Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home in Mansfield, Missouri: The center of the ‘Little House’ world
If you grew up female in the second half of the 20th century in the United States, you might hold these “truths” about children’s literature to be self-evident:
•Nancy Drew commanded a certain loyalty from readers, but we all knew that real-life 18-year-olds couldn’t live as she did, thwarting danger at every turn. And the boyfriend? Ned Nickerson was not only a ridiculous name, but Ned Nickerson was also a superfluous human being. Nancy Drew’s girlfriends, Bess and George, played important roles in the teen sleuth’s dramas.
“The Bobbsey Twins” must have been some grandmother’s idea of adventure books. The two sets of twins were simply too good, too sheltered, to hold any 8-year-old spellbound. And their names: Bert, Nan, Flossie, Freddie. Perhaps they were related to Ned Nickerson.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, by contrast, was not only inspirational, but her stories also proved aspirational. My third-grade playmates and I donned long skirts, made corncob dolls and played dress-up as we acted out scenes from Wilder’s “Little House” books. We scripted contentment as we reenacted a Christmas morning with a stocking “filled” with red mittens and a stick of peppermint, secretly comforted by the knowledge that our own holidays would prove more bountiful.
Denied the advantages of Facebook and Command & Conquer, I read and re-read the books that described, in great detail, the lives of Laura and her family, a series that launched in 1932 with “Little House in the Big Woods,” has sold more than 60 million volumes worldwide and begat a TV series and an empire of spinoff books, dolls and cotton throws, not to mention a spate of chatter and writings from college professors who have devoted much of their lives to the study of Wilder.
THE BEST WAY TO MANSFIELD, MO.
From LAX, Delta offers connecting service (change of planes) to Columbia, Mo., about 160 miles north of Mansfield, Mo. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $516.
Perhaps that childhood drive to embrace the “Little House” universe was prompted by the realization that, unlike Nancy and Flossie, Laura was a real girl. A real girl with a sister named Mary and a Ma and a Pa and a dog named Jack. A real girl born in a log cabin on the American frontier in 1867, who lived through blizzards and grasshopper invasions and fires.
That real girl grew up in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota and South Dakota, places that are well documented in the “Little House” series. But she spent the last 60 years of her life — and wrote her historic fiction — in Mansfield, an out-of-the-way town (population 1,349) in southern Missouri that bills itself as the home of the “Rocky Ridge Farm, the site of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum.”
For those who feel the need to gaze upon Pa’s fiddle and Laura’s butter mold, Mansfield beckons.
My journey, which starts in Springfield, takes about 50 minutes on U.S. 60, heading east and passing through (or skirting) towns such as Rogersville and Diggins. A few miles after Seymour, I head south on Missouri 5 and turn onto Commercial Street, gateway to Mansfield, where a drive down the main drag takes two minutes at most, and the view includes a couple of insurance offices, a psychology clinic, some empty storefronts, a Chinese restaurant and a bank.
After I meet up with Jean Coday, my tour guide, she chauffeurs me the brief distance from the middle of town to Rocky Ridge Farm and selects the first stop, a modest building that sits between a gift store and the farmhouse that Laura and her husband, Almanzo Wilder, started to build in 1896.
On an afternoon in July when the heat index is rumored to be 106, only the slamming of car doors interrupts the low roar of cicadas. Nonetheless, the parking lot holds at least two dozen vehicles. The anecdotes in Wilder’s books do not always match the record of her life, but the mingling of fiction and fact does not seem to trouble the sightseers (40,000 annually), many of them women and girls. Husbands and sons accompany them, but it is the female of the species who cannot get enough of Laura’s jewelry box, Mary’s nine-patch quilt and the foreign language translations of the “Little House” books.
Those artifacts are displayed in a 2,100-square-foot building that is divided into two spaces, one devoted to Wilder, the other to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a writer who achieved fame long before her mother.
My guide, who happens to be the director of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum, takes me from glass case to glass case, gently directing my attention to a handkerchief that Laura embroidered as a child, her teaching certificate and the slates the Ingalls girls used when they attended school.
Almost everyone who enters the building reacts with pleasure when they see Pa’s fiddle, which played an important role in the “Little House” books.
But on this day, one visitor, a boy of about 3, leaves in tears, escorted by his father and (slightly) older brother, while his mother and sister remain inside, transfixed. It appears the youngest member of the family struggles with the concept of “don’t touch.”
“That’s OK, sugar,” my guide says. “Next time you come, we’ll have more for you to do.”
Her voice sounds vaguely Southern and comforting. And familiar. Jean Coday is my aunt. She moved to Mansfield in 1960 (about three years after Wilder died), raising a family, teaching, becoming director of the Historic Home and Museum in 1993.
We stroll to the nearby farmhouse, which started life as a cabin and gradually grew to nine rooms. The layout — low ceilings throughout (Wilder was 4 feet 11 inches), sloping floors, a sleeping porch on the second floor, a pass-through window from the kitchen to the dining room, a parlor and bedroom that appear to wrap one side of the structure — speaks to an era when homes were not necessarily planned to perfection (or planned at all), a time when folks added rooms when they could afford them and tracts were religious pamphlets rather than planned communities associated with suburban sprawl.
The farmhouse, finished in 1913, has been well cared for and, according to my guide, almost every piece of furniture, every wallpaper pattern, every objet has a story. The Montgomery Ward stove in the kitchen dates to 1905, the walls in Wilder’s bedroom are adorned with Currier & Ives prints from an early 20th century calendar, the fireplace in the living room was built, at Laura’s insistence, from huge rocks found on the farm.
Laura and Almanzo Wilder lived in the farmhouse during most of their time in Mansfield, but in 1928, Rose built them a new home on the property, and they moved the quarter-mile to the stone cottage now known as the Rock House. It’s a handsome structure (and open for touring), with a fieldstone exterior and French doors, and it was here that Laura started writing the “Little House” books. But most Wilder experts agree that the couple yearned for their farmhouse, returning there in 1935 and remaining until their deaths, Almanzo in 1949, Laura in 1957.
During a break in our tour, my guide takes me into her office and displays plans for expansion. If funds can be raised, “non-historic” structures will be removed and a new museum and a visitors’ center will be constructed on a site the Wilders knew as the East Meadows, just southwest of the farmhouse. Missing farm buildings — a barn, a garage, a chicken coop — will be replicated. Mansfield will have more to offer to the devoted.
And they are devoted. Many of the visitors we encounter murmur to their companions about memorabilia and anecdotes writ large in the “Little House” books. The wonder of real window glass. Ma’s treasured china shepherdess figurine. The thrill of butter churning. Visits from Osage Indians. Those of us who immersed ourselves in the Wilder canon believe we know her — even though the manuscripts were written and rewritten decades after the events occurred (and some scholars insist that her daughter, Rose, should be credited as coauthor, at the very least), even though some of the stories of Laura’s earliest years came from her mother and other relatives, even though her classic works are works of fiction.
John E. Miller, who wrote “Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend,” notes that “many gaps remain in our knowledge of her and in our understanding of her motives and aspirations.”
But those gaps probably don’t matter to those who make their way to Mansfield. As Miller, a former college professor, historian and the author of several other books, including “Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town: Where History and Literature Meet,” explains: “In the end, what stands out most strikingly about Wilder is her perseverance. Her readers know how her family withstood the challenges of poverty, crop failures, blizzards, grasshoppers, prairie fires and other setbacks.”
And that is why we come.