May 7, 2019
Perhaps more than any other books I’ve ever read, this series captured my young imagination and inspired me to want to write and record my world.
The first “Little House” book was published in 1932. Six more followed over the next decade and Laura Ingalls Wilder was propelled from a farmer’s wife to one of the most beloved children’s book authors in history.
As a child I was entranced by the thought of living in a cabin in the big woods of Wisconsin, or in a dugout carved into the banks of Plum Creek in Minnesota, or in a claim shanty on the wind swept prairies of South Dakota. What adventures awaited!
I’ve had as a goal to visit the many homestead sites. In September 2013 I, along with my 20 year old daughter, went to Mansfield, Missouri, and toured the museum and also the house where Laura lived as an adult. This past week was round two as the hubby and I meandered from Wisconsin to South Dakota and traced a portion of the Ingalls family pioneer journey.
The takeaway for me as an adult – considering it from the perspective of a wife and mother – is how very difficult it was, especially for Laura’s mother, Caroline.
Our first stop was in Wisconsin. Although the Ingalls’ cabin is long gone, those who preserved the sites have erected faithful reproductions of the original structures. The little house in Wisconsin was certainly that: little. The main room was no bigger than a small bedroom by today’s standards. For the pioneers, this room was kitchen, dining room, living room, and laundry room (at least half the year). The entire family slept in a room the size of a closet.
The doorway of the dugout is approximately where the author is standing. (Above) What the inside of the dugout may have looked like. (right)
It was the next ‘house’, however, that really gave me pause. Laura’s family purchased a farm near Walnut Grove, Minnesota… but there was no ‘house.’ Instead the family lived for some months in a ten by twelve room dug out of a bank above a creek. The actual dugout collapsed years ago, but a reproduction exists in South Dakota. When I walked in to that room I was struck by two things in particular. The first was the smell. It was a combination of earth, mold and dampness. It was depressing and dark. As Laura describes life in the dugout she tells how her mother whitewashed the dirt walls and floor with a lime mixture. I imagine the lime served several purposes including pest control and to brighten the room. How hard it must have been for Caroline Ingalls to cook, clean, and care for her children in that tiny, tiny space.
In South Dakota the Ingalls family had to, once again, start from scratch. It was not hard to imagine how alone and desolate Caroline must have felt as one of the first pioneers in DeSmet. Their homestead was 160 acres – one quarter mile square – and it was a half mile south of the town. There were no neighbors, just the wildlife which called the prairie home. The Ingalls claim shanty was just that: a shanty. Unlike the cabin in Pepin, their home was a tiny one room building with the beds for a family of six in every corner, a stove in the center, and a few chairs and a table. The thin walls not much protection against the persistent winds and cold. Over time the shanty was expanded to include 2 small bedrooms and 12 by 16 living room.
What resilience these people possessed!
When we stopped at the Ingalls homestead near DeSmet, the woman who owns and runs the property came by to speak to us. I said to her I suspected when the Ingalls family arrived there that Caroline told Charles she was done moving and carving out homes in the wilderness. Our hostess confirmed my supposition. Laura’s parents lived the rest of their lives in that community, eventually moving to a proper house in the town eight years after their arrival.
It is impossible to truly capture each of these places on paper. But Laura Ingalls Wilder’s narrative description of each location comes close. I felt as if her spirit was there with us in South Dakota, especially, as I mapped out some travels to the spots she describes in her books.
It was at Lake Henry when the magic occurred. The hubby and I noticed the water in a nearby slough was roiling. Upon closer examination we discovered hundreds of fish flopping and thrashing about! We walked close to the spectacle, mesmerized by the yellow perch which spawn this time of year once the water raises to a certain temperature. From there we meandered across the back-roads, and observed white tailed deer, a muskrat which waddled across the road, and hundreds of birds: pelicans, herons, eagles, hawks, geese, and all variety of smaller ones.
We were reluctant to leave but how very glad we were able to experience a tiny portion of the pioneer’s journey.
So which of the three would have been the best? Probably the cabin in Wisconsin. But I am thankful for modern amenities: electricity, running water, flushing toilets, refrigeration, automobiles, and airplanes. What a blessed era in which to live.
A few links. First is to my blog article from February 7, 2017 about Laura Ingalls Wilder: https://barbaradevore.com/2017/02/07/laura-ingalls-wilder/
And some links to the various historical sites:
I know everyone would be disappointed if there was not at least one link to the Infallible Wikipedia: