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Pilgrimage to Laura Ingalls Wilder's Iowa Home

October 8th, 2011 (10:49 pm)

current mood: sleepy

Driving to Iowa last month for the 2011 NFPW Conference, I detoured to the town of Burr Oak, in the northeast corner of the state, to see one of the homes of one of my favorite children's book authors. Laura Ingalls Wilder never wrote about Burr Oak in her "Little House" books, but her family lived there for a little over a year in 1876-1877. One of my long-term goals is to visit all of the places where Laura lived. With this site and another I saw on the same trip, I've now been to five.

Burr Oak was already on the decline in 1876 when Laura arrived, because the newly built railroad had passed it by. Though Laura and her family lived and worked at a hotel — one of two hotels in town at the time — today the building is a museum, and there is no working hotel. I had to stay in nearby Decorah, Iowa, when I was there. In fact, the town of Burr Oak is even smaller now than it was in Laura's time. The current population is only about 100 residents. I like the way the locals pronounced Burr Oak. They slur the words together so that it sounds like one: "baroque." I found that amusing, since rural Iowa is about the least baroque place I can imagine.

Here are some of my photos from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Burr Oak, Iowa.

Laura Ingalls and her family moved to Burr Oak, Iowa, in 1876, when Laura was 9 years old. They were to live at the Masters Hotel, which the family was to help manage. Burr Oak is the site of the only childhood home that Laura did not mention in her books. It's also the only one that still exists at its original location. It now serves as a Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum for fans of her nine-book "Little House" series.

The Ingalls family traveled by covered wagon to Burr Oak, Iowa, after two years in Walnut Grove, Minnesota (chronicled in On the Banks of Plum Creek.) Along the way, the family stayed for a short time with relatives in Minnesota, where Laura's baby brother "Freddie" (Charles Frederick, Jr.) died. Click on the photograph to see a larger view of the map of Laura's travels.

The Ingalls family was forced to leave Walnut Grove after grasshoppers destroyed their crops two years in a row, as described in On the Banks of Plum Creek. The museum in Burr Oak displays this notice that offers a bounty of 5 cents for every quart of dead grasshoppers collected. Laura and her father hated having to move to Iowa; traveling East instead of West felt to them like a retreat, an acknowledgement of failure.

These life-size dolls are a little goofy, but they amused me. They were crafted for the museum by a fan of the "Little House" books. The entire Ingalls family is represented in the room that used to be the parlor of the Masters Hotel. The ones I've pictured are, from left to right, eldest sister Mary (who had not yet lost her eyesight when the family lived in Burr Oak), Pa with his fiddle, and Ma holding baby Grace, who was born in Burr Oak.

When they weren't working hard cooking and cleaning for hotel guests, Laura and her sisters Mary and Carrie attended school in Burr Oak. Laura's teacher, a young man named William Reed, impressed her greatly. Reed also lived at the Masters Hotel, and his room has been restored with period details and with clothing that actually belonged to him and members of his family. Laura later said she felt indebted to Reed in particular for teaching her elocution.

Lodgings were cramped at the hotel. For 25 cents a night, a traveler could share a bed in one of the tiny, crowded upstairs rooms or could sleep solo in this very public spot on the stair landing. This bed was often saved for the stagecoach driver who brought guests to the hotel. Notice the outrageous period wallpaper in this and the previous photo. I assume it would look much less gaudy in an era without electric lights.

Laura and her mother and sisters spent hours each day cooking and serving meals in the hotel's dining room, which was on the basement level.

Today, the hotel kitchen displays spices grown and dried on the site, along with tools like those Laura's family used. Among the items pictured are two reminders of the winter of 1880-81, which the Ingalls family spent in De Smet, South Dakota, as Laura described in The Long Winter. With all trains halted for months by ice and snow on the tracks, vital supplies such as firewood, fuel, and flour could not reach De Smet. Laura and other family members toiled in their freezing lean-to, twisting hay into sticks to burn in the stove as their only source of heat. The coffee grinder pictured is the same kind the Ingalls family used to grind wheat into a coarse flour for bread.

When they first moved to Iowa, the Ingalls family lived and worked at the Masters Hotel. The parents and all three children shared this crowded bedroom near the kitchen. Ma was pregnant at the time. Before baby Grace was born, the family was still working at the hotel but had moved out in order to remove the children from the corrupting influence of the hotel tavern. They lived in an apartment above a grocery store down the street for a time, and later rented a small brick house near Silver Creek, which ran behind the hotel.

Tomorrow I'll post a few more photographs from Burr Oak.