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The Cemetery Where Laura Played

October 9th, 2011 (06:23 pm)

Yesterday I posted about my visit last month to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Burr Oak, Iowa, the destination of a side trip I took en route to the NFPW Conference in Council Bluffs. Burr Oak was the site of the Masters Hotel, where Laura and her family lived and worked in 1876 and 1877, when Laura was 9 years old. The "Little House" books she later wrote about her childhood never mentioned her family's time in Iowa. Today, I have a few more photos to share from Burr Oak.

Laura would have been busy during her year there. She worked at the hotel, went to school, helped look after her younger sisters — including new baby Grace — and even tended the family cow. I cannot begin to imagine my own 9-year-old taking on such responsibility. But occasionally Laura managed to squeeze in some free time to spend with her friend Alice Ward. The girls especially loved to stroll through Burr Oak Cemetery, talking, playing, and dreaming.

"The graveyard was a beautiful place," she later wrote. "The grass was soft and short, there was velvety green moss in little hollows and on some of the gravestones.... The white stone standing amid all this beauty didn't look sad."

When I spotted the cemetery and realized it was the same one Laura and Alice had so loved, I had to follow in the girls' footsteps. I'd been told that it still looks much as it did during Laura's year in Burr Oak, and that's easy to believe. Certainly, many of the stones I walked among that day were the same ones whose inscriptions she must have known by heart. During Laura's stay in Burr Oak, the church seen in the photo was just being built. She would have watched the building go up, board by board; she was fascinated with how things were made. Wandering through the cemetery myself on a brilliant September day, I imagined her sitting on the green grass amid white gravestones, her brown eyes wide as she watched workers hoisting beams or nailing down shingles.

One gravestone in particular caught my attention; it's dated 1866, so Laura would have seen it too. Addie May Benedict was a little over 6 months old when she died. Laura may have run her fingers over the inscription, thinking of her own baby brother, Freddie, who died at the age of 9 months shortly before the Ingalls family moved to Iowa. Seeing Addie May's stone would have made Laura sad, I think. But maybe she would have found solace in it, too. She could no longer visit her baby brother's final resting place. Spending time at Addie's grave may have helped her mourn the brother she had so doted on, the only boy born to Charles and Caroline Ingalls.

Laura didn't much like living in Burr Oak, Iowa. Her family was destitute after the failure of their wheat crops and devastated by the loss of baby Freddie. She thought the town felt old and tired. And changing linens in the guest rooms and serving meals to strangers would not have been work she enjoyed. It was in Burr Oak that a wealthy young couple who could not have children of their own begged Ma and Pa to let them adopt Laura. They thought their offer would reduce Ma and Pa's financial burden and provide Laura with luxuries her own parents couldn't dream of. But Laura was horrified. All the pretty dresses, candy sticks, and music lessons in the world couldn't take the place of her beloved family. Of course, her parents felt that way too and politely declined the offer.

Laura wasn't one to mope or complain. Like her parents, she did what had to be done, even if it meant working hard at chores she hated. And she never lost her sense of wonder, her appreciation for her family, and her ability to find beauty and joy in simple things — an inspiring teacher, a peaceful hillside cemetery, and the laughter of a new baby sister. In Burr Oak, the Ingalls family pulled together and regrouped before moving on to the next phase of their lives. The following year, they would return to Walnut Grove, Minnesota.