Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Laura's House

I was probably about nine years old by the time I got to the end of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series. Finishing The First Four Years (which, despite its title, is the last book of the series), I noticed one final illustration on the page across from the story’s end. It was an oval glass plate with the words “GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY BREAD” etched into it. I recognized it from the chapter about the fire that destroyed the Wilders’ house and most of their belongings. A neighbor had gone into the burning house through a window and thrown the plate, along with some other dishes and silver, out into the yard. This plate was one of the few possessions Laura and her husband Almanzo had left after the fire.

According to the words printed beneath the sketch of the plate, the Wilders had kept it for the duration of their marriage and it was found among their daughter Rose’s things following her death. The plate was now on display, it said, at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri.

There’s a museum? And this plate is there? I had just devoured this book series and felt, as many Little House fans do, that Laura was my friend. She lived in such a different time and place but we seemed to have so much in common. And there was a place I could go to see her stuff? I ran to find a map to see how far Missouri was from New Mexico, where my family was living at the time. But it was too far. We did take one long trip every year, but it was down to southeast Texas to see my grandparents. Driving to rural Missouri wouldn’t really make much sense for us.

But I never forgot it. When I was asked “What’s one place you’ve always wanted to go?” My answer was Mansfield, Missouri.

(Sidenote: I’m a fan of the Little House books. Not the TV show. I’ll save that rant for another blog post.)

Decades later, my husband and I moved our family to Arkansas. A couple of years later, we went to Branson, Missouri, for a marriage conference. In the hotel room, I used Mapquest to calculate the distance from Branson to Mansfield. I nearly passed out.

“Mansfield is one hour from here!” I told Chad.

Our schedule was too tight to make it on that trip, but a few months later, as summer was winding down and we were trying to plan a last-minute trip somewhere, Chad said, “Let’s go up to the Ozarks and get you to Mansfield.” So 30 years after I found out about this place, I was finally going there.

Allow me to throw in some LIW history here. Laura and Almanzo tried farming on the South Dakota prairie for nine years after they married in 1885, but were only met with a series of catastrophes. They both contracted diptheria, and Almanzo suffered a stroke soon afterward that left him crippled in one leg. He was only 29 and had to walk with a cane for the rest of his life. They lost crops to the brutal Dakota weather. But worst of all, just a few days before the devastating fire, they lost a 12-day-old son.

So one day in 1894, the Wilders loaded everything into a buggy and set off to start over somewhere else. They had heard about fertile farmland in the Ozarks of Missouri. As they rolled into Mansfield, Laura said, “This is where we’ll stop.” So they did.

Laura and Almanzo had $100 from the sale of their Dakota farm. They used it to buy a hilly piece of land a mile from town. The land included a ravine with a rock-covered ridge, which gave Laura the inspiration for naming the farm. Financially, times were still hard for the little family. At one point, they had to move into town and rent a house until the farm got a little more stable. But eventually, and piece by piece, the Wilders were able to expand their farm and build a farmhouse out of natural materials found on the farm’s land. They lived there together until Almanzo’s death in 1949, and Laura continued living there until she died in 1957.

The house has been preserved as it was at the time of Laura’s death. It’s one mile from the town square, and I recognized the towering rock chimney from the highway as soon as it came into our view. We stepped into the museum behind the farmhouse. I was so happy to be there, I thought I was going to melt to the floor in a blubbering mess. But I kept it together and started looking around. This small building (they are raising funds for a new, larger one) is crammed full of priceless artifacts from the Ingalls and Wilder families. It's a Laura fan's Smithsonian. Pa’s fiddle is the first thing you’ll notice. Pictures of the family everywhere. Clothes Laura wore. The handwritten invitation to Ben Wordsworth’s party she describes in Little Town on the Prairie. The namecards she picked out at the print shop in the same book. The slates she and her sister Mary bought on the way to school in On the Banks of Plum Creek. And the oval glass plate, which embodies the values that Laura and Alamanzo lived out through their 60-year marriage: Horrible times are survivable, and survivable with courage and grace.

One wall contains—under glass—some of Garth Williams’ original sketches. As much as I love Laura’s writings of her life, I don’t know that the Little House books would be what they are without Garth Williams’ illustrations. Using only pencil, charcoal and ink, Williams illustrated the series with rich drawings of vivid characters and scenes. His rendering of the house fire in The First Four Years still chokes me up. Williams was commissioned to illustrate the new editions of the books in 1947, and he traveled to each of the places the Ingalls family lived to recreate the most accurate likenesses possible of their lives as pioneers. When I read the books, I don’t picture Michael Landon or Melissa Gilbert. I picture the characters as Garth Williams drew them.

Another wall displays copies of the Little House books in different languages. It’s still amazing to me that this aging farm wife sat down to write stories of her childhood in her rural Missouri farmhouse and she became an internationally-known author who was loved the world over. These books, printed in Japanese and Arabic and German and probably 30 other languages, are a testament to Laura's global acclaim as an author.

Most of one side of the museum is devoted to Rose Wilder Lane, Laura and Almanzo’s daughter who was a legend in her own right. She was a writer, an activist, novelist and political theorist. She, along with Ayn Rand and others, helped found the American libertarian movement. A world traveler for much of her life, Rose was the oldest American Vietnam War correspondent.

After taking in the museum, we toured the house. Having memorized the floor plan of the house as a kid (when you’re this obsessed with someone who’s still living, you are a stalker. Since Laura’s dead, I’m simply a “buff.”), I knew exactly what each room was going to look like. Her kitchen is painted yellow, which inspired me to paint my kitchen yellow in our Baytown house. Her Blue Willow dishes were set out on the dining room table. And as we came out of her bedroom into her office, I knew exactly what I was going to see to my right. The simple wooden desk where she wrote half of the Little House series. She used pencils and five-cent tablets of writing paper and, never one to waste anything, wrote from edge to edge on both sides of the paper. Some of these original manuscripts are under glass in the museum.

Then we toured the “rock house,” which Rose had built for her parents in the ’30s when she decided her parents should have a modern house. Laura and Almanzo lived there for eight years (that’s where she wrote the other half of the series) but, unimpressed with modernity, moved back to the farmhouse and never left again.

On the way out of town, we stopped by the Mansfield cemetery. Laura died more than 50 years ago, but people are still leaving flowers and letters on her grave, like this letter we found there from a couple in Arizona. It's reassuring to know I'm not the only Laura-stalker out there.

I’ve always regretted that Laura and I were not alive at the same time and I never had a chance to meet her. But now I’ve been to her house. I know what her kitchen looks like when the sun streams through the windows on an August afternoon. I know what it feels like to step out onto her front porch on a hot summer day, the way she did to collect fan letters out of her mailbox. I’ve stood on the edge of the ravine and looked across to the rocky ridge, which Laura must have done thousands of times.

So in a way, I think I finally got to meet her.

Laura Ingalls Wilder in the ravine at Rocky Ridge Farm in 1900 at the age of 33. The dress is on display at the museum.