Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America

(Photo credit: Pete Unseth, Wikimedia Commons)

I know that I have not posted much this fall. My time has been taken up with Academic Dean duties here at Trinity Christian College. I had hoped to get some writing done on chapter four of my book, but that hasn’t happened. In other research project news, however, I did propose a paper for LauraPalooza 2019. John Miller, Bill Anderson, and I are also looking at doing a session proposal for the Midwestern History Conference. And last week, a group of professors at Trinity read the first chapter of my book and give me comments on it. I got some great critiques and words of encouragement.

Over Thanksgiving break I read a biography in the series from Eerdmans publishers that I’m writing for: Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America by Barry Hankins. It’s a very good book. I met Hankins at a meeting of the Conference on Faith and History (CFH) a while ago. He is the Chair of the History Department at Baylor University in Texas. The book came out in 2008. Since then, he has written books on the 1920s, American Baptists, and Woodrow Wilson.

Francis Schaeffer was a Presbyterian pastor during the twentieth century. He became a missionary to Europe and ran a Christian study center called L’Abri in Switzerland from the 1950s to the 1970s. It became a place where young Europeans who were questioning the meaning of life could come and hear Christian answers to their questions. Francis talked with them, Edith made them meals, and they could stay as long as they wanted. The theme of his teaching was that only Christianity provided philosophically supportable answers to the most important questions of life. He spoke cogently about art, culture, philosophy, politics, and many other topics. Eventually, L’Abri employed a large staff and thousands of young people from the United States and Europe visited. InterVarsity Press turned some of his talks into books, and during the 1960s he spoke at many Christian colleges in the United States. A number of the students who heard him became Christian scholars and college professors as a result of his inspiration. In the 1970s his son Frank Schaeffer and he made two movie series: How Should We Then Live and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? The first gave a history of western thought and culture, described where it had gone wrong, and gave instructions for how Christians should respond. The second was about the dangers of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.

Hankins’s biography was a trip down memory lane for me. I grew up in a home and a church where people read Schaeffer’s books and talked about them. My Mom read books by Edith. I remember reading Schaeffer’s books—I can only remember Escape from Reason and A Christian Manifesto specifically, but I know that I read more—when I was in high school and college. Both movie series were shown at my church. I think that I would give Schaeffer some of the credit for why my best friend in high school and I both became academics (he’s now a Professor of Political Science). For us, Schaeffer made the idea of studying culture and history from a Christian perspective cool.

Once I became a historian, I went back and re-read several of Schaeffer’s books. I found that they have a number of historical arguments and assertions that I just don’t think are correct. Schaeffer wasn’t a trained historian. He was a pastor, and he tended to use stories about the past to make the points he wanted to make about the world, God, and Christian answers to life’s questions. Other Christian historians have also found his historical narratives wanting, even those who were launched on their path to becoming academic historians by hearing Schaeffer speak or reading his works. Hankins notes this. It’s a fascinating story.

As I read Hankins’s biology, I also thought a bit about its structure in relation to what I am planning for my book on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life. In many ways, Hankins’s biography is very different than what I think mine will be. Only one small section of one chapter is about Schaeffer’s childhood, mainly because there are few sources about it. I am projecting that three of the eleven chapters in my book will be on Laura’s childhood. Also, three of the main chapters of Hankins’s work are thematic: they’re about Schaeffer’s works on 1) philosophy, 2) culture, and 3) the Bible. The chapters are not chronological; the time periods covered overlap. I think that my book will mainly be chronological, and the chapters will be pretty self-contained.

This is likely the last post that I’m doing during 2018. I hope that everyone has a blessed Christmas and a good start to 2019.

Links:

Trinity Christian College

LauraPalooza 2019 Call for Papers

Midwest History Conference Call for papers

Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America

 

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Conference on Faith and History 2018

It is Reading Day break here at Trinity Christian College. That means that yesterday and today, most faculty and many students are off campus. It’s very quiet in my building this morning. I’m getting caught up on projects and grading.

Last weekend I attended the Conference on Faith and History (CFH) Biennial Meeting. It was held at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. One of my students presented at the undergraduate conference. I participated in a roundtable discussion of “Biography and the Search for Meaning.” It was a fascinating session; I learned how Christian historians are approaching the writing of biographies of Americans as diverse as John Jay, Elizabeth Ann Seaton, and Sojourner Truth. The conference also made it possible for me to have a brief conversation with Margaret Bendroth, who wrote a book on Congregationalism that I read for this project and who directs the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston. You’ll remember that Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up in Congregational churches during the 1870s and 1880s. The Congregational Library has some materials that I hope to look at, either by traveling there next summer or by getting them to scan them for me. It was also very good to see a number of old friends, including Jared Burkholder, Jay Case, John Fea, Jay Green, Brad Gundlach, Jim Hommes, Eric Miller, Steven Keillor, David Zwart.

This fall I have been very busy with my work as an Academic Dean. I’ve been struggling to keep working at least some each week on Wilder’s faith. I’ve started writing chapter 4. I’ve also spoken to several members of our Psychology department about resources on childhood spiritual formation, since I’m writing the sections of the book on Laura’s childhood. Finally, I’m considering whether to propose a presentation for LauraPalooza 2019, which will be held in Wisconsin.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Links:

Trinity Christian College

2018 Conference on Faith and History and the Program

My blog post on The Last Puritans by Margaret Bendroth

The Congregational Library and Archives

LauraPalooza 2019 Call for Papers

 

 

End of Summer 2018

This week, students began to return to the campus of Trinity Christian College, where I work as a History professor and Academic Dean. Athletes, student leaders, and others came last Sunday, new first time freshmen report on Friday, and returning students begin to arrive next Sunday. So summer is pretty much officially over.

I’ve had a great summer. I did not teach a summer course for the first time in twelve years because I have a new colleague in the History Department, and he taught summer Western Civ instead of me. That meant that I had a lot of time to write. During May and June, I wrote the first chapter of the book. Then in June I did my research trip. In July, I was able to write two more chapters. So I met my goal of having three draft chapters by the end of this summer. God is good.

In the middle of the summer, of course, Laura Ingalls Wilder hit the national media because a committee of the American Library Association decided to rename the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. The decision did not surprise me. Wilder grew up in the 1870s and 1880s, and she wrote in the 1930s and 1940s, so she didn’t think the way we do today about a lot of things. But this the case with everyone we encounter in history. Showing love to our neighbor who lived one hundred years ago means putting their words in context and attempting to understand why they said what they did. It doesn’t mean excusing them for not loving others. Coming to understand people in the past who don’t think like us gives us practice in coming to understand people today who don’t think like us. This is a critical skill, and it’s sorely needed in American society and culture today. I also think that Laura’s attitude towards Native Americans was more complex than it was depicted in some of the pieces written about the renaming of the award. I’ve put links to the ALA statement and two good online articles about the issue below.

This fall I hope to put in at least one morning a week on the book project. I will also be returning to the Conference on Faith and History Biennial Meeting, which will be held at Calvin College at the beginning of October, to be part of a roundtable discussion of “Biography and the Search for Meaning.” Others on the panel will be talking about their work on biographies of John Jay, Alexis de Toqueville, Sojourner Truth, and Elizabeth Ann Seaton. It should be a fascinating session.

Many thanks to the Provost’s office and the Faculty Development Committee at Trinity Christian College for their generous support of my summer writing project and research trip to Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Dakota.

Thanks for reading.

Links:

Trinity Christian College

Announcement from the American Library Association about the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award

Two good articles about the Renaming of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award:

Sarah Uthoff at Trundle Bed Tales – Includes some good background on the award

Pamela Smith Hill

Conference on Faith and History

31st Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith & History

De Smet, South Dakota

On Thursday, June 21, I visited De Smet, South Dakota.

I went to De Smet with John Miller, Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar and author of Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder. We had a great time. He is thinking of writing something more about De Smet, so he wanted to go to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society and see what they had in their archives. I wanted to look through their archives for information about the Congregational Church and its pastors. So I followed him west on U. S. route 14 from his home in Brookings to De Smet.

Our first stop was at the De Smet Community Church, which until last year was the De Smet Congregational Church. Laura’s parents and sister Mary were founding members of this congregation in 1880. The church moved to a new building on route 14 in 1966, and the old Congregational Church building was taken over by a Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) Church. So we also stopped by the CMA Church building. Charles Ingalls helped to build part of this structure in 1882. It was greatly enlarged (another wing was added) in 1909.

We then visited the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society. Tessa Flak, the director of the Memorial Society, very graciously gave us access to whatever we wanted to look at in their archives. I worked through several vertical file folders on the Congregational Church, Reverend Edward Brown, and Reverend Edwin Alden. I also looked at some letters written in 1930 by Laura and her sister Carrie Ingalls Swanzey about their early experiences in De Smet, including descriptions of early church services. By far the most fascinating piece from Carrie’s letter:

At the time there was just one other little girl in town my age. The first Sunday services were to be held in the depot. The men fixed the benches early in the morning and father came home and said the seats were all ready. So this little girl and I went over to take a look. No one was there and we went in and found that the seats were just a good jump apart. We started. I was the best jumper, could go the whole length without a miss or stop. The other girl did her best which was not bad, and I suppose we “yelled” our best too. Fun, never have had so much since. Then in the door came Rev. Woodworth-who was to preach that morning and he said “I don’t think that [sic] a very good way for little girls to act in the House of the Lord.” We disappeared.

But that goes to show how these early pioneer church people remembered a place which, if only for the time being was dedicated to the worship of God.

I found some other primary source material that will be a great help for the project. More on this later.

By the time I had looked at what I thought there was to see in the archives, it was early afternoon. I said goodbye to John because I wanted to take the Memorial Society’s tour of the Surveyors’ House and he had to head back to Brookings for a book discussion. The Ingalls family lived in the Surveyors’ House during the winter of 1879-1880. It has been moved into De Smet from outside town where it sat next to Silver Lake. This house is described in Pioneer Girl and (appropriately enough) By the Shores of Silver Lake. Like other historic homes connected with Laura, this house is quite small, much smaller than the impression you get from reading the novel. It is truly a little house.

After the Surveyors’ House, I drove to the historical marker where Laura and Almanzo’s homestead was located, north of town. All one can really see is a rise surrounded by hay fields. Then I went to the site of Silver Lake, to the southeast of town. The lake no longer exists, though there is a wetland. Then I drove past the grounds for the Wilder Pageant (“These Happy Golden Years,” plays weekends in July) to the Ingalls Homestead.

There is a rock with a historical marker on the northwest corner of the homestead, facing across the fields and big slough towards De Smet. This corner belongs to the Memorial Society, so there are signs for the Memorial Society’s homes and tour there. But the rest of the 160 acres that was proved up on by Charles and Caroline Ingalls belongs to a family-owned business called the “Ingalls Homestead: Laura’s Living Prairie.” The owners have created a hands-on experience for families that immerses you in the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder. There is a building with information about all of the places where the Ingalls family lived. There are replicas of a dugout cabin and the house that the Ingalls built on the homestead. There is a stable, and pony rides, and covered-wagon rides, and fields of corn, oats, and wheat. One can twist hay and make a rope. One can also camp there – there are spots for RVs and tents, or you can sleep in one of their covered wagons. There is an authentic one-room schoolhouse on the southwest corner of the property.

Finally, there is a church on the northeast corner of the property. The West Bethany Lutheran Church was built in 1905 about ten miles north and east of De Smet. The last services were held there in 1969. In 2009, the building was moved to the Ingalls Homestead. So I walked across the fields to this church. The building is incredibly well preserved and restored. I would estimate it could hold 60-70 people. There is also a full basement, and I thought – they must hold weddings here. It could be the perfect site for a destination wedding and reception for a Laura Ingalls Wilder enthusiast. One of the employees later told me that they have had several weddings in the church.

So I spent the late afternoon walking over the Ingalls Homestead, imagining what the land might have looked like and been like when Laura spent her adolescent years there.

My final stop in De Smet was at the De Smet Cemetery, where I visited the graves of Charles and Caroline Ingalls, their daughters Mary and Carrie, and the infant son of Laura. I then got on the road home. I drove the rest of the way from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Chicagoland on Friday, June 22.

I am very appreciative to my family for allowing me to take an entire week in Laura Ingalls Wilder country. It was good to see the places where she grew up in the upper Midwest. I still have not visited the Little House on the Prairie site in Kansas, but I hope to get there next year. I am just about done with chapter 2.

Thanks again for reading.

(The quote from Carrie Ingalls Swanzey is from her letter to Mr. Mallery, 11 April 1930, Collections IIA4a, Box 028A; and the picture of the De Smet Congregational Church is from the Congregational Church Folder in the Vertical File, both at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society Archives, De Smet, South Dakota.)

Links:

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society

The Ingalls Homestead

John Miller’s Amazon Page

My post on Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder

 

Walnut Grove, Minnesota

On Wednesday, June 20, I visited Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

The Ingalls family lived on a farm about a mile and a half north of Walnut Grove from 1874 to 1876.  They initially lived in a dugout cabin next to Plum Creek, then Charles Ingalls built a wood frame house for the family in 1875. Unfortunately, a locust infestation destroyed the family’s wheat crop, and while he was able to get work in Eastern Minnesota to support the family, Charles could not pay off the debts involved in buying the frame house. These events are detailed in On the Banks of Plum Creek.

When they finally lost the farm, the family moved to Burr Oak, Iowa for a year. They returned and lived in the town of Walnut Grove from 1877 to 1879. Laura attended school and church in town and worked serving at a hotel. It was also during these years that Mary Ingalls got sick and became blind. These stories are presented in Pioneer Girl, but not in the Little House books. Much of this period is lost in the gap between On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake. Some of the events and themes of town life from this period are included in the later Little House books set in De Smet, South Dakota.

The land where the Ingalls dugout once stood is now owned by the Gordon family. They have prepared a parking area near to Plum Creek and the dugout site. Visitors who pay $5 per car ($30 per tour bus) can drive back, wade in Plum Creek like Laura, and see where the dugout was located. There are also two half-mile hiking trails.

The forecast that morning was for rain starting at around ten o’clock in the morning, so I hurried from my hotel in Springfield, Minnesota, to the dugout site. I arrived at about quarter to nine, put my $5 in the pay box (it’s completely on the honor system), and drove to the creek. When I got out of the car, I was shocked at how quiet it was. I could hear the creek, which was running very high and fast because it had rained most of the previous day. I could hear the birds in the trees around the creek. And that was it. There wasn’t any distant traffic noise. I was the only one visiting the site. I walked to the creek, crossed it on the bridge provided, and walk up the bank to where it is believed that the dugout was. I could see what Laura described in Plum Creek as the tableland. I looked across the fields and see the water tower in Walnut Grove.

I walked both hiking trails. The uneven landscape reminded me of the farm I grew up on in Western Pennsylvania. As I child I had also played next to a creek, though it was much smaller than this one. I have lived so many years right next to Chicago that I had forgotten what exactly this was like. However, eventually my shoes and socks were soaking because of the wet grass I was walking through; each step brought a squish. As a result, the spell was a bit broken by the time I got back to the rental car. I took off my shoes and socks and put on a pair of sandals. I then walked back to the creek and put one foot in, just so I could say that I did. The water was very cold. As I drove back to town a little after ten, the rain started.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove is much larger than its counterpart in Pepin. There are eight different buildings, each containing historical materials of different types. There is a railroad depot (pulled to Walnut Grove from another town) with two main rooms. One room contains materials about the Little House books and the historic Walnut Grove, including a quilt owned by Laura (and donated by Roger MacBride) and a pew from the Congregational Church. The other room is dedicated to the Little House on the Prairie television show, which was set in Walnut Grove for the entire nine year run. There is a replica sod house the size of the dugout on Plum Creek, and a replica settler’s house the size of the frame house the Ingalls lived in on their farm. “Grandma’s House” was built in 1890 and brought to the site. It includes exhibits of sketches by Garth Williams, the illustrator of the 1953 edition of the Little House books, old time kitchens, dolls, and military service.  There are also areas for children to play. There is a replica one-room schoolhouse and a small chapel built by a high school shop class in 1983. The last building, “Heritage Lane,” contains old print shop equipment, a telephone switchboard, a post office, a telephone booth, a covered wagon, and materials about American railroads. In between the buildings there are prairie grasses and flowers.  So there is a lot to look at and do in a small area. It would provide a lot of opportunities to families with young children.

Charles and Caroline Ingalls were founding members of the Congregational Church in Walnut Grove in 1875. When the family lived in town, Laura attended both the Congregational Church service on Sunday morning and the Methodist Church service on Sunday afternoon for a year.  This was because the Methodist Church was having a contest to see who could memorize 104 Bible verses, two for each week of the year. Laura succeeded and was awarded a reference Bible. The Methodist Church did not have their own building, so they met in a hall upstairs of the grocery store owned by William Masters. Pioneer Girl also describes revival services in both churches, a Sunday School picnic, and an experience with God’s presence which caused Laura to observe, “’That is what men call God.’” (Pioneer Girl, 137)

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum recently was able to purchase the Masters Building. Charles Ingalls helped to build this building, and this is where the Methodist Church held services at the beginning. Laura also lived in an apartment there while helping William Masters’s son Will’s wife Nannie. I was privileged to sit in the upstairs of that building with Joel McKinney, the Collections Manager for the Museum. The building was used as a private residence from about 1900 to several years ago. The inside has just been gutted, so Joel showed me the original floor joists, which are exactly two inches by twelve inches, and studs, which are exactly 2 inches by four inches. We talked about the history of the town and about what Laura would have seen when she looked out of the windows that floor of the building during a Methodist worship service. I really appreciated his hospitality and his insights.

The Congregational Church in Walnut Grove closed in 1952, and the historical papers of the church were given to the Methodist Church. Unfortunately, the Methodist Church experienced a break-in some years ago, and someone poured ink on all of the historical papers of both the Methodist and Congregational Churches. They had to be thrown out. Certainly a great loss for my project.

Next stop: De Smet, South Dakota.  Thanks for reading.

(Quote is from Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, [Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2014].)

Links:

Walnut Grove, Minnesota

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove

The Dugout site

Pepin, Wisconsin

On Tuesday, June 19, I visited Pepin, Wisconsin. Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in a log cabin about seven miles north of Pepin, at the site of what is now the Little House Wayside Cabin, a replica house and historical marker. The Wayside Cabin is built to correspond to how the cabin is described in Little House in the Big Woods. There is also a Little House on the Prairie Museum in town.

Pepin sits on the shore of Lake Pepin, a widening of the Mississippi River. Across the river is Minnesota. The town was founded in 1855 as a steamboat landing. The Ingalls family bought the land and built the cabin in 1863. Mary Amelia Ingalls was born in the cabin in 1865, and Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born there in 1867. They left for Kansas in 1868, but returned in 1870 to live there several more years. They moved to Walnut Grove, Minnesota in 1874. Their experiences in Wisconsin are collapsed into the one year described in Little House in the Big Woods. They are also described in Laura’s memoir Pioneer Girl.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Pepin has several rooms full of old tools, clothes, kitchen technology, and artifacts from World War I. It does have one quilt that belonged to Laura Ingalls Wilder and one that belonged either to Laura or her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. It also has some artifacts from the Barry Corner School that Laura and Mary attended with their cousins, including an attendance sheet with their names on it. The museum has a room with a replica covered wagon, a fishing boat, a steamboat that children can play in, and other toys for the kids (sunbonnets, etc.) In the final room, there is a replica one-room schoolhouse with a looping video about Pepin with information drawn from the book The Village of Pepin in the Time of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I bought at the gift shop. Some of the houses built before the 1860s still stand.

None of the sources about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life mention that the family attended church services when they lived in Wisconsin. Most biographers suggest that the seven miles to Pepin was too far for a weekly journey. I believe that there was a Methodist Church in Pepin at the time, but not a Congregational Church. The family later attended Congregational Churches in Walnut Grove, Burr Oak, and De Smet.

I did discover that there are two country churches not far from the Wayside Cabin. On this trip, I was able to drive to them: the Lund Mission Covenant Church and the Sabylund Lutheran Church. One can actually see the steeple of the Lutheran church from the parking area at the Wayside Cabin. The website for the Lund Mission Covenant Church says that it was founded in 1874, which was the same year that the Ingalls family left. The Sabylund Lutheran Church apparently was founded in 1856, so it would have been in existence when the Ingalls family were living in Wisconsin, although I don’t yet know if it would have been in its current location. If it was, it would have been in walking distance from the Ingalls’ cabin. The distance would certainly be less than the mile and a half that the family walked to church in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The current Sabylund Lutheran Church building is a large brick structure that was built in 1893, or at least that’s what the cornerstone says. I have reached out to both churches via phone and email but have not yet been able to make a connection. I do have a suspicion that the Lutheran Church may have initially conducted services in German or perhaps Swedish or Norwegian. The Mission Covenant Church may have held services in Swedish.

I also walked along the shore of Lake Pepin, since that is mentioned in Big Woods. There is a public beach that is both sandy and pebbly; Big Woods tells the story of Laura picking up pebbles on the beach. The beach also has a lot of shells.

My next stop was Walnut Grove. Thanks for reading.

Links:

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Pepin

The Wayside Cabin

Lund Mission Covenant Church

Sabylund Lutheran Church

Burr Oak, Iowa

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.

Links:

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum

Support the Park and Museum by buying stuff at their store

Laura Days

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography

My blog post on Pioneer Girl