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Following Laura's Footsteps

As a child, I did not read the Little House books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  As a young adult, I did not watch the Little House on the Prairie TV show produced by Michael Landon.  As the mother of a girl intrigued by American history, I came fresh to Laura and her world.

When my daughter Melissa began to read the Little House series a few years ago, she spent a lot of time acting out pioneer scenarios.  In a long skirt, homespun apron and fabric sunbonnet, she scrubbed doll clothes on a washboard and hung them to sun-dry.  She gathered wild grasses in bouquets, assembled pioneer picnics and churned butter.  She gave her dolls and stuffed animals endless lessons on a slate.  For her eleventh birthday, her friends wore pioneer costumes to a Laura Ingalls Wilder party and I tracked down rosewater to make Laura's wedding cake from a recipe featuring ten stiffly-beaten egg whites.

A year later, we jumped at the opportunity to visit Laura's various homesites, which even today are highly inaccessible, scattered at remote midwestern locations.  It was a journey that felt oddly familiar.  The suburban neighborhoods of my own midwestern childhood had been dotted with vacant lots we called prairies, and when we played amid the Queen Anne's Lace and tall rustling grasses, this was the world I had imagined.

Reading Laura's books as an adult, I was charmed by their simplicity, by the clean uncluttered language and detailed descriptions of everyday events on the American frontier in the 1870s and 1880s.  What makes Laura's story so fascinating is, I think, its very ordinariness.  Laura did not grow up to be the first female American surgeon or a noted Boston educator.  She grew up to be an Ozarks farmwife who raised chickens, sold eggs and was 65 years old when she published her first book in 1932.

Over the next eleven years, she would follow it with seven more volumes, culminating with These Happy Golden Years and her marriage to Almanzo Wilder at the age of eighteen.  This is technically Laura's story, but it is possible only because of her parents, Charles and Caroline Ingalls.  Known as Pa and Ma in Laura's books, they made a series of westward moves in the late 1800s that all but define the pioneer era.  Pa had an itchy foot and Ma was up for just about anything.  They were stunningly self-sufficient.  Ma made cheese and slaughtered hogs and sewed every stitch the family wore.  Pa molded bullets and broke sod and built log cabins and shot dinner.  They made a great team.

In American history classes, I memorized the dull details of the Homestead Act; the Ingalls family lived that Act and demonstrated conclusively that it was no simple matter to homestead a piece of land for five years.  And Lord knows they tried.  Ma and Pa began in Wisconsin and moved first to Kansas, where they inadvertently built a cabin inside Indian territory.  They fled back to Wisconsin, and went from there to Minnesota, to Iowa, to Minnesota again and finally to South Dakota where in 1880 they became the first residents of DeSmet, a railroad-created town that has been struggling for survival ever since.

A century later, my family learned that Laura's path is a well-trodden trail, and that Laura herself has become a significant industry.  Only two original dwellings still exist, but there are lots of reproductions.  The Little House in the Big Woods in Wisconsin has been reconstructed at least twice and the current incarnation still smelled of sawdust.

The Laura towns are sleepy places, a little befuddled by all the fuss.  Walnut Grove, Minnesota, didn't even realize that it was a Laura town until the TV series; Laura never mentioned it by name in On the Banks of Plum Creek.  All the towns have museums, though genuine Laura artifacts are rare outside her Rocky Ridge home in the Ozarks.  The towns all have Laura societies and Laura gift shops and Laura pageants produced every summer, starring local girls of an appropriate age.

These are not exactly tourist towns.  Overnight accomodations are limited and meals can be iffy.  It takes some effort to follow Laura's path, though current travellers can use paved roads, an option not available to the Ingalls family and their covered wagon.

It was hard country then and it's hard country today.  But there's magic in being where the young Laura lived and played.  Nowhere is that magic more real than at Plum Creek in Walnut Grove, the least changed of all the Laura sites.  Here cold water runs fresh and sparkling beside a golden wheat field, and it is staggering to realize that the Ingalls family spent their first winter here in a dugout dirt cave.  Nor was it a mild winter.  Pa nearly froze when he got caught in a blizzard on his way home from town at Christmas, only discovering days later that he had holed up within yards of the family dugout.

That's the kind of weather they have out there.  Blinding blizzards that spring up out of nowhere, trapping and freezing any living creature caught unaware.  Punishing hailstorms.  Plagues of grasshoppers.  Howling duststorms that have smoothed the corner edges of older buildings in DeSmet like so much heavy-duty sandpaper.  Each fall, the Laura industry shuts down everywhere; these are places that nobody visits voluntarily in winter.

Season after season, the Laura pilgrims travel along the Laura Ingalls Wilder Highway, Route 14 to the locals.  Mothers and daughters.  Grandmothers and granddaughters.  Sisters, nieces, cousins.  Following Laura's path is very much a female pilgrimage, though dads and brothers hover in the background.  There is even the occasional charter bus filled with Japanese tourists, who are big fans of the TV series.

Long ago I had read about sod houses on the plains, had fantasized about living in a home constructed of chunks of earth dug from the prairie floor, with grass growing on the roof, an elaboration of that primitive Plum Creek dugout.

And whaddaya know?  A modern-day farm family near Walnut Grove built an authentic soddie a few years ago and runs it as a museum and bed-and-breakfast.  Our schedule didn't allow for an overnight soddie stay, a fact my citified husband considered providential, but Melissa and I were enthralled.  We arrived midday and had the soddie to ourselves as we tried on deep-brimmed sunbonnets, hefted shaggy buffalo skins, examined oil lamps and the fancy wood-burning stove.  As we walked to the two-hole sod privy, thick prairie grasses spread before us in every direction beneath a blistering sun.

Inside the soddie, however, all was cool.  The beds weren't yet made up from the previous night's guests, and such is the nature of the Laura trail that we met those very guests the following morning on the front porch of another bed-and-breakfast.  This one was in DeSmet, two doors down from the last house Ma and Pa Ingalls ever built.

In the Dakotas, summer is too hot and winter is too cold.  Melissa and I sweltered in a modern July, while back in the winter of 1880-81, everybody in DeSmet nearly died when westbound trains couldn't get through with food and fuel.  Laura told that tale in The Hard Winter, a volume her publisher cheerfully renamed The Long Winter.  Apart from The First Four Years, published posthumously by Laura's daughter from a manuscript Laura herself abandoned as too depressing, The Long Winter is the grimmest installment in a generally upbeat series.

And The First Four Years is a pip: Laura and her new husband settle outside DeSmet and everything goes wrong.  They lose their crops to hail.  The barn burns.  They barely survive diptheria and when Almanzo gets up too soon, he suffers a permanently-disabling stroke.  Their second baby dies.  Their toddler daughter accidentally starts a fire that burns down their house.

Small wonder that Laura—by then 76 and the hugely successful author of eight books—decided to scuttle that particular set of reminiscences.  And small wonder that Laura and Almanzo packed up soon after those first four years and headed south, where they settled in the Ozarks in 1894 and lived to be ninety.

Here in Mansfield, Missouri, we found the mother lode of Laurabilia:  Pa's fiddle and Ma's books and Mary's quilt and Laura's calling cards and the glass wedding plate that survived that last Dakota fire.  Original manuscripts of the Little House books are on display, written in pencil on Big Chief tablets.

They tell stories that brought the American frontier to life for Melissa, for me, and for millions of others around the world.  Laura, I think, would be pleased to know that.


All content © 2005-11 by Taffy Cannon.