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Laura Ingalls Wilder's home in Mansfield, Missouri: The center of the 'Little House' world

Every year, thousands flock to the Missouri home where she wrote her beloved series and to see treasured mementos, including Pa's fiddle.

September 17, 2010|By Alice Short | Los Angeles Times staff writer
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her Little House books at this house in Mansfield, Mo.
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her Little House books at this house in Mansfield,… (Alice Short / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Mansfield, Mo. — If you grew up female in the second half of the 20th century in the United States, you might hold these "truths" about children's literature to be self-evident:

•Nancy Drew commanded a certain loyalty from readers, but we all knew that real-life 18-year-olds couldn't live as she did, thwarting danger at every turn. And the boyfriend? Ned Nickerson was not only a ridiculous name, but Ned Nickerson was also a superfluous human being. Nancy Drew's girlfriends, Bess and George, played important roles in the teen sleuth's dramas.

"The Bobbsey Twins" must have been some grandmother's idea of adventure books. The two sets of twins were simply too good, too sheltered, to hold any 8-year-old spellbound. And their names: Bert, Nan, Flossie, Freddie. Perhaps they were related to Ned Nickerson.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, by contrast, was not only inspirational, but her stories also proved aspirational. My third-grade playmates and I donned long skirts, made corncob dolls and played dress-up as we acted out scenes from Wilder's "Little House" books. We scripted contentment as we reenacted a Christmas morning with a stocking "filled" with red mittens and a stick of peppermint, secretly comforted by the knowledge that our own holidays would prove more bountiful.

Denied the advantages of Facebook and Command & Conquer, I read and re-read the books that described, in great detail, the lives of Laura and her family, a series that launched in 1932 with "Little House in the Big Woods," has sold more than 60 million volumes worldwide and begat a TV series and an empire of spinoff books, dolls and cotton throws, not to mention a spate of chatter and writings from college professors who have devoted much of their lives to the study of Wilder.


Planning your trip

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Perhaps that childhood drive to embrace the "Little House" universe was prompted by the realization that, unlike Nancy and Flossie, Laura was a real girl. A real girl with a sister named Mary and a Ma and a Pa and a dog named Jack. A real girl born in a log cabin on the American frontier in 1867, who lived through blizzards and grasshopper invasions and fires.

That real girl grew up in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota and South Dakota, places that are well documented in the "Little House" series. But she spent the last 60 years of her life — and wrote her historic fiction — in Mansfield, an out-of-the-way town (population 1,349) in southern Missouri that bills itself as the home of the "Rocky Ridge Farm, the site of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum."

For those who feel the need to gaze upon Pa's fiddle and Laura's butter mold, Mansfield beckons.

My journey, which starts in Springfield, takes about 50 minutes on U.S. 60, heading east and passing through (or skirting) towns such as Rogersville and Diggins. A few miles after Seymour, I head south on Missouri 5 and turn onto Commercial Street, gateway to Mansfield, where a drive down the main drag takes two minutes at most, and the view includes a couple of insurance offices, a psychology clinic, some empty storefronts, a Chinese restaurant and a bank.

After I meet up with Jean Coday, my tour guide, she chauffeurs me the brief distance from the middle of town to Rocky Ridge Farm and selects the first stop, a modest building that sits between a gift store and the farmhouse that Laura and her husband, Almanzo Wilder, started to build in 1896.

On an afternoon in July when the heat index is rumored to be 106, only the slamming of car doors interrupts the low roar of cicadas. Nonetheless, the parking lot holds at least two dozen vehicles. The anecdotes in Wilder's books do not always match the record of her life, but the mingling of fiction and fact does not seem to trouble the sightseers (40,000 annually), many of them women and girls. Husbands and sons accompany them, but it is the female of the species who cannot get enough of Laura's jewelry box, Mary's nine-patch quilt and the foreign language translations of the "Little House" books.

Those artifacts are displayed in a 2,100-square-foot building that is divided into two spaces, one devoted to Wilder, the other to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a writer who achieved fame long before her mother.

My guide, who happens to be the director of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum, takes me from glass case to glass case, gently directing my attention to a handkerchief that Laura embroidered as a child, her teaching certificate and the slates the Ingalls girls used when they attended school.

Almost everyone who enters the building reacts with pleasure when they see Pa's fiddle, which played an important role in the "Little House" books.

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