Little House in the Ozarks: A Literary Pilgrimage

There was water in the Verdigris River when I drove over it in eastern Kansas between Yates Center and Eureka. For some reason, this surprised me, perhaps because I was so used to the dry river beds of the Smoky Hill River and the Arkansas River in the western part of the state where I grew up. But it was lush and green and the river seemed full to my untrained eye.

If you’re not familiar, the Verdigris River is the river that the Ingalls family settles on in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. Published in 1935, Little House on the Prairie was the third of eight Little House books that would become nine with the post-humous publication of The First Four Years in 1971.

Though I’ve made many trips that include getting on US-54 in El Dorado and driving east to my grandparent’s house in the small town of Bronson, KS, this was the first time that I noticed crossing the Verdigris. I was on my to my grandparents house to spend the last week of July.

I’d made plans to go to the Ozarks and visit Mansfield, Missouri while I was with my grandparents. It’s a three hour drive to Rocky Ridge, where Laura Ingalls Wilder eventually settled with her husband Almanzo and their daughter Rose. It was in Mansfield, that Laura began her career as a writer first for the Missouri Ruralist and then eventually penning the Little House books (but ask me what my thoughts are on Rose’s involvement in that whole situation).

My love of Little House on the Prairie has already been documented on this blog (see Little House on the Prairie as Sacred Text”). And I’m not saying I know everything there is to know about the publication of Little House on the Prairie, but after pouring my heart and soul into an extensively researched paper on the history of Little House on the Prairie earlier this spring, I consider myself pretty dang knowledgeable.

So, it’s safe to say that a trip to Mansfield was the perfect way to finally close the door on my Little House on the Prairie research and the strangest semester I’ve ever had (in fact, all of my books for researching the publication of Little House on the Prairie are still in my apartment in Boston waiting to be returned to various libraries, including three first-edition Little House books).

I’m lucky that my best friend Katie was able to drive down from Kansas City to join my grandparents and I on this literary pilgrimage. Katie and I have long shared a love of Little House on the Prairie. And I’m overjoyed that I got to share this experience with my grandma, who also love the Little House books.

It felt strange, and almost selfish, to be making this journey in the midst of a pandemic even though we wore masks, social distanced, and were as safe as possible. Still, where I’m not living in the Midwest anymore, this felt like the ideal time to make a visit, and had the world been normal this summer, I wouldn’t have been able to go see Laura’s home.

Despite my being a Kansan, I’ve never visited the Little House on the Prairie Museum near Independence, Kansas. So this was my first visit to a Laura Ingalls Wilder homesite, though there are many across the Midwest and I hope to be able to visit them all someday.

The first stop when we arrived in Mansfield (population just under 1300), was the Laura Ingalls Wilder-Rose Wilder Lane Museum which is in a building that opened in 2016. It was an incredibly well designed museum that guides you through the fact and fiction of Laura’s life in a chronological manner.

Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the museum or in either of the houses at Rocky Ridge, so you’ll have to make do with my gushing descriptors of the things I loved.

The first thing you see when you walk into the museum portion is Pa’s fiddle, which is perhaps the most iconic object from the Little House series, alongside Ma’s china shepherdess. My grandma, who had visited Mansfield once before when my mom was a little girl, said that Pa’s fiddle is what she remembered most from that other visit.

The other artifacts in the museum are incredible, including Laura’s glass bread plate which features prominently in The First Four Years. One of the things that stuck out to me were well preserved first and second editions of the Little House books that had been Laura’s own copies. These books feature the Helen Sewell illustrations that are little-known today given the prominence of the 1953 Garth Williams illustrations. A majority of them even had the dust jackets. I loved seeing these books that were the fruits of Laura’s labors that she must have treasured so much.

After taking our time in the museum and walking through the gift store, where I picked up several postcards and coffee mug, we made our way up to Laura’s farmhouse. The house was a work in progress from 1986 to 1913, and today remains largely in the state it was when Laura passed away in 1957.

Katie and I delighted over the fact that much in the house was built a little smaller because Laura was only 4’11 (I hit 5’0, Katie is just a bit taller than I am). My favorite things in the house were Laura’s writing desk and the library nook that she designed, with shelves that I find to be the perfect height.

After doing a self-guided tour of the farmhouse and chatting with the two docents who were stationed to open doors so that visitors didn’t have to touch any of the surfaces in the home, Katie, my grandma, and I chose to walk along the path from the farmhouse to the Rock House. This is the same path that Laura, Almanzo, and Rose used to get between the two houses. My grandpa took the car and drove around to meet us.

Rose had the Rock House built for her parents in 1928, and Laura and Almanzo lived there until 1936. It was in this house that Laura penned and published the first three Little House books and would have begun work on On the Banks of Plum Creek. The Rock House was the first house in Mansfield to have electricity and other modern conveniences.

Walking through the Rock House was slightly less exciting than seeing Laura’s farmhouse, but still an important part of Little House history. I was particularly impressed by all the built in drawers in the closet which made for a really good amount of storage space in that little house. While it was fun to visit, I can see why Laura and Almanzo preferred their farmhouse.

The only picture I took of the rock house features my grandparents

After waving goodbye to Rocky Ridge, we stopped in the town square to take pictures with the bust of Laura and to take a bonus mural picture or two.

Then, we concluded our trip to Mansfield by visiting the cemetery and paying homage to Laura, Almanzo, and Rose’s graves. This is something my grandma mentioned wishing she had done the last time they visited and something I wanted to do after having visited Louisa May Alcott’s grave in January.

All in All, it was a really good daytrip to Mansfield with Katie and my grandparents. I’m got to see a place that holds such importance in relation to books that hold importance to me. And I’m glad I got to see it all with one of my best friends and my grandparents.

I’m looking forward to getting to see other Laura sights and making more literary pilgrimages someday. And until then, I’ll just put on my prairie dress periodically and remind myself of wide open spaces (*cue The Chicks*).

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