Saturday, February 10, 2018

My most recent Laura jaunt - Rocky Ridge! was in bed that second night in our tiny glass castle-ish type cabin doing the Ma Ingalls thing – trying to make the best of an unexpected situation – but as one by one my children drifted into sleepy land, I started to realize just how exact opposite it was from our usual Holiday Inn Express. 
You see, in my attempt to pack a trip to Rocky Ridge in on the way to Texas, I needed to find lodgings near RR. There was only this one option in Mansfield, MO, the other hotels being half to one hour away. And it was a cabin in the Ozarks. It sounded delightful. Quaint, picturesque. Those are the terms the web site used to describe it. And in a way, it sort of was. Five cabins were perched on a hill overlooking a sort of swamp. Check in was located at the owners’ slip-shod house, and she was very accommodating and hospitable, however there was still a deliverance-esque type vibe we were getting, and the kids were uneasy.
Once huddled down in Cabin #3, we were warm and had indoor plumbing. Now don’t act like this is some sort of “given.” In the Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls and her family use a bucket for the bathroom that they take turns emptying outside, and I’m pretty sure they had exactly no heat. If you haven’t read that book, stop reading my blog and go read that book. It’s in my top 5 and I’ve read it at least 3 times. No words. Just read it. Anyhow, despite the floors that moved when you walked and the musty bathroom, the bed was comfortable and the kids, on the floor, were tucked in cozily.
Our cozy cabin

Jeanette’s childhood home. Obviously, I exaggerate. 
The kids, however, say I cannot pick out our lodgings anymore.
I digress. How this cabin slash RV Park resembled Jeanette’s childhood home is in the sense you get of, well, for lack of a better word, I’ll use the word my kids have attributed to it – sketchville. But it’s not that bad. My kids are just spoiled and not used to roughing it. Mansfield does look like it needs a cheering up, but it’s an older, rural town and my kids are used to superstores and fast food. Here they had a greasy spoon called “Ma and Pa’s,” a bakery called “Sweet Nellie & Caroline’s,” and a grocery store. There is the elementary school named after Laura as well as the public library she helped start. In the town square there is a bust of LIW, and around the corner is the cemetery where Laura, Manly, and Rose are buried.

Old Pals

Our time at Rocky Ridge was emotional for me. I thought about writing one of those “everything was perfect” pieces but it wasn’t that simple. Because life never is. The weather was unseasonably cold for southern Missouri, and I had not brought a coat. I had 3 layers of sweaters on, but the 14 degrees just seeped through them all.
Rocky Ridge, as it looked in Laura’s day and still does today!
Laura’s house was perched on a lovely hill looking down over the new museum built in 2016, with a chicken coop off behind the house. You could just see through a few breaks in the curtains into the living room of the house from two different window angles. That was pretty exciting, but also difficult because I just wanted to go inside. I did, however, run my hands all over the siding of that house and stare for awhile at the “sleeping porch” upstairs where Rose slept and did all her writing.
The “sleeping porch”
Laura’s beautiful fireplace that she insisted Manly build with stones from their farm
The whole experience was also a bit disorienting for me because the house and grounds were so different than I had envisioned them, and much closer to town. For example, the Rock House that Rose built for her parents wasn’t a short walk between the two houses. The Rock House is significant because even though Laura and Manly lived in their beloved farmhouse for most of their 40+ years in Mansfield, the short time they spent in the Rock House Laura wrote all of the Little House books!
As close as we could get to Rock House
The Rock House used to be on the original Wilder farm land, but as time went on and the Wilders got older, they sold off most of their land. So now, you have to go back out on the highway and drive a quarter mile to another road, and it’s down that road a half of a mile. Just one more thing to disorient me:).
It was all exactly as the pictures looked online, but you know how pictures make something look one way, and in person the perspective is so different. I couldn’t reconcile the two. I still can’t. I think that what I was expecting (illogically/stupidly) was to meet Laura there. But I never saw her going out to feed the chickens or pump water or bake her famous gingerbread. I know, it’s silly of me, but she’s dead and I wish she wasn’t.
Pregnant and emotional. Please don’t judge, Mansfield peeps. 
It didn’t help that the night before we had visited her grave. The cemetery wasn’t how I imagined it either. The whole town was a little bit of a letdown. I’m very sorry to think/write that, but in all my readings of her biographies and blogs, they painted Mansfield as a more progressive farming town a bit out of the everyday because of all the intellectual clubs she formed and her influence on getting the library going, as well as writing her Farm Journalist columns, so good that someone who knows basically nothing about farming (me) gleaned a whole bunch of wisdom from them. She even ran for politics, not to mention serving on many boards. Probably it was a thriving town in the early to mid 1900’s. Certainly at her house and grounds they have worked hard to preserve her memory, and perhaps I shouldn’t be negative in any way toward Mansfield. Let’s just say it wasn’t what I expected. The people there seemed happy enough though, and that’s really the most important thing! Also, we had a delicious breakfast at Nellie’s Cafe. Very polite wait staff and customers in there. I know it was unrealistic of me to expect Mansfield, Missouri circa 1946.
Back on the road not far from Mansfield the next day, Josie kept asking “when are we gonna be in Texas already?” I opened up my map to check out our route, and low and behold realized we were only one hour from the site of Laura’s first book in Independence, Kansas, where Little House on the Prairie is based. So I said hold on to your seats, y’all, we are taking a detour on our way to Texas. Stay tuned…

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Day 4: De Smet: I'm finally here!

De Smet, super old-timey 

We weren't sure we'd actually be able to make it to De Smet from Walnut Grove that night, as we left rather late in the day. The wind continuously beat at our van, and we had to stop in Brookings to eat and make a quick stop for a cooler restock. I felt ok with this since "Brookins," (as Laura spelled it in Pioneer Girl, her first memoir) has some historical significance, Pa having traveled there to file on his claim.
See here. I've got the proof. Zoom in, Laura friends. 

By this time, the convergence of chasing the old while living in the modern world was making me feel odd. It was hard to reconcile my vision of how things were in Laura's 1880's with my stopping for McDonald's coffee. I had some fantastical illusion that because I wasn't traveling like Laura, I couldn't really understand her life, which, after all, is what I'm always after. I get to a certain level and then I just want more.  And there's always more to be had. And here I was taking the easy route. The same route as her, but in an easier fashion. I think you get the point. 

We pushed on until De Smet, where several signs beckoned us to stay and explore Laura. As if I needed beckoning.  I refused to look at anything Laura-ey that night when I was tired. We had reserved a room at the Super Deluxe Inn, the only year round hotel in town. It was super down home. The kind of motel where the kids can run free safely. Had a pool, so kids were happy. The owner is a super nice guy who had been stationed in Michigan in the military years ago. I always say you really can't get to know a town until you mingle with the laid back country folk:) (Dumb & Dumber reference, but I hold it to be true!)  One of our two mornings he sat down to breakfast with us and filled us in on De Smet lore and in particular, that he had previously owned the Prairie House Manor, a popular B&B a few doors down from Ma and Pa's last home on 3rd Street. (By the way, anyone who's planning to stay at the Super Deluxe this spring/summer touring season, please note that the Inn was flooded in January and they've been under construction ever since, so be mindful that things are a bit jumbled there at the moment).  
When I saw how late we were getting to town that first night, I realized with Sunday being the next day, the museum would be closed and we'd have to/"get to!" stay for two nights. Joe was such a good sport, even though aside from Laura, the quiet town boasted only a Subway, a gas station, and little else. Everything else was closed on Sunday, including the old timey, adorable, and history filled downtown, complete with the Ward's General store and the original Loftus Store of Long Winter lore.  I ached to comb that Main Street (Calumet Avenue) with my guidebook, noting where Pa's store building used to be (where the Ingalls family nearly starved to death during the hard winter of 1880-81) and the Wilder boys' feed store, to name just a few. I knew before I went there that a good two days at least was needed, because of the five Little House books that covered the Ingalls/Wilder time period there. (We made several trips to the Wilder Feed store site during our stay, because what now lies there is the town's grocery store, Maynard's). 

But first, Palm Sunday mass, only the time advertises online was 9am and when we got to St. Thomas Aquinas Church at 8:45, not a car was in sight. Was the priest sick?? The kids and I explored the beautiful church and did a few minutes of adoration, and then used the bathroom downstairs. We nearly ran into a woman coming in to prepare the church for a funeral later, and I ended up having a great chat with her about life in De Smet, how she came to be there, and that her daughter used to conduct the Laura tour - what luck! She told us what we could expect at the tour the next day. When I asked her what the locals think of the Ingalls/Wilder connection, she said they don't think anything of it. Of course that's normal, but if moved there, I doubt I'd think of anything else. The town is so small and owes its popularity to the Ingalls and Wilders.  But such as it is.  Joe had been waiting in the van long enough so I excused myself to go upstairs and find the kids.  I found them, alright, completely splayed out on the two front pews, coloring.  They had brought the communion cushions over to make it more comfortable, and had lit a bunch of candles.  I guess I left them along too long while talking to my friend downstairs.  We cleaned up and left, to begin the self- guided walking/driving tour that fans usually do after the home tour, but we had to do Sunday when the tour was closed.
My kids at the church, all crazy-like

That afternoon was truly magical. We started at the Kingsbury County Cemetery, which was unexpectedly emotional for me. To see the graves of Ma, Pa, Mary, Carrie, and unnamed "Baby Wilder" was so moving. Seeing the graves of loved ones we've lost is something normal and everyday in all people's lives no matter where in time, so that's probably why here the old and new finally converged for me; the idea melded together with the reality. The Ingalls family had truly lived on this earth! Death is so closely tied to life is it not? 
R-L Pa, Ma, Baby Wilder, Mary, & Carrie

Those prairie winds gusted up forcefully around the cemetery, so much so that I could hardly breathe. We jumped back into the van and headed for the Laura and Almanzo homestead and further on, their tree claim, a few miles northwest of town. 
So much sadness had happened to them in their early married life - the death of their infant son, crop failures, diphtheria that left Almanzo crippled, and a house fire in which they lost everything. My favorite chapter from the book that describes this time period, The First Four Years, is the first, when Bess, as Manly called her, describes her first seeing the home he built for them on the homestead:
"Laura was so delighted with the pantry that she stood in the doorway for several minutes, admiring it," writing  also that "it was a bright and shining little house and it was really all belonged to just Manly and her" (FFY, 12-14). Her pride of ownership is evident, and I did my best to envision it perched high on the hill before we drove on. 

The next part of our tour felt like one of Laura and Manly's Sunday buggy rides, as we drove about 7 mph on country roads, the sound of prairie grasses singing in the wind, and Jack rabbits hopping across in front of us. I thought of the lovers stopping the buggy to gather choke cherries and wild roses as their romance blossomed, and here I was with my own Manly, "reliving" it all (sob in throat:)

My prairie view, with a slough and flock of wild geese to boot. 

We slowly drove many miles with our windows down, so we could hear the wind sweeping through the prairie grasses. I cannot emphasize enough how beautiful it all was. Laura said about this phenomenon that you truly have to walk the land to experience the prairie. It is a rich, complex ecosystem I want to explore more later on. I could have done this all day. We were going so slowly, I took baby out of his car seat and nursed him in the front seat, and the kids were quiet (for once!), taking it all in.

Eventually, we wound our way south and uphill toward the Ingalls claim. It was closed, as so many things were on this trip, but we got out anyway and walked much of the 160 acres that had ten outbuildings. In Laura season (May - Oct) the place is swarming with visitors, functioning as a living history museum. We missed out on all that, but quiet reflection is more my style anyway. We walked from building to building, peeking inside the windows. We climbed a lookout post that gave a birds' eye view of the Ingalls land, and I imagined Manly's horses dashing around the corner of Perry's livery to pick Laura up for their drives.

A large rock marked the spot where Pa built the one room shanty in 1880. We tried the door on what looked like a schoolhouse, and found a sweet surprise - it was open! A sign posted on the door said that said we could come in as long as we shut the door behind us. In it was a wagon to climb in and take pictures, and a little tribute to each home site on all the walls. It was so fun! 
The kids enjoyed this old-timey merry go round...

and the other buildings were a 2 story horse barn complete with a stagecoach...
a one room shanty, complete with stove, whatnot, bedstead, table, chairs, a shelf, and a few dresses to try on:

My eldest girls and me standing outside of it.

But there's more!  A sod-roofed dugout, such as it looked at Plum Creek back in the day, with a battery operated lantern inside! It shone the light on what must have been a dark, depressing space at times.  Here the kids are reacting the way Ma did when told she had to live in a house under the ground for the winter:

Next, a sod roofed barn replica where a cat jumped out at Trey and me. Ma's chickens and the cow Laura loved to milk each morning would have resided there. 

Ingalls homestead, looking southwest. Sod barn in foreground. 

And lastly, another replica of the shanty, but with the two rooms Pa later built onto it attached.The shanty boasted a braided rug making station, where the kids all made a teeny braided rug, and little rocking chairs for kids to sit, as well as "Mary's" rocking chair, a whatnot, table and chairs, a larger cook stove, shelves, and TWO bedrooms! I can see why during the time of These Happy Golden Years,the Ingalls finally stayed on the farm a whole winter, because it felt like a true home with its bright new rooms.  Josie had fun sweeping the floor with the broom left there, and Joe and I admired the pipe organ meant to replicate the one Pa and Laura bought as a surprise for Mary's coming home from the blind school. 
This of the exterior:

...and this, of the interior:
Ellie braiding, Josie sweeping. 

A one room schoolhouse sat at the southernmost edge of the property, and was also unlocked. Inside we sat at the desks and the kids tested out the ruler, slates and pencils, and I admired the books next to "teacher's" desk. Actually the school looked like it hadn't been out of use for long. Perhaps the late 1960's? I don't know - I didn't read all the displays. 

I had many questions, but not all the answers. Guess I better go back to De Smet one day!

All in all, we ended up spending three hours at the Ingalls' homestead! Of all the home sites we visited on this trip, I think this was the most memorable for us as a family. 

The early morning rain had shifted to sun by afternoon as we left the homestead, but the winds hadn't died down at all. Being from northern Michigan, where the topography is all trees, rolling hills, and lakes, we continued to marvel at this. Joe had checked out the Kingsbury County Country Club earlier, but we headed back there so he could play 9 holes with Lucy and Trey - against the wind, of course. The rest of us finished the self-guided tour, though without Joe's help I really didn't do too well; however, I think I found the sites where the Boast and Loftus families had lived on Second Street. I failed to find the big dark house Rose describes that the three Wilders lived in on Fourth Street, post-house burning/diphtheria/paralization and pre-Missouri. (At the tour the next day, we learned that the house still stands, so I probably looked right at it and didn't even know it). 

It was time for dinner but the famed Oxbow Restaurant was closed, so we ate at Subway and headed back to the hotel for swimming,etc.  We drove about 45 miles that day, in and around De Smet. It was an exhilarating, peaceful, emotional and magnificent day I will never forget. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Day 3: Walnut Grove and Plum Creek

I was ecstatic to finally reach HWY 14/the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway and jump on it at Mankato. There's nothing to see in Mankato (or Sleepy Eye, for that matter), but I know my siblings will recognize these town names from the TV show, so I note their passage on the historic Highway 14:). Walnut Grove, home of Michael Landon's infamous recreation of the Ingalls family, lies about halfway through Minnesota, and was where we were now headed. 
I have to admit this home site was initially a bit of a letdown. Off season or not, I think the staff was a bit underwhelmed by tourists. A bit too early in the season for that, eh? Now that I've been to De Smet and have had the privilege of meeting the assistant director of that site, as well as receiving our tour from her, I'd have to say the WG site has work to do in its welcome department!  I do tend to build things up in my head too much though, and I expected some enthusiasm for Laura and a sort of tete a tete with the gift shop personnel at least. I didn't get to do that in Pepin and I was slightly worked up as a result; however it didn't stop me from getting the most out of WG. 

The gift shop was like being in Laura heaven!  The usual array of fudgie paraphernalia (Michigan term for tourist) was on display and we just ate it up. Magnets, covered wagon pencil sharpeners, slates with pencils, tin cups/candy sticks Mr. Edward's style, and to my delight, matching bonnet and aprons sets - and yes, I bought one for myself. 

TV Show Memorabilia.  Hysterical!

And this:

As we piled up our gifts on the counter, our Laura hostess quietly punched the cash register while managing to make no eye contact with us. At the end, I timidly inquired if the famed dugout site up the road was open. She looked right up at me and I swear - she lied, saying with a sad tone - "no, too wet."  

A little background folks: when the Ingalls family came here seeking a new life, as depicted in On the Banks of Plum Creek, they stayed that first winter in a sod roofed dugout site literally dug into the side of a hill, and Laura played in the creek at its door, having fond memories of her times there, where she met "Nellie Oleson" (*spoiler alert!* in real life Nellie was a composite character of 3 snotty girls Laura knew, so it was here she actually met Nellie Owens). The land is now owned by a very kind family who allows fans to drive past their house to the site, asking only a $4 donation. I had been told by that thar lady from the gift shop museum two months previous that the site would be accessible if "not too wet."

When we pulled out of the gift shop, I pulled out my Little House Guidebook, which I should have touted to you before, and it gave me directions to the dugout site. 
The Little House "Bible" - don't leave home without it, I was told by THEM, and THEY were right!

had to at least take a photo of the entrance sign. It was closed, just like she said. 

Funny though, the road leading past the house, where it appeared that the owners were not at home, and all the way to the parking lot in front of the site, was completely dry. The creek was completely died down from the spring rush, the evidence clear upon the banks. The spot where the dugout sat has since caved in, but a large sign denoting the spot rests there, the roof of which is now roped off.

Dugout site - very cool and easy to imagine still standing. 
Plum creek flows happily in front, just as Laura described.   

My Laura and Mary, on the banks of Plum Creek. Like fo real

OTBOPC is Lucy's favorite book, so we had a little moment together imagining Laura at play in the creek and on the tableland beyond the dugout. The "wonderful house" Laura described is no longer, but we ruminated on the site where it once stood, and around the creek. You could totally imagine Laura playing in the swimming hole, deep but not too deep or Pa would tan her hide. 

Mollie and Josie not complying with family photo time. We should have tanned their hides. 

After everyone else had traipsed back over the bridge to the van,  Ellie and I read the markers alongside a trail that wound through battered down cornfields and made a loop back to the dugout. I would have liked to spend more time there but was starting to feel guilty for a trespassing of sorts. (Sarah Uthoff, forgive me!) I hope LIW fans can appreciate that we drove all this way and I was not about to skip the main point of Walnut Grove without seeing it!  Besides, the entire site was dry. We made up for it with a generous donation and off we went, my heart satisfied. 
The Walnut Grove home site is right on the side of the road, just off HWY 14, which made it easy to find, giving it a bit of a tourist trap feel.  Anyone who loves the TV show would be in heaven here, as there is LHOTP memorabilia for sale and signed copies of stars' biographies to photos and everything in between. 

The winds were really beginning to pick up now, getting only stronger as we moved westward, or as Joe calls it, "in a westerly direction."  It began to look and feel more prairie-like by the mile, as we eased toward De Smet, where my frenzied imagination was about to be satiated. 
My favorite family pic of the whole trip. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Day 2: Pepin, Wisconsin

I can't believe I'm saying this but we made it from Pepin to De Smet in one day! I'm sure others before us have also, but the kids LET us and that is the point. 
Victory! For now, I want to look back on our day in Pepin. 

Just in case you didn't pick up on this yet, Pepin is my first home site I've ever visited!  I said to Joe "pinch me! Am I dreaming?!" He laughed at me and shook his head, and then pinched me. Ouch! But then I knew. I was AT MY FIRST LAURA INGALLS WILDER HOME SITE!  It was not like I imagined but then again, what did I expect? That Ma and Pa would be there to greet me? The museum and gift shop were closed, but a number was listed for someone named Mary who would come open it for me. I sort of wish in retrospect that I had, but I was feeling anti-gimmicky and pretty amped up over the Little House Wayside - the replica cabin of her birth and early childhood - seven miles out of town.   

Winding through the majestic bluffs that surround the Mississippi River, I got a real sense of Pa urging the horses up the hilly (now paved Co. Rd.CC) toward home after a day of trading furs for dry goods. The cabin itself stood alone on a slope of the Ingalls' actual homesite on the side of the road with a few outbuildings. The older kids ran straight to it and then tiptoed in. Josie tried hard to catch up, as became her role every day of the trip, and with her blonde hair and curls, I began to call her Baby Grace. I can feel an old timey reenactment of Grace's two year old tintype becoming a reality when we get home!
The Little House Wayside

I took it all in, wandering slowly throughout.  When we were all in it together, I gave a mock tour of the cabin, filling it in with bits from Little House in the Big Woods. I subsequently did that at each site, and flatter myself I did almost as good a job as our one and only tour guide at the sites (in De Smet) haha. I WISH that my real life job was to spend my whole day talking about Laura!
Me, as tour guide. They even look like they were listening!

Me and four of my babies in the Little House Wayside cabin. 

Hey look! My very own Mary and Laura!

After looking about a bit, we trekked back into town so the kids could play at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park, which I imagine is full of LIW picnickers in the summer months. There is a neat depot museum there too, not open in March, but the kids played around on the outdoor wagon and trains while Joe took pictures of me with a huge smile plastered all over my face😄

I feel sorry for the kids who built this huge snowman in the park. My kids dismantled it. 

Lake Pepin

We rounded out this trip by visiting the shores of beautiful Lake Pepin, which is essentially a widening of the Mississippi River.  Here, we collected "pebbles" just as little girl Laura did, only we took care not to take too many lest ma scold us for being greedy. 😂

Laura took so many she tore the pocket of her dress. I only let my little "Laura" (Mollie), who is reading LHITBW right now, take a few. 

Sadly, it was then time to go. Although we came in the off season, the trip was well worth it. The natural landscape lends enough fodder to fill your imagination for what it must have been like for little girl Laura, but mostly for Ma and Pa, who are the actual main characters in this book. A lovely morning in Pepin came to a close.


Friday, March 27, 2015

Day One: Getting There

We made it out of Michigan! So you know what they say about spring break and going somewhere warm?  They were right! It's awesome! When we left Traverse City this morning (wait...was that this morning? Wuh? Huh? Brain freeze) it was only 7 degrees. But now it's 30 and super sunny! So yea, super warm. 
Not only did we make it out of Michigan, we are an hour from the Wisconsin/Minnesota border and one hour from Laura site #1- Pepin!  Wahoo! 

Joe daddy, our faithful driver, kept us entertained with his quirky shout outs...

We got out to stretch our legs just shy of the Mich/Wis border had lunch along the (ice) water 
And naturally, played volleyball because who wouldn't think of that...
And are safely ensconced in our hotel, where I sit and blog to ya'll while sipping my tea, nursing baby boy, and planning out tomorrow. And Joe is wrangling the kiddos - who much needed an outlet for their excitement! - at the pool. Tomorrow, Pepin! ~ where our next adventure awaits, in the town where this girl was born: 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Big Van Many Riders

Greetings fellow Laura fans and family!

Well, my dream of visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder home sites has actually begun! Well, almost. We leave tomorrow morning and are nearly ready, minus some odds and ends, and it seems so surreal. Of all my favorite books on LIW I own, I re-read the most the ones about other Laura nerds who did the home site trips, living vicariously through them. I'm sure when I first get to Pepin, Wisconsin, Laura's birthplace, it will start to sink in. For now, it is last minute jitters, spring break fever, and a hope that My husband Joe and I can get some z's tonight before loading up our 17 million kids in "the wagon" and heading down historic Highway 14 - the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway. Thanks for coming along!