Photo Friday

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

I think Garth Williams made that covered wagon look bigger than what it was…

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On the Banks of Plum Creek

After spending an hour or so going through the Walnut Grove Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, we got directions to the dugout site which is described in On the Banks of Plum Creek. It’s located less than 2 miles north of town on a piece of private property that the family has opened up to tourist for a nominal fee paid on the honor system. The story goes that the family purchased the land in the late 1940s and, when improving the property, took down an old dilapidated building that may have been the house that Pa built with lumber he got on credit. Not long after that Little House illustrator Garth Williams came through in search of the Ingall’s house and old dugout site. (See The Walnut Grove Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder for more detailed information.)

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

If you can read the sign you can see it’s reported to be location of the dugout ruins, spring, big rock, tablelands and plum thicket. I was most excited to see the dugout ruins though I was also really curious about the tablelands and the big rock.

After entering the property, you drive back on a gravel road a little ways to the creek. There is a circular area to park your vehicle and the site is well marked and has a number of informational plaques. The closest landmark is the big rock which is disappointing since they aren’t really sure if it is THE big rock described in On the Banks of Plum Creek in addition to it being mostly buried under thick layer of dirt and, when we visited, completely submerged in the creek.

To get to the dugout, you cross a small bridge and walk up a steep embankment.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

The dugout site is marked with a massive sign which only serves to dwarf the small depression in the top of the creek bank that is the dugout ruins.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

While the book makes the dugout seem idyllic, we learned when examining the dugout replica at the museum that it was tiny, dark, leaked water and I can only imagine was full of bugs. Dugouts were meant to be temporary housing and not built to last. No wonder Pa decided to build the house before the first wheat crop. No wonder Laura went on and on about china doorknobs and “boughten” doors on hinges and glass windows.

As a mother of three small children who has just experienced her first Minnesota winter (which was incredibly mild even) I can’t imagine being shut up inside such a tiny, dark space for a long Minnesota winter especially with little kids. Hats off to Ma for her masterful mothering coping skills. Of course I can’t imagine if I pulled out my button collection and said, “Hey boys! I have a very special activity for you today! We are going to PUT BUTTONS ON A STRING” that it would have quite the appeal that it did to Laura and Mary.

There are two short walking trails around the main sites. After you walk up to the dugout site, you’re on the higher land where presumably the Ingalls wagon rolled up in the opening paragraphs of On the Banks of Plum Creek. The land is vast and beautiful and nothing but fields. We walked around looking for the tableland. There wasn’t a “tableland” exactly like there was described in the book. From walking around the property you could imagine how the creek over time could flood and form different landmarks like the tableland. This is the best picture I could get of the difference between the high and lowlands near the creek.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

I can’t tell a plum tree from any other kind of tree so I’m assuming that the short trees clustered along the creek were the plum thicket. I do know what a willow tree looks like but didn’t see a single one on the property. They have a spring marked at the site though in The Walnut Grove Story they quote Laura Ingalls Wilder saying that she made up the spring because she was almost certain they drank water straight from the creek without boiling it and didn’t want it to sound like they were a “dirty” family since “we were not.”

Before we headed east on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway 14, we drove back through Walnut Grove looking for the church bell that Pa gave the three precious dollars that he had saved up to buy desperately needed new boots for.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

It’s now housed in the English Lutheran Church. I never really understood why Pa would make such a sacrifice for a bell. I did a quick Google search hoping I would hit on a pithy article that explained the significant social and practical needs that a church bell met in fronteer American towns in the 1870s. I got: to tell time and make community announcements like “PRAIRIE FIRE THREE O’CLOCK.” Which, ok, but really? Your toes freezing off vs knowing what time church starts? But then, there it is almost 140 years later.

If you missed the rest of the pilgrimage:

The Wilder Life

Little House in the Big Woods

Walnut Grove

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Walnut Grove

After our trip to Pepin the day before, I had a dream that Wendy McClure had lunch with us at Two Old Guys while wearing a blonde wig.

The next day we set off again, west this time across southern Minnesota. After two and a half hours of driving I can tell you that southern Minnesota is rural. R-U-R-A-L. It’s one big field of Pa’s wheat with farmhouses and grain elevators every once in a while. We past through one town that listed its population at 36. Walnut Grove is by comparison a major metropolis with a population of 534.

We had gotten the impression that the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum was about on-par with the one in Pepin, which gave us serious pause about making a 5-hour round trip to see the sites. But Walnut Grove has a much more developed museum and the exhibits are very child-friendly with a number of hand-on activities. Well worth the small admission fee the Walnut Grove Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum charges.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

The old depot building that houses the main museum collection is divided into two rooms; one devoted to the Little House books and one devoted to the Little House TV show. I have been known to turn a Nelly-like nose up at the 1970s TV show which took ridiculous liberties with the events of the book and concluded the series by blowing up the town of Walnut Grove. (Oh no. I gave away the ending?) But! I have to recognize that the Walnut Grove Museum probably wouldn’t have been nearly as great otherwise.

Highlights from the book side of the museum include:

A Copy of “Pa’s Big Green Book”

Surprisingly it is just sitting out on top of a display case and you can measure the weight of it in your hands. It’s like Laura’s version of National Geographic magazine, trips to the zoo and nature televisions shows rolled into one.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

Buffalo Coat

A buffalo coat like the one Pa wore to survive the blizzard he was caught in while walking home from town (with the Christmas candy!) in On the Banks of Plum Creek. I’d always sort of envisioned something that people wear to summit Mt. Everest except furrier and not fluorescent yellow. One look at it and you realize that Pa was one lucky… Pa.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

Those “Grasshoppers” Were Huge

They were actually Rocky Mountain Locust and were Biblically proportioned. All I could think about was the passage in On the Banks of Plum Creek when Laura talked about having to step on the grasshoppers as she went to get Wreath the cow and them being all slimy and squished under her bare feet. And… yack.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

1875 “Food Stamps”

This was the saddest thing I saw in the museum. While the Little House books aren’t strictly autobiographical they do follow many of the details of the Ingall family life. Between On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake, there is a significant gap. During that time another wheat crop was eaten by the “grasshoppers,” Ma had a baby in November after a second major crop failure, and a month later Pa applied for food assistance because “your petitioner is wholly without means.” The following year, the family moves to Iowa to work in the hotel industry, the little baby boy Ingalls – who is never referenced in the books – dies along the way (almost as old as my baby Henry is now. Weep.) Baby Grace is born in Iowa and the family is in such pitiful state that a childless old lady offers to adopt Laura. I thought The Long Winter was bad – they actually had a conversation about the likelihood of them starving before spring – but apparently that was small potatoes to this kind of destitute heartbreak.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

The funny thing about most people’s response to the Little House books, mine included, is this wishful ache to return to pioneer times. Laura Ingalls Wilder excelled at bringing out the beauty of that phase of American history even while she revealed its hardscrabble horror. Which is probably most evident when one gets to see what a dugout actually looks like. Something I’ll talk about tomorrow when I describe going to the dugout site along Plum Creek. Until then, here’s a gem from the Walnut Grove gift shop:

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

I wonder if she wears high heels while she slaughters the pig.

If you missed the rest of the pilgrimage:

The Wilder Life

Little House in the Big Woods

On the Banks of Plum Creek

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Little House in the Big Woods

A week ago, my minivan was loaded up with three adults, three children and one infant and we headed east into Wisconsin. Our destination was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birthplace near Pepin, Wisconsin. It’s nice to start at the beginning of a story.

Our drive to Wisconsin took us along the shore of Lake Pepin which is referenced in Little House in the Big Woods. In my mind there was Lake Pepin and then further west was the Mississippi River which the Ingall’s crossed at the very last moment ack! before the spring thaw to go to Kansas in Little House on the Prairie. Turns out that it’s both Lake Pepin AND the Mississippi River. (Or technically it is only a lake and the Mississippi is both its inflow and outflow, but whatev. It’s the Mississippi River too.)

Along the way we stopped at several historial markers, one of the first was the one for Maiden Rock, which I began reading aloud to the kids before realizing it was about a Dakota girl who threw herself off a cliff after being forced into an arranged marriage. Thank goodness for convoluted historial descriptions like “Nothing could be found of her until morning, when they discovered her at the foot of this precipice, down which she probably precipitated herself.” Precipitated. I want to work that word into a sentence every day.

We arrived in the town of Pepin and pulled up to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum there to check it out and get directions to the Little House Wayside site.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

It looks a little hokey but it’s fine. They have a small display of period furnishings, a gift shop and a nice lady who will give you directions to the log cabin as well as a recomendation for lunch. Which you should definitely get at Two Old Guys directly across the street.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

They have great BLT sandwiches of thick bacon on freshly made bread, decent homebrew beer and award-winning ice cream. The ‘Two Old Guys’ who served us was really nice. We complimented the beer and he brought all of the adults very generous samples of the three other kinds of beer they brew. After he served our food, he looked down at Henry and said, “All you need it ketchup!”

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

After lunch we drove about seven miles east of town up a long curving hill to the site where the Ingalls once lived. There is a replica of their log cabin. A trip to this Laura Ingalls Wilder site is mostly about getting an idea of the lay of the land. Driving up to the property you can imagine what a trek it would be to drive a wagon to and from town – especially going uphill on the return. The book describes the area as being heavily wooded though today it is mostly cleared and surrounded by corn fields.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

My boys are 5 , 4 and 7-months; still a little young for the Little House books though John and I read part of Big Woods and all of Farmer Boy this spring. Still they enjoyed examining how the cabin fit together “like Lincoln Logs” and we talked about everything that wasn’t in the cabin like running water and bathrooms. John was trying to piece together how long ago it was that Laura lived – “Are Laura and Farmer Boy dead?” – so this is really a trip better suited to kids who have studied a bit of American history and can understand things like timelines, etc.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

But, let’s be honest, this trip was about the grown ups and the kids were just along for the ride. I still have my hardback copy of Little House in the Big Woods. It was given to me at my 4th birthday party by a family from our church in western Kentucky. Some of my favorite childhood memories include reading it at bedtime with my mom.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

If you missed the rest of the pilgrimage:

The Wilder Life

Walnut Grove

On the Banks of Plum Creek

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The Wilder Life

Last November I read The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure which is a must-read for anyone who grew up reading the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It’s part travelogue, part literary history, part rollicking good read that after I finished I though, “I wish I had written this book.”

I’ve read and re-read the Little House series countless times throughout my childhood, adolescence and adulthood. To me they are the literary mac’n’cheese of comfort books.  Recently though I’ve been re-reading them for the first time since having children and it is a completely different experience. Before I always saw the world through Laura’s eyes and now I read between the lines from an adult perspective and see Ma crying into her apron after Pa returns home alive after making it through the blizzard in On the Banks of Plum Creek in a completely different light. McClure does the same thing except on a much larger scale, and somehow makes it completely relatable and hilarious.

One of the things McClure’s book forced me to recognize was the Little House books aren’t exactly full-on non-fiction. You can sort of forgive McClure for removing the prairie grass fed lambs wool from your eyes because it’s clear she really gets it. She is just as enthralled with the appeal of “Laura World” as I found myself to be as I squealed “THERE IT IS” when I caught sight of the Little House in the Big Woods replica log cabin near Pepin, Wisconsin last week. My friends Amy and Angela drove up from Kentucky and we went on a two-day “Laura Pilgrimage” to Pepin, Wisconsin – Laura’s birthplace – and Walnut Grove, Minnesota – where On the Banks of Plum Creek is set.

My next couple of posts will be about our adventure looking for Laura and the rest of the Ingalls family.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

If you missed the rest of the pilgrimage:

Little House in the Big Woods

Walnut Grove

On the Banks of Plum Creek

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Filed under little minivan on the prairie, Minnesota Nice, stuff i read

To My Mother

Dear Mama,

I think of you often as I go about my day with John, James and Henry. When I tell them little jokes I remember how you used to tell us “What did Tarzan say when he saw the elephants coming over the hill? ‘Oh look. Here come the elephants over the hill!'” When I drive over the back county roads here in Minnesota, I remember how you used to drive a little faster over the back roads near the Farm just so we could get that thrilling little roller coaster feel when we went over a hill. Sometimes the boys will ask me for treats at the store, and every fifth time I’ll say yes and think about how you used to let Tim and I split a package of Little Debby chocolate cupcakes with the white cream filling when we were out shopping with you.

John and I have been reading Farmer Boy together before bed, and I remember at our house on Michael Avenue when you would read Little House in the Big Woods to me before bed – Chapter 8, The Dance at Grandpa’s is still my favorite. James told me he wanted to get a dog and a kitty cat the other day, and I told him we would when we move to the country.

I realize that so many of the things you taught me – to work hard, to not complain, to be cheerful in the tasks God has placed before me – are all lessons I find myself working to instill in the boys every day.

So you see, you are very much part of who I am and, no doubt, who John, James and Henry will one day be.

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We Call This Friday Good

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart. 

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse. 

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere. 

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars. 

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.


– T.S. Eliot, from Four Quartets

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