This week I am taking a research trip to some of the places where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived. I thought I’d process some of what I’ve learned by blogging about it.
Yesterday, I drove from Chicagoland to Burr Oak, Iowa, in the northeastern corner of the state. The Ingalls family lived in this town for right around a year, from fall 1876 to 1877. Laura was 9-10 years old. Their time in Burr Oak is not mentioned in any of Little House books; it comes in the lost years between the end of On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake.
In some ways, the family’s time in Burr Oak was the nadir of Laura’s childhood. The Ingalls family had lost their home in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, because of the locust plague. They had then moved to southeastern Minnesota to live with extended family for a short period of time. Their youngest child and only son Charles Frederick (everyone called him Freddie) got sick and died there. Then they moved to Burr Oak, where Charles Ingalls briefly worked for the Steadman family, owners of a hotel named the Burr Oak House or the Masters Hotel. Ma made meals for the guests and boarders, and Mary and Laura served them. Later, Charles worked for a feed mill. The family remained in debt. There was a saloon right next to the hotel, and the young girls were exposed to lawlessness and immorality.
Burr Oak was founded in 1850, before the Civil War. By the late 1870s, it was a town that the railroad passed by; instead stagecoaches rolled through Burr Oak to take people to railway stations. As a result, the community’s best years were behind it. It could no longer support two hotels, and the Steadmans sold Masters Hotel and moved to southern Iowa late in 1877. Finally, Burr Oak was very small when the Ingalls lived there – about 200 people. (It is smaller today; my tour guide said its population is about 169.)
The building that was the Masters Hotel still stands. After more than a hundred years as a private residence, it was purchased in 1973 and opened as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum in 1976. It is unique in that it is the only one of Laura’s childhood homes that still stands on the same site. Like the other Ingalls and Wilder homes in existence (Almanzo’s childhood home near Malone, New York, the Surveyors House in De Smet, South Dakota, and the two houses on the farm near Mansfield, Missouri), the building is very small. It is hard to believe that it served as a hotel. The main floor has a barroom and parlors, the Steadmans’ room, and a wealthy permanent boarder’s room. In the upstairs there are four rooms – three for hotel guests and one for another permanent boarder. The stagecoach driver slept right at the top of the steps. Finally, there is a downstairs that has the kitchen, dining room, and a kitchen bedroom where the Ingalls family slept. The building is built into a hill, so that the main floor opens onto the main street and the downstairs opens onto the back yard which runs down to a small creek. With the exception of the downstairs dining room, I don’t think that any of the rooms in the building is larger than twelve by twelve feet. The Steadmans and Ingalls families had five members each, all sleeping in one small room.
The Ingalls family only lived in the hotel for several months. Then they moved to an apartment upstairs of the grocery store, two doors down from the hotel (on the other side of the saloon). Several months later, after a fire at the saloon, they moved several blocks away to a rented house. It was there that Laura’s youngest sister Grace was born.
Laura’s memoir Pioneer Girl has a section on Burr Oak, even though the Little House books do not. There are stories of local young men getting drunk at the saloon and harming others and themselves. Also during this year, a local wealthy couple offered to adopt Laura. She and Mary did have good experiences attending school with Mr. Reed, a good teacher, elocutionist, and disciplinarian. Laura also tells of visiting the cemetery to get some solitude.
When the Ingalls lived in Burr Oak, they attended the Congregational Church. There was also a Methodist Church. The year after they left, a Seventh Day Adventist Church was built. The Congregational Church building was moved to a different part of town in 1907 and used as a private residence. However, the church bell was sent to a Friends (Quaker) church in Hesper, Iowa, about five miles away. The Hesper Friends Church has since closed, but the bell has been given to the Wilder Park and Museum, which while I was there was having a small enclosure built next to the Hotel building so that visitors can hear it ring.
It was good for me to have a view of the hotel and its surroundings for when I write the chapter on Burr Oak and Walnut Grove. I was also able to see the site where the Congregational Church stood. The Methodist Church building has been renovated and added onto, but the shell is what stood here in the late 1800s. And the Advent Christian Church building is also now is owned by the Wilder Park and Museum. Director Barb Olson opened that building so that I could see the inside of it.
The last thing I did before getting on the road was visit the Burr Oak Cemetery. There I saw a number of gravestones from the late 1800s. I was walking where Laura Ingalls Wilder once walked, looking at the landscape that she once saw. While that landscape has changed in many ways in the nearly 150 years since she lived there, I did feel a powerful sense of connection to the past and to her life.
Many thanks to Barb and Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum workers Anastacia, Anna, and Kelly! Also, if you’re reading this and live within striking distance of northeastern Iowa and don’t have plans for this weekend, consider going to Burr Oak for the Laura Days Celebration. It starts Friday evening and and includes a 5k race, live musical entertainment, food, games for the kids, and a Little Miss Laura and Young Almanzo contest.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to make comments.