Stories of pioneer life on the prairie were written at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home in Mansfield.
By Pamela Selbert
Once you enter the fine white clapboard house on Rocky Ridge Farm near Mansfield, Missouri, you might think it was built to accommodate a tiny person “” and you would be right. For more than half a century, this was home to Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was not even 5 feet tall.
In the small sunlit study here she wrote four of her eight beloved “Little House” books.
Not only was the house scaled to the author’s petite size, but she actually helped to build it. She and her husband, Almanzo, worked together felling the trees, and cutting and planing the boards used to create the house she so loved.
Laura, Almanzo, and their daughter, Rose, left their home and families in South Dakota and traveled six weeks by horse and wagon to this property. “We were looking for a place where the family health might make a good average,” Laura wrote in a memoir. “One of us was not able to stand the severe cold of the North, while another could not live in the low altitude and humid heat of the Southern states.” Almanzo could no longer endure the frigid South Dakota winters, and for Laura, a move to the Florida panhandle also proved unsatisfactory, as the climate there made her ill.
When he first saw the Missouri property, “Manly,” as Laura called her husband, had little interest in it. The 40-acre tract was strewn with rocks, brush, and timber. But Laura, he would later remember, had taken a “violent fancy” to it, and saw “with an eye of faith” that it could be made beautiful.
The family lived for a year in a small windowless log cabin on the property, then built a one-room frame house nearby. This would eventually become the kitchen for the much larger house visitors tour today, which was completed in 1913.
From the outside it seems to be a relatively simple, white-frame structure with a stone chimney. Inside it’s a remarkable complex of smallish rooms framed with heavy beams that converge in unusual ways, making it look more like a rustic home conceived by a modern architect than by a 19th-century farmer and amateur carpenter. Clearly the work of a creative mind, it seems the perfect home for a writer.
In the kitchen is Laura’s wood-burning stove, which she insisted on using even after more sophisticated types became available, because she believed the food tasted better; and the 1956 refrigerator, the home’s newest appliance, purchased the year before she died just three days after celebrating her 90th birthday. Our tour guide noted that on that birthday, Laura received more than 1,000 cards from friends and admirers.
Other rooms scaled to Laura’s petite size “” her husband wasn’t much taller “” include the first-floor dining room, sitting room, and back bedroom. An oak staircase leads upstairs to a storeroom and two more bedrooms. Across a landing is the parlor with a fireplace built using weighty blocks of gold-colored sandstone from the farm, and a library, where more than 300 books stand on shelves no higher than Laura’s head. We learned that for all of Laura’s pioneer toughness of spirit, she “had to resort to feminine wiles and tears” for Almanzo to agree to the stone fireplace, as he had something much simpler in mind.
Long before Laura Ingalls Wilder became a household name, thanks to the “Little House on the Prairie“ TV series, which ran from 1974 to 1983, I, like many other girls, had fallen in love with Laura’s “Little House” books. When I was 9 years old, fascinated by the Old West and sorry I’d been born too late for life as a pioneer, a librarian suggested I check the “W” shelf.
There I found Laura’s Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in the series, and as I read it the life I dreamed of became wonderfully real. I imagined that I was the little girl born in a log cabin near Lake Pepin in the Wisconsin woods. For the next several weeks, every time I came back to the library to return one of Laura’s books, another was waiting. And when I had read all eight of them, I read them all over again “” several times.
In the books Laura recounts the story of her pioneer youth simply and beautifully, bringing to life her earliest memories of big family gatherings in Wisconsin, and then embarking on travels by covered wagon to new homes on the frontier, which at the time included Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota.
As the family moved frequently, staying ahead of civilization (although “Ma” Ingalls would have preferred town life with school for the children), the family grew to include daughters Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace, and a son, Charles, who died at about 10 months of age.
Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder were married in DeSmet, South Dakota, in 1885 when she was just 18 (he was 10 years older). Sixteen months later, Rose was born. But the eight years that followed were, as Laura wrote in a memoir, “sunshine and shadow.”
In the summer of 1887 their barn and haystacks burned down, and the following spring Laura and Almanzo both fell ill with diphtheria. He also suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered, and for the rest of his life he walked with a shuffle, leaning heavily on a cane.
But this wasn’t the end of their troubles. In the summer of 1889 Laura gave birth to a boy, who died just 12 days later of convulsions, and was laid to rest without ever being given a name. And two weeks later, the Wilders’ house caught fire and burned to the ground.
The family moved briefly to Florida, then returned to South Dakota where Almanzo did odd jobs and Laura worked as a seamstress to earn the money they’d need to start over elsewhere. In July 1894, with what Rose would one day call “the courage of despair,” they left behind the winds and dusty prairie of South Dakota heading for the milder climate of southwest Missouri.
They called the farm Rocky Ridge, and during the first year Laura and Almanzo planted 40 acres in apple trees. Eventually the farm expanded to include 200 acres. They raised hogs, sheep, cows, goats, and chickens and grew corn, wheat, oats, apples, and strawberries. As Rocky Ridge prospered, Laura happily became the farm wife she had never thought she could be.
She also began to write for The Missouri State Farmer; newspapers in St. Louis; and the Missouri Ruralist, where the editors created a column just for her, called “As A Farm Woman Thinks.” But it wasn’t until 1930 when Laura was past 60 that she began, at her daughter’s urging, to write the story of her early life.
By this time Rose Wilder was a well-known author and world traveler. She had encouraged her parents to sell the farm and move to St. Louis, and when they refused, she had a stone house built for them. It was the “house of rocks from the field” that Laura had often said a farmhouse should be. The couple lived there eight years “” it was there that Laura began her “Little House” series “” before returning to the wood frame house they had built themselves, never to move again.
At first Laura envisioned one book, a “labor of love and memorial to her father,” she later wrote. But Little House in the Big Woods, in 1932, was a phenomenal success, and almost overnight Laura became famous. The publisher wanted more “” as did the readers.
Farmer Boy, about Almanzo’s youth in upstate New York, followed in 1933. Then came Little House on the Prairie in 1935, On the Banks of Plum Creek in 1937, By The Shores of Silver Lake in 1939, The Long Winter in 1940, Little Town on the Prairie in 1941, and These Happy Golden Years in 1943. The First Four Years, though written in the 1940s, wasn’t published until 1971.
Laura’s home is now a National Historic Landmark managed by the Wilder Home Association. Adjacent to the home is a museum where exhibits include early family photos, Laura’s first sampler, articles of her clothing, her father’s fiddle, five of her original manuscripts, and much more. There’s also a small theater that shows an 8-minute film documenting her life, and a gift shop/bookstore. The stone house Rose built for Laura and Almanzo, which is now on the property, is open for tours as well. More than 40,000 visitors a year come to the home of the beloved author.
We also suggest a stop in Mansfield, where a bronze bust of Laura was unveiled in 1993 in the town square. Set atop a granite base, it shows an older woman “” not a young, determined-looking pioneer as she is generally pictured “” but as she appeared when she wrote the series. Laura, Almanzo, and Rose are buried nearby in the Mansfield Cemetery, a short drive north from the town center on Lincoln Street.
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum is open from March 1 through November 15. It is approximately 75 miles from Branson, and 50 miles from Springfield.
Hours are Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday from 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Easter Sunday). In June, July, and August it is open daily until 5:30 p.m. Parking for motorhomes is ample.
Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors 65 and over, $4 for children 6 to 17, and free for children under 6. The entry fee includes guided tours of the homes. A 3/4-mile nature trail connects the homes; to walk, it costs an additional $2. Or you can drive a short distance east on Highway A and follow signs to the other house.
For more information, contact:
Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum
3068 Highway A
Mansfield, MO 65704