Nebraska Rural Living celebrates rural living today, but Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing about and celebrating rural life almost 100 years ago.
Betty Sayers recently wrote on the NRL blog about her fascination with Willa Cather, a native Nebraskan and fantastic female writer. But Laura Ingalls Wilder has always been my favorite author. My parents bought the books for me when I was in third grade and I read, re-read, and re-re-read those books. My favorite was These Happy Golden Years as evident by the broken spine of that paperback. I read it so many times the poor book fell apart, but even in its bedraggled state, its words still stir something in me.
I’m not sure what it was about Laura, but her words spoke to me even when I was 10. Maybe it was the fact that she also lived in Kansas at one time. I grew up on the flat western plains of Kansas and it still looks in many places today like I imagined Laura saw it in her time. I grew up learning about cowboys and Indians, but Laura lived that life.
I would climb the hill near the windmill in our river pasture and imagine it looked almost the same as what Laura saw as she gazed across the prairie. Buffalo wallows and wildflowers swaying in the breeze. And though Laura lived in Kansas for only a short time, those memories shaped her series and her life in ways I could connect with. That tiny cabin on the prairie always felt like my home too.
When I was in middle school, my grandmother took my cousins and me to visit the replica Little House on the Prairie in Independence, Kan. Although it was a fun and memorable trip, nothing can compare to the cabin I built in my head.
During college, my parents, sister and I took a summer trip to South Dakota. We saw the prerequisite items — the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Wall Drug — but I also persuaded them to visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites there. Never mind that they were clear across the state from where we were, my parents agreed. I spent that trip re-reading the last few books in Laura’s series and finished just before we pulled into De Smet, S.D. Not much is left of the original houses and homesteads, but it was so inspiring to stand on the hallowed ground I had read about for years.
Then this summer my son had a soccer tournament in Winona, Minn. If I followed the Wisconsin side of the highway down from the Twin Cities, we would drive straight through Pepin, Wis., the setting for Little House in the Big Woods. I couldn’t pass up a chance to visit.
We drove along the shore of Lake Pepin, stopping for a few pictures along the way. Then we waited out a downpour at the tiny museum in Pepin and picked up a few more books about Laura and her family. But the real treat waited for us northeast of Pepin. Fog tucked into the curves and bends of the road as we drove to the log cabin replica built on the site of Laura’s first home, adding a surreal and hallowed feel to the visit. We pulled up to the cabin and I couldn’t believe how small it was. How could Ma, Pa, Mary, Laura, and baby Carrie all live there in those tiny rooms? In Laura’s writing it had seemed larger than life. She also failed to mention how big and hungry the mosquitoes could be in the summers there!
Soon we were back on the road, but I was happy to cross one more site off my list of Laura’s homes. One day I promise I’ll make it to all. The one I most want to see now is Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Mo., Laura and Almanzo’s home after the Little House series. I know Laura never wrote about it in her books, but I want to see how and where her story ended. The place where she lived as she wrote her books.
Still learning from Laura today
In the meantime, I signed up for a free online course about Laura being offered this spring through Missouri State University. Author Pamela Smith Hill first offered the course last year. She would have considered the class successful if 100 people had signed up, but by the end of the course almost 7,000 people had signed up for the course.
So though Laura’s writing covered a time period more than 100 years ago, she still speaks to us today. She speaks to those of us who no longer live the rural life but love to venture back through her pages, as well as those who still live the rural life today. She speaks of simple times that were never easy but often rewarding. That’s a place I love to visit often.