Sunday, July 12, 2009

Little House on the Prairie

On a recent trip to Missouri, ten minutes from my old hometown, we stopped in the small city of Mansfield to tour the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder. What I’d forgotten were how beautiful swaths of summer wildflowers were along roadsides this time of year: Queen Anne’s lace, soft, swaying, elegant, and black-eyed Susan’s wobbling in breeze, their bright yellow skirts dabbed with winking black bows, and alongside those, purple cone flower patches, picnicking tall and stoic under blue skies. All this before we’d arrived at Laura and Almanzo’s home.

This historic place tucked in the Ozark hills is called Rocky Ridge Farm. She and husband Almanzo Wilder moved with daughter Rose to this lovely area in 1885 from Dakota territory. Almanzo built the home, and since they were small folks, she four- feet-eleven, and he, five-feet-four, everything was crafted to fit them, from low ceilings to short counter-tops. A tiny staircase led to upstairs rooms which we didn’t get to tour due to the historical society wanting to preserve original flooring. This year alone they’d already had forty-thousand visitors.

As we walked through, history whispered. I imagined Laura in the kitchen, kneading bread, she in her little bed, napping, but most of all, her at the small oak writing desk, recalling stories from her childhood. Those same books I snuggled under covers and read to my own little girls years and years later.

Characters popped alive again. Mean ole Nellie Olson, who did things we sometimes wanted to but couldn’t because we were too nice. Her ultra spoiled mama, Harriet. Pa at the honey tree. Ma doctoring skinned hearts and knees. Mary going blind. Mr. Edwards, the dear family friend who almost froze walking through a blizzard to bring his dear Ingall’s girls peppermint sticks and sweet potatoes for Christmas. And, Laura, pigtailed and shiny, the one who could make Pa's lip quiver and eyes brim with tears. This when he wasn't bent over laughing at her antics.

Did you know Laura didn’t start the “Little House” series until she was sixty-five? This inspired me. I thought of all the late bloomers, myself included, and hope welled.

Another thing I didn’t know. Her daughter Rose was a writer before Laura was. She was also a journalist who traveled the globe. In 1928, Rose, then grown, spent eleven-thousand dollars of her own money and ordered an English style rock house from Sears, built a mile away from her parents home. She presented the home, complete with electricity-which would explain the eleven-thousand-to Laura and Almanzo for Christmas, and they moved in shortly after. Rose moved into the Rocky Ridge home, supplied with electricity also. Imagine owning the only two homes in the area with electricity twenty years ahead of everyone else! Visitors would come just to gawk at the lights and Laura’s new closets, also a novelty.

The rock house is where Laura wrote the first four “Little House” books. A few years later, the Wilders moved back to their Rocky Ridge home, vowing they would never leave again. They never did.

In 1932 Laura published the first “Little House” books. All nine manuscripts were penned in these two homes. She died at age ninety, her beloved Almanzo preceding her by several years.

All this history tucked among sun and sky and wildflowers.