LauraPalooza 2017

Last week I traveled to the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. I attended LauraPalooza 2017, and I visited Mansfield, the town where Laura and Almanzo Wilder spent most of their adult lives.

LauraPalooza is a conference sponsored every other year by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association.* The conference brings together scholars, authors, teachers, librarians, and other who love the Little House books in one location for several days of presentations, networking, and fun. In 2010 and 2012, the conference was held at Minnesota State University in Mankato. In 2015, it was held at South Dakota State University in Brookings. This year, it was held at a hotel in Springfield, Missouri. I met attendees from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and across the United States. I believe that there were somewhere around 130 people in attendance. Some women attended sessions in period clothing, including sunbonnets, calico dresses, and one on Friday in full hoopskirts.

I drove down last Tuesday morning. My plan was to stop in Mansfield to see the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum on my way to Springfield. Unfortunately, the rental car’s one front wheel started making a terrible screeching sound outside of St. Louis. I had to go to the St. Louis airport to return the car and get a different one. This put me several hours behind schedule, so when I reached Mansfield, everything was closed. I ate dinner at Ma and Pa’s Family Style Restaurant and then continued on to Springfield.

The top three presentations on Wednesday:

– Eddie Higgins and Sanne Jakobsen spoke about their research into the Ingalls’s family’s ancestors, including a trip they took to the parish in Skirbeck in eastern England from which Francis and Edmond Ingalls left for America in the late 1620s and early 1630s.

– Emily Anderson engaged the use of the Little House books by individuals from different ethnic groups to make sense of their experiences, including the Hmong who currently make up about a third of the population of Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

– Caroline Fraser addressed the U. S.-Dakota War of 1862, referred to as the “Minnesota Massacre” in Little House on the Prairie.

The top three presentations on Thursday:

– Bill Anderson described the individuals who interacted with Pioneer Girl before it was published and those who helped preserve the stories of Wilder’s life.

– Robynne Miller reported on the lives of the three individuals—Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters, and Stella Gilbert—who inspired the character of Nellie Oleson in the Little House books.

– Pamela Smith Hill spoke about Wilder’s experiences in and relationship with the Ozarks, where she (Hill) grew up.

Fry at LauraPalooza 1My presentation was on Friday morning. I was followed by an excellent talk by Kipton and Ethan Smilie about the ways that the Little House books show the formation of social capital in their depictions of late nineteenth century education, and by a fascinating demonstration by Rich Kurz about how he created a scale three-dimensional model of the Ingalls store in DeSmet, South Dakota, from extant pictures.

All in all, it was an eclectic conference. My talk was well-received, I enjoyed talking with many new contacts, and it was good to see a number of old friends, including Bill Anderson, Barb Bousted, Caroline Fraser, Sandra Hume, and Michelle McClellan.

Wilder Home for BlogI left a little early on Friday morning so that I could stop in Mansfield to see the Historic Home and Museum on my way home. I was able to tour both the farmhouse that Laura and Almanzo built between 1894 and the 1910s and the “rock house” that was built by their daughter Rose Wilder Lane for them during the late 1920s. Laura wrote Pioneer Girl and the first several Little House books while living in the rock house between 1828 and 1936. Both of the houses are amazingly well built and well kept. They are also quite small. I guess that’s appropriate for someone famous for writing about Little Houses. I had forgotten that Laura was only four feet, eleven inches tall. Since Wilder was famous when she died in 1957, the farmhouse immediately became a historic home, and almost everything inside it belonged to her and Almanzo. The rock house had been sold and was not reacquired until the late 1900s, but it has been restored. I was hoping to walk the path between the two houses that was used by Wilder and Lane to see each other when they were writing. Unfortunately, I was told that it was flooded.

Rock houseI also looked through the new Museum at the site, which was just finished last year. There is an 8-minute orientation film and a lot of artifacts from Laura and Almanzo’s lives on display. Several are related to my work on Wilder’s faith:

– Laura’s Bible, which she kept “on the table next to her favorite locker.”

– The Ingalls Family Bible

Persuasives to Early Piety by J. G. Pike, a book published by the American Tract Society –this was a gift from Charlotte Holbrook Quiner to her daughter Caroline Quiner Ingalls, or Ma. Ma passed it on to Laura.

– “Laura’s Sunday School Cards” – these are about 1 ½ by 2 inch cards with Bible memory verses from one of the churches in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, in 1878. I’m guessing it was the Congregational Church. There are eight pasted on the first page of what looks like a book for them; verses are from First Corinthians, Hosea, Psalms (3), Isaiah (2), and Deuteronomy. There may be more on the following pages; there was no one to open the display case for me to take a look.

– A bread plate that says “Give us this day our daily bread” that was saved from the fire that destroyed Laura and Almanzo’s home in the late 1880s. This was described in The First Four Years.

I am very thankful to my family for allowing be to be gone four days. I was very happy to see them all when I got back Friday night.

Thanks for reading.


Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum

Ma and Pa’s Family Style Restaurant

Emily Anderson’s Little on Amazon

Walnut Grove Mural Bridges Cultures – about the Hmong in Walnut Grove

Caroline Fraser’s website

Bill Anderson’s website

Robynne Miller’s books on Amazon

Pamela Smith Hill’s website

My blog entry on The First Four Years

*(I recently finished reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. I now believe that having hyperlinks in the text of my blog entries encourages people to read poorly. From here on out, all links will appear at the bottom of the page.)


The Wilder Life

I knew that it had been a while since I posted anything, but I didn’t realize until today that it had been over a month. Many apologies to anyone who’s been waiting. During the last several weeks, I was able to read The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, a memoir by Wendy McClure published in 2011.

McClure grew up in Oak Park, one of the western suburbs of Chicago, during in the late twentieth century. When she read the Little House books as a child, she loved the world that the books created in her mind. When she read them again as an adult, she decided to try to enter that world. She began by reading everything she could about Wilder and the books. She then tried out the recipes in several Wilder cookbooks. She succeeded in buying an authentic, working butter churn and making her own butter. Then she visited all of the major Ingalls and Wilder historic sites in Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota (both the historic homes and the Ingalls Homestead), Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and New York. The book describes these experiences, her feelings, and her observations about the books, about Wilder, and about life in general.

Christianity and Laura’s faith are mentioned mainly in two chapters of the book. In chapter 6, “The Way Home,” McClure tells the story of her trip to Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura and Almanzo lived most of their adult lives and where Rose grew up. In the museum next to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home, she met a Christian homeschooling family from Houston. They appreciated the Little House books because of “’the faith that was running throughout.’” (163) Their conversation prompts the following comments from McClure:

I know there are a lot of folks who can easily see Christian messages in the books, lessons about trusting and accepting the will of God in times of hardship and relying on the bedrock of one’s faith to get through. There’s plenty of stuff in the books that can help illustrate these things, I guess. But the Ingalls family in the books didn’t appear to be much the praying types, unless the occasional hymn on Pa’s fiddle counts. Mary becomes a little godly by the later books, but as for the rest of the family, their reasons for attending church seemed to have more to do with partaking in civilized town life than with religious devotion. I suppose I’m inclined to see it that way because that’s how my family did things—went to church (Congregational) sporadically and understatedly. Whenever Ma Ingalls brought out the Bible, it seemed to me to be pretty interchangeable with the other books they turned to for comfort, like the novel Millbank and Pa’s Wonders of the Animal World, only slightly more important.

But in the case of families like Keith and Karen’s, their Laura World includes certain aspects that mine does not; in their Little House scenes the Bible is likely always close by and the Lord near at hand watching over the family through the droughts and blizzards.

I don’t mind that it’s this way for other people, especially if it makes the books more meaningful to them. (163-164)

It’s fascinating to me that the Little House books have appeal for both conservative Christians and agnostic writers. Both groups view the religion of the Ingalls family through the lens of their own commitments. I think that McClure may undersell the importance of Christianity to the books. When I read the books this year specifically looking for mentions of Christianity and the church, I was both surprised about how much they appear in certain books and how little they appear in other books. As I’ve suggested in other blog posts, I also believe that the form Christianity takes in the books is as shaped by Rose’s vision of the church as Laura’s experiences and faith.

Christianity—and a particular type of Christianity—looms larger in the following chapter. Here, McClure and her and her live-in boyfriend Chris attend a “Homesteading Weekend” at a working farm in downstate Illinois. The owners use horse-drawn plows, raise turkeys, and try to live as much as possible like people from 100 years ago. They are joined by several families from a church in Wisconsin who think that the end times are coming and they need to get ready. That’s why they were trying to learn how to live off the grid. These families completely “freak them out,” so they leave early the next morning. This experience prompts her to wonder about how much the Little House books might be contributing to religious fanaticism, and what Wilder would think. McClure concludes that Wilder wouldn’t have liked it, based on comments she makes in Pioneer Girl about not appreciating the anti-Catholic sentiment of the family she sewed for in DeSmet. (205-6) I’m inclined to think that she’s right in this assessment.

Memoir is not something that I’ve ever wanted to write. I tell myself that I’m too humble to write a book completely about me. I tell myself that that I don’t think that I have that much to say that others would be interested in. But I think that it may be less humility and more a desire for privacy. I am amazed by many of the ways that people expose themselves on social media today. I have a Facebook account to catch up on what’s going on with family and friends, but I share almost nothing except when I’ve put up another blog post. I am most comfortable writing when I’m writing about other people, preferably dead people. I’m glad that I am planning to write a biography of Wilder, not a memoir of my experience with the world of the books.

But I’m also glad that I read The Wilder Life. McClure is an engaging writer. Her descriptions – of people, of landscape, of her own feelings – are honest, exquisite, and at times intense. The book also provides insights about Laura, her family, and the Little House books themselves. And at times, it’s just laugh-out-loud funny. It was a good book to read while the semester wound down toward finals.

I hope to post a year in review next week. As always, love to hear your comments.

(References are from Wendy McClure, The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie [New York: Riverhead Books, 2011].)