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Once Upon A Time On The Prairie

From log cabins to sod houses, following the steps of a pioneer who became the author of a beloved children's series based on her life.

April 15, 2001|KRISTIN JOHANNSEN | Kristin Johannsen is a freelance writer living in Berea, Ky

EPIN, Wis. — "Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs ...." How many times had I read those words myself as a little girl in Wisconsin? Now I was reading them aloud to my sister as we drove toward the very site where the Little House in the Big Woods once stood.

As children in Milwaukee, Karen and I were obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books and dreamed of seeing the places she lived in and wrote about. Pepin, her birthplace, was just across the state from Milwaukee, but we never got around to taking our "Laura trip," as we'd daydreamed it, until last summer.

Once we got into the planning, our "child within" selves persuaded us to leave our middle-aged businesswomen selves at home. We would try to see the Upper Midwest prairie as Laura saw it. We would camp out.

In the pioneer spirit, we borrowed a tent and gathered provisions (heavy on cinnamon graham crackers), loaded the wagon (a 1990 Mitsubishi) and set out from Milwaukee on a glorious late summer morning. Tucked in the carryall at my feet was a slip-cased set of the eight yellow volumes, and as Karen tackled the wilds of the interstate, I read aloud, chapter after chapter of pure nostalgia.

The literary Laura was based faithfully on reality.

Laura Ingalls was born in 1867 outside Pepin, a town on the Mississippi River about 60 miles southeast of Minneapolis. Dozens of towns sat along the river, a busy trade route. Right behind them was virgin forest, prime country for hunting and trapping.

Laura's parents grew up on the Wisconsin frontier. (Her mother, Caroline, may have been the first white child born in Brookfield, now a Milwaukee suburb.) After their marriage in 1860, they joined the westward march of white settlement, from the Wisconsin forests to the vast Dakota prairie, where the U.S. government was giving away farmland to families brave enough to settle there. Young Laura was a witness to this era, and her published recollections have brought this page of American history alive for countless children all over the world.

Laura began writing in the 1920s, and "Little House in the Big Woods" was published in 1931. She didn't intend to write a sequel, but the book was a huge success, and legions of young fans besieged her with letters asking, "What happened next?" The eight-volume series has sold an estimated 50 million copies, including translations in a dozen languages. The 1970s "Little House on the Prairie " TV series further swelled the ranks of fans, though it was only loosely based on her story.

At Pepin, our first stop, we learned that it takes almost as much imagination to see Laura's world in person as it did in print.

Her Big Woods are long gone. Today the hilly land is a patchwork of prosperous farms, their houses deeply shaded by huge willows. But the road outside Pepin winds so sharply that it's clearly an old wagon track, perhaps the same one Laura traveled with her pa. This day it was carrying minivans full of young families out to her birthplace.

The Ingalls place was eight miles north of town, a day's journey round trip by wagon. A replica log cabin, solid and spacious, stands on the property.

Laura wrote of Pepin as a lively, bustling town, and that hasn't changed. Visitors were rummaging through a dozen antique shops, while at lakeside, amateur boat builders were displaying sleek, handcrafted wooden kayaks and dinghies. Pa Ingalls earned a comfortable living as a fur trapper, until the day came when the Big Woods were trapped out and the family joined the westward migration.

That night we had more of a pioneer experience than we had bargained for. Just after midnight, a thunderstorm of biblical proportion arose suddenly and blasted our campground with nonstop lightning and punishing wind. At one point, our tent rolled over with both of us inside it. (We later found out that 100 mph winds had been registered not far away.) Wringing out our polyester sleeping bags, we wondered how the pioneers survived such conditions.

After four hours' driving (and a dozen more chapters), we got the answer in southwestern Minnesota. There, in a restored prairie grass landscape 20 miles east of Walnut Grove, Stan and Virginia McCone have built two authentic sod houses.

'Little House" readers will recall Ma's dismay at living in a "soddy" after the relative comforts of Pepin. We sympathized the minute we stepped into the "Poor Man's House," smelly and dark and only 18 by 18 feet.

Pioneers on the treeless plains soon figured out how to build houses using slabs of plowed sod for bricks. Though soddies gave shelter from storms and fire, they were thoroughly miserable to live in. Snakes and gophers infested the walls. In dry weather, dirt sifted down; after a hard rain, the sod ceilings dripped for days. Settlers lucky enough to have umbrellas used them indoors.

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