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks, by Stephen W. Hines.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, William Anderson, and Leslie A. Kelly (Beautifully done, full of Laura's authentic recipes.)

Laura Ingalls Wilder's Fairy Poems (Did you know Laura wrote poetry?)

Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend, John E. Miller (Brace yourself and ask, just how much do you want to know about the real Laura?)

Feel free to make more recommendations if you have enjoyed reading similar books! And thanks again for joining me on a pioneer journey.

Friday, June 20, 2008

My Laura Ingalls Wilder Trip: The Conclusion

We were getting ready to leave the visitor's center in De Smet when one of the guides reminded us that it was the last day of the "special exhibit."

Oh? What special exhibit?

It was called "From Shawls and Rings to Apron Strings" and was an exhibit of the belongings of the women in the Ingalls and Wilder families. Many of the items were on display for the first time, and as of the following day, all the items would all be returned to the special archives where they are stored.

We couldn't believe it. The guide handed us a list of the hundreds of items on display, including Ma's dishes, Laura's sewing kit, the Ingalls family lap desk, quilts, linens, jewelry, dresses, and even items belonging to Eliza Jane Wilder. It was a true peek into the attic of the Ingalls family! There was also a lot of personal letters and autograph books on display, and even a page from Grace's diary. I really enjoyed reading some of the letters Laura wrote to her sisters. In one, a letter to Carrie, Laura confessed that she suspected the postal clerk was reading her mail! Yet, she had something important and private to tell her sister so she "wrote" the message in braille. It had never occurred to me that the Ingalls sisters learned braille to better communicate with Mary, but it seems they had.

Our final stop of the day, on our way out of South Dakota, was to pay our respects to the Ingalls family at the De Smet cemetery. There, Pa, Ma, Mary, Carrie, Grace (and husband) and Laura and Almanzo's "Baby son Wilder" are resting on the quiet hill top grounds. It's a cool and shady location, without so much a hint of the "Laura tourism" feeling we experienced abundantly elsewhere.

The tallest stone in the foreground belongs to Pa.

On our way to the Minneapolis airport, we passed Sleepy Eye, located several miles outside of Walnut Grove. Sleepy Eye was the main hub of commerce during Laura's day.

There are of course, several other Laura tourist sites scattered throughout the mid-west, which we chose not to visit. There is nothing original left of Laura's little house in the big woods in Pepin, Wisconsin. It is merely a recreation of the cabin and small gift shop. The former Ingalls homestead in Kansas only contains a well that Pa dug, and nothing else original. Burr Oak, Iowa where the Ingalls helped run a hotel for two years (not mentioned in the Little House book series) has a small Laura museum in the restored hotel. Again, we didn't feel this was a location that played a substantial part in Laura's life. Mainly, we had wanted to see the significant sites. We wanted to see places that capture the real spirit of Laura.

This post is the conclusion of my Laura trip. Thanks for reliving the memories with me, it was fun to travel with friends!

I do have one more Laura-themed treat coming up, so watch for it soon.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Laura Trip Part 3: DeSmet, South Dakota

Remember Silver Lake? As in “On the Shores of Silver Lake”? It was drained and is now a big marsh. I guess you can’t expect every Laura destination to be perfectly preserved.

Close to the marsh lies the land the Ingalls family first attempted to settle when they arrived in1879 Dakota Territory. A few trees Pa planted still remain, but they are all that is left of the authentic Ingalls homestead on the outskirts of town.

It was when we drove into the town proper of De Smet (pronounced Dez-mit by locals) that we uncovered structures from Laura’s life that were carefully maintained. The surveyor’s house where the Ingalls lived during the Long Winter- Oh! To be in that tiny house knowing that it sheltered Laura’s family (and quite a few other people, we learned) really gave us a taste of the history. All that I had imagined the surveyor’s house to be like while reading was suddenly transformed by seeing the true place. The LIW Society had done a wonderful job of filling it with items mentioned in the Long Winter, and it doesn't take much to imagine the Ingalls family huddled around the stove.

We had asked where the actual school might be, that Laura had attended. Although historians have tried relentlessly to find its possible location, the original one-room school is lost to time.

Our next stop in town was a real treat. It was the Ingalls' home, built by Pa in 1887, and was lived in by Ma, Pa, and Mary until they died. It even housed the young Wilder family for a while, until they set out for Missouri. The unassuming two-story home had many of the family’s possessions on display, although many of their personal items were lost forever when the Ingalls family passed on and the house went to new owners. The new owners threw much of the items away!

Still, we saw Ma’s heirloom shepherdess statue that she carefully packed and displayed on mantles all over the prairie, and a host of other objects used by the family. I enjoyed reading the spines of their books to see what the family enjoyed reading. The second story contained many of Rose Wilder Lane's personal things, such as her writing desk and typewriter. The desk was an enormous three-sided piece. Another interesting living museum!

Next: Even more to see!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Laura Ingalls Wilder trip, Part 2

After seeing the Wilder's grave in Mansfield, MO, we started our drive north to Minnesota to see the infamous town of Walnut Grove. It has come to my attention that many Laura fans have been mislead into believing that she spent most of her childhood in Walnut Grove, when in fact, the Ingalls family lived there only three years. It was an important stop on our trip, however, because Plum Creek is nearby. Plum Creek was where the dugout house was located, where the crab that threatened to nip aura and Mary's toes lived in the sandy creek, and where the girls walked to town to go to school. We were going to see the creek!

We saw the town of Walnut Grove, first. It was a very small town, its main attractions being the Wilder museum, a yearly Laura Ingalls-themed pageant, and a few minor Laura sites. The church bell that Pa Ingalls donated $26.15 to purchase (the equivilant of about $500 today; add $25 for you Aussies)
now hangs in the belfry at a neighborhood Lutheran church. Laura fans will remember Pa went without a new pair of badly needed work boots that winter, after donating the money. The museum contained a redwork quilt made by Laura and her daughter Rose, and the Bible from the church the Ingalls attended.

But the real spirit of Laura lingered at the old dugout homestead at Plum Creek. The prairie grasses and wildflowers have been meticulously restored (they had been farmed over during the years, of course!). But the creek still runs just as described, and on such a hot day we could not resist taking off our shoes and dipping our feet into the cool, clear water.

A small path takes you to the mound that once was the Ingall's dugout home, and the site of the massive grasshopper plague. Also, once you see for yourself the long distance that the girls had to walk to get to school in town, you wonder how it was they didn't perish from severe weather. In a day where school buses come directly to children's doors where today's kids wait supervised by concerned parents at the curb, I am telling you no one today would send their two little girls off to walk a few miles to school through dense prairie.

Walnut Grove was some hard living for the Ingalls. We followed Pa Ingalls' lead by heading west to our next destination.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

My Laura Ingalls Wilder trip: Mansfield, Missouri

In the summer of 2005, my friend Carole and I spent a week visiting homesteads from Laura Ingalls Wilder's life. My friend and I had planned and saved for our "Laura Ingalls trip" for about a year. She later confessed to me, in the rental car leaving the St. Louis airport, that she really spent the last year thinking that I was not serious and the trip would never happen. Guess I called her bluff! Anyway...

I love Missouri.

This is evidenced by the many times I start sentences when speaking to my husband with the phrase "When we retire to Missouri..."

Daviess County, St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield, wherever, something about that place speaks to my heart. But no part of that state has impressed me as much as southern Missouri did, when my friend and I visited the Wilder's Missouri homestead, Rocky Ridge farm. Laura and Almanzo built and lived there for most of their lives.

The rolling hills and quiet country roads of southern Missouri, punctuated by woodlands and the abundant nature of Appalachia, felt so peaceful and remote. Imagine what it must have been like in 1894 when the Wilder's arrived!

The simple yet stately home built by husband Almanzo was deceptively small on the outside, as the main rooms inside were suitable for the large social gatherings Laura was known for hosting at Rocky Ridge. But there were some things that were small, like the kitchen. Laura was a tiny woman, not even five feet tall. Everything in the kitchen was small-scale, low cabinets and counters, small shelves. It had the feel of standing in a doll house! Several of us on the tour commented how enormous we felt standing in Laura's custom-built petite kitchen.

While inside, I could not resist looking out all of the windows, trying to imagine what Laura's view must have been like. From the back porch, did she see her little girl coming home from school up the winding road?

The museum next to the farm house had an impressive display of Laura's belongings, including Pa's fiddle, Laura's sewing machine, and a written list of Laura's favorite Bible verses. I actually pulled out a pad of paper to copy them down, only to find out later in the gift shop that there was a printed bookmark with the list of verses!

Rocky Ridge was where Laura wrote all of her books and articles. There was even fan mail from children still on the kitchen table, as the home and the placement of all of its contents have been carefully preserved since Laura's death in 1957.

After the visit to that house, Laura felt more "real" to me than ever before. She was no longer just the spirited pioneer girl in braids and calico from the books of my childhood, pictured vividly in my imagination. I had stood in her house, a guest.

The Wilder's Rocky Ridge Farm

This stone house lies not far from Rocky Ridge, and Laura and Alamanzo lived in it for a while. It was a gift from their daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, after she became a successful writer. She ordered it from a catalog and had it built for her parents. Although it had more modern conveniences than their farm house, Laura and Almanzo never really felt at home here, and moved back to the farm .

Finally, we went to visit the nearby cemetery where Almanzo, Laura, and their daughter Rose rest. Many visitors pay their respects and leave flowers.


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