A few books were hanging out on my wish list to buy through Amazon.com, and the annotated autobiography “Pioneer Girl” by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Hill Smith, remained there for several months. At first, not enough copies were available to meet the demand, and then I waited for the price to come down from $39.95, or to buy a used copy. So when I stumbled across the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum & Home in Mansfield, MO while driving my RV towards the east, the bookstore was my first stop. There it was! Plenty of copies of Pioneer Girl to go around. I decided to pick up a copy after touring the premises, and met bookstore workers, Laura and Marie, who were as friendly as could be.
Through these two ladies, I learned about the RV Park across the street “They’re the nicest people, and help out backstage with the play, and have the four cutest boys who are in the play.” Marie Bristol plays the mature Laura Ingalls Wilder who narrates from the sidelines during the production by the Ozark Mountain Players. Laura Camp plays Mrs. Bradley, the mean friend of Nellie Oleson’s mother who comes over for tea and gossip. The ladies gave me directions to the Rock House and the Wilder gravesites. Since there was so much to see, and I’d lucked into a showing of the play that evening, I decided to park my RV across the street and make a day of it.
A new museum building is under construction next door, and when I first pulled in I thought “Oh no, I’ve mistimed everything.” But the next driveway led to the original museum, bookstore, and Rocky Ridge Farm. In the museum, hundreds of artifacts from the Ingalls and Wilder families are on display, including Ma & Pa’s wedding certificate and portrait, clothing handmade by Laura, her lap desk, sewing machine, and so much more.
I must admit, that when I approached the glass case holding Pa’s fiddle, it brought up too much emotion to deal with head on. So I looked at everything around it first, sneaking up to the display from the back, and looked over the tattered black case before working my way up to viewing the fiddle itself. You see, the stories of hardship and family unity were so ingrained in my young psyche (and in readers all over the world) that happier times with fiddle music and Christmas candy were sweetness beyond compare. Seeing it brought back my own memories of 3 little girls dancing around our childhood living room in one-piece PJ’s, a fire roaring in the fireplace, while Dad played the accordion. Simple. Sweet. Sacrosanct.
No photographs are allowed to be taken inside the museum or home, but the guided tours of the Rocky Ridge Farmhouse and Rock House were excellent. It took Almanzo and Laura 17 years to build this house by hand. They started out living in the one room kitchen with it’s huge wood stove for many years, working the farm and orchards, then added a room at a time. Daughter, Rose, lived here for most of her life. She was a successful novelist and magazine writer, well before her mother started handwriting her memoirs at age 65.
On another corner of the property, Rose built the Rock House, a beautiful, stylish home equipped with the most modern conveniences to be found in the late 1920’s. However, I got the impression while touring the Rock House that as contemporary and lovely as it was, it wasn’t “home” the way a place is when you build it from scratch. When Rose left to live and work in San Francisco, her parents returned to live in their old farmhouse. Pioneer Girl explains a lot of the behind the scenes history of Laura’s intent, Rose’s influence, and the subsequent publishing of the Little House series.
After a nap and dinner, I drove the 5-10 minutes back to town to find the Wilder gravesites. Again, I was filled with gratitude to the girl who’d lived those stories, the child in me who remembered them so well, and the wise woman who wrote them down to share with the world. To see the combined tombstone of Laura and Almanzo with Rose off by herself a bit spoke volumes. Almanzo’s craftsmanship was evident all throughout their home – handmade lamps and hooked rugs and carved canes. You could tell that he was one heckuva man. For them to remain at rest together, in this simple cemetery out in the country, brought tears to my eyes. The headstone was covered in pebbles, coins, and small mementos, and I added a shiny nickle, buffalo side up in a gesture of remembrance and appreciation.
A few blocks away, the community park next to the high school held a small amphitheater and concession stand. I stocked up on root beer, hot dogs, and a candy stick before settling into the next to last row. There were 100+ people in attendance (twice as many as the performers it seemed), and roughly a third of these wore the white bonnets or striped shirts of local Mennonites. The entire ambiance of the play held on a warm summer night with stars above and glimpses back to the 1870’s through 1890’s, was transportive.
In this photos, Marie plays Laura the author (on the right) with the local librarian. All of the Little House books were written in the farmhouse or Rock House, with the first one published in 1932. Handwritten manuscripts are on display in the museum. At the intermission, the audience was encouraged to visit the concession stand, as young actors who participate for at least 3 years are rewarded with a $500 college scholarship, provided with proceeds from the concessions. What a good reason to return for nachos and another root beer!
Some of Christy’s boys are in this scene of the Farmer Boys. Christy runs the Laura Ingalls Wilder RV Park that I stayed at and reviewed. When I laughingly asked Laura and Marie if they whole town was in the play, they seriously replied “It’s a four or five county production!” This is the 25th year of “Laura’s Memories”, written by Terry Spyres with music by Pat Allen. It’s a charming piece of homespun vignettes of our favorite scenes from the books. No surprises here, except for the song at the end when a young Laura’s voice chimes in “I’ll get you yet” directed at mean Nellie Oleson. That was the only bit that seemed out of sync to me.
This campfire scene sums up what the Little House stories did best – capture the attention of young readers who knew what it was to have a caring mother, protective father, siblings as confidants and playmates, a roof over their heads, and danger held at bay outside the door. Those that didn’t have all these blessings imagined that they did for a while.
It took me a few hours to reconcile the Laura I knew – the pig-tailed young girl who’d lived a life of adventure, with Laura the author, who’d lived a full life before ever jotting down a word of her memoir and death in 1957. It was inspiring to think that one can begin or expand upon an artistic endeavor at any age, and that our stories might have meaning to another.
As I continue to read through Pioneer Girl, I am reminded of why I loved young Laura in the stories so much. She had integrity, intelligence, grit and gratitude. Through her eyes, we could envision the exploration of new territory, crafting what we need from materials provided in nature, the interdependent bonds of family and community, and lessons in resiliency when things don’t go as planned. Many times as I’ve driven my RV through changing terrain, I’ve thought of those early pioneers who also traveled with everything they own hitched behind them, depending on Providence and the kindness of strangers to hand them along. Sure am glad I pulled off the highway to step back in time today and revisit childhood memories.
Think: What were the books or stories you most loved from childhood? How would you describe your favorite character(s)?
Say: Tell someone one of your true stories, either by writing it down, blogging, or telling them in person.
Do: Discover the lesson learned in your story and realize how it shaped you into the person you have become.
Please: Share this post with three or more of your friends. If it has been helpful to you, it may be what someone else also needs to hear right now. Thank you!