March-April 2010 Selected Content
On the Little House Trail - Caroline Kiberd
Fireworks rocketed skyward from farms and towns across the level prairie like spouts from a school of whales on a calm sea. It was our first time on the prairie and we marveled at the Independence Day sight. To the west, De Smet, South Dakota awaited. We followed the celebration to Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little Town on the Prairie.
Driving coast to coast with my children from Maine to California and back again would be an epic homeschool adventure. For six weeks, my eldest son, Jon, and I shared the driving as we hauled our minivan, my three younger children, and our camping gear across the continent and back again. Along the coast-to-coast trip, we planned to visit Laura's home sites.
Traveling the Ingalls' trail was my dream since reading her books. In fourth grade I'd argued with the local librarian that the books should be shelved in non-fiction.
"But they were real people. You can even visit the places they lived," I said. She told me the stories were only based on real life, therefore fiction. I refused to budge on my position.
My own kids grew up on Little House. I incorporated the stories into our homeschool over the years by churning butter, baking vanity cakes, and twisting hay, among other projects. We learned more about Laura through lesser known writings, biographies, and the internet. Turns out that librarian was right. Stories were tweaked, parts left out, and Laura's daughter, Rose, played a major role in creating the books. I found the real family even more fascinating than the fictionalized version, so I hoped my children would grasp their reality by seeing their homes in person.
Our first stop was in Pepin, Wisconsin. My daughter, Jacqueline, bought a corn cob doll kit at the gift shop. We then drove the seven miles to the replica cabin outside of town. We passed cows, cornfields, and woodlands, but nothing like the big woods we were expecting.
"It looks more like Little House in the Big Cornfield!" my teenage son, David, joked.
He was right. Most of the big woods had been replaced with corn, but being Mainers, it wasn't hard for us to envision what the forest was like when Laura was born there in 1867. Will and Jacqueline assembled the corn cob doll inside the little cabin. We discussed life in such a tiny house.
After a picnic lunch, we drove along the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway, reaching Walnut Grove, Minnesota late in the day. The museum in town was closed, so we headed straight to the site on the outskirts of town. We put our fee in a box behind a farmhouse, and then followed a dirt road through cornfields to the creek. The area was gloriously deserted, so we experienced the scene of Laura's childhood in solitude.
I ran ahead to wade in Plum Creek. Jacqueline squealed, "I don't want to get leeches. In the book there were leeches!"
"Never mind the leeches," I said. "This is the real Plum Creek! Come on in!" I wasn't about to let the threat of leeches stop us. This was the place where stories happened that were, in Laura's words, "altogether too good to be lost."
We didn't see any leeches, but little minnows nibbled our toes. We stood on the big rock where Laura and Mary played, smelled the prairie flowers and climbed up a hill to the remains of the dugout.
"It's even smaller than the cabin in Wisconsin," Will noted. Laura certainly chose the right adjective "little" to describe her childhood homes.
With Plum Creek mud between our toes, we enjoyed a picnic dinner on the banks of the creek. A hush settled over the prairie as the sun faded. I took one last look before we drove into the sunset toward De Smet, South Dakota.
As De Smet, featured in Laura's Little Town on the Prairie, celebrated July 4th, we drove around in the dark. We finally located a dirt road outside of town that led to the Ingalls homestead site. The land is now "Laura's Living Prairie," a living history attraction and campground.
Jon and David got the gear, donned headlamps, and pitched the tent on the same quarter section of land Pa chose for his homestead in 1880. As my exhausted family drifted to sleep, I realized we'd traveled in a day what would have taken Charles Ingalls months to travel by wagon.
I woke before the sun rose. A rooster crowed, and then thousands of birds and a herd of cattle piped up to greet the day. We watched the sunrise as we walked over the waking prairie. This was one of those preciously beautiful moments in life I'll never forget.
Surrounded by the cottonwoods Pa planted, I enjoyed a quiet moment, while the children played with the litter of kittens they'd found in the stable. After breakfast, they explored the buildings and we toured the town with the De Smet Historical Society. We saw a collection of Ingalls artifacts, the Surveyor's House, the school Laura and Carrie attended, and the town house Pa built.
Jacqueline bought a sunbonnet at the quaint gift shop. With her brown braids, blue eyes, and prairie bonnet, she certainly looked the part. I hoped to visit the grave sites, as well as the Wilder homestead site, but we needed to head west to keep on our tight schedule. "Someday we'll be back," I promised.
We visited the Mt. Rushmore area and Keystone, South Dakota where Carrie Ingalls spent her adult life as a journalist. Then, we traveled across Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and through Northern California's Lost Coast to Marin County.
Driving across the vast West, we had much time for discussion. How much of the books were true? Did the TV series reflect the books? What about the Native Americans who lived in these places? What was Rose's role in creating the books? Was their wagon about the size of our van?
Though far from the prairie, California is also a part of Laura's story. In 1915, Laura traveled cross country to visit her daughter, Rose, a writer living in San Francisco where the Panama Pacific Exposition was underway. For three months Laura stayed with Rose in a house at the peak of Russian Hill, then a writer's colony.
We visited many of the bay area attractions Laura described in letters to her husband, Almanzo, which were posthumously published in West From Home. She signed her letters "Bessie," the name Almanzo called her since their courtship days. At night, I read Laura's letters to the children. Many of her reactions to this place were much like ours.
After three weeks in California, we headed home through the southwest, then back to the Great Plains. Driving across the quiet Kansas prairie, our next site was the Little House on the Prairie. In 100 degree heat, we saw the well hand dug by Pa, the prairie where Laura and Mary played, and a replica of the tiny cabin.
Mansfield, Missouri was the grand finale of our prairie pilgrimage. In 1894, the Wilders settled here to build Rocky Ridge Farm, now the Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane Home and Museum. On this farm, the Little House books were created.
Curators showed an introductory film with clips of Laura's voice and the sound of Pa's fiddle. We toured Laura's farm house, built by the Wilders from materials found on the farm. Laura's possessions remain in the house--her smiling pot holder, aprons, birthday cards on the dining room table, and her writing desk just as it was when she died in 1957.
We also toured the stone house built by Rose Wilder Lane in 1928 and walked the farmland Laura loved. I could see why she refused to put curtains on her windows, calling the view her "pictures." After examining a turtle on the lawn, we made our way to the museum.
"Look! Pa's Fiddle!" Jacqueline squealed when we entered. The building housed the overflow of treasures--Laura's first sampler, china box, lap desk, handmade clothing, needlework, household items and family belongings--many mentioned in the books. We looked at a page of a handwritten manuscript. Words were crossed out, notes written in the margins.
"That's Laura's sloppy copy," Will said, using the term I've often repeated when teaching the kids to write a rough draft.
We read a letter from Carrie after Mary's second stroke, telling Laura the sad news that Mary was dying. Then, a simple note Laura wrote describing her loneliness after Almanzo's death. With each treasure, their reality came into focus.
No longer did we see the little girl in the sunbonnet, but began to meet Bessie Wilder in her own home--the woman who struggled with many of the same issues I do today. My family has much to learn as we reread Laura's books, having now experienced the woman she was in the places she called home.
On our way out of town, we stopped by the Mansfield cemetery. Echoing the simplicity of their lives, the Wilders chose an unpretentious headstone. It looked much like the others in the cemetery but for a yellow sticky note on the headstone. I knelt to read a few words scribbled by a fan. It read, "Thank you for your stories."
Yes, indeed, Bessie Wilder, thank you.
© 2010, Caroline Kiberd