Chasing Laura Ingalls Wilder: traveling through her world, one homesite at a time

Monthly Archive: May 2012

Today feels momentous. It’s the last day of the month, certainly. From a personal perspective, it’s also my kids’ last full day of school. In the world of Laura, it’s the last day of registration for this summer’s second-ever LauraPalooza conference.

But the blog has just begun.

This guy wore a sunbonnet to report from LauraPalooza 2010 for a Minneapolis TV station. What a sport! Think he’ll be there this year?

Next up: ebooks. I’m putting the final touches on the draft of the first ebook in the Little House Travel series. This inaugural guide will be all about the homesite that is the focus of four (or depending on how you look at it, five) books in the Little House series: De Smet, South Dakota. For the next few days, while the book is with editors, I’m going to work on augmenting this site to accomodate the book releases. Stay tuned.

If you read any of the Little House books, you know that you couldn’t go three chapters without encountering the lyrics to some old-time American song or hymn. Music was entwined with Laura’s memories; she couldn’t write about her family without including the music.

Dale Cockrell understood this. A musicologist from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, he decided to record these old-time songs under the umbrella of Pa’s Fiddle Productions. This past January, a musical event was taped at the Loveless Barn in Nashville celebrating Pa’s music. (It was the one Little House Travel trip I didn’t take — the only reason is sleeping in the other room and probably is close to needing a diaper change.) Live versions of many of the songs taken from the pages of the Little House books were recorded by country, Americana and gospel musicans. Come June, we’ll all have a chance to see it — on PBS.

Starting June 2 — that’s in about two weeks — the special will air during a pledge drive for PBS, thanks to producers Dean Butler and The Pa’s Fiddle Project – The Music of the Little House Books. If you’ve ever wondered what “The Sweet By and By” sounds like — or any of the other songs mentioned in the Little House series — you won’t want to miss it.

This comment came over the international transom last night:

My husband has been reading the series to our five-year-old daughter. Today and again tonight our little one asked about certain places in the books. She asked if Silver Lake still exists among others. She is fascinated with the fact that these are real people and places and dates. I overheard her and Papa talking about maybe taking a trip to see some of these places that have become dear to us as well. On a whim I searched Bing for “Little House Travel” and found your site – It’s lovely and I’m so glad to have found it! We’ve always planned on travelling the States first and we’ll be mapping this out for sure! ~Daizy

This is why I’m doing this. Thank you, Daizy!


If you asked a Little House fan (books or TV show) the question, “What’s Almanzo’s favorite food?” you’d get two distinct answers: “pancakes” (book people) and “cinnamon chicken” (TV show). You’d also get two answers if you asked a seemingly simple question like “How do you pronounce his name?”

Almanzo Wilder first showed up on TV in September of 1979. I picture a table reading in L.A. the previous spring, where someone (Michael Landon? Lucy Lee Flippin?) who never heard the real Laura’s voice had to say his name for the first time. They looked down at the script, considered the spelling, and chose … Al-MON-zo.

The rest is mispronounciation history, well into its third decade with no sign of slowing.


In actuality, Laura’s husband’s name is Al-MAN-zo, where the “man” is pronounced like “hand.” (Think about it: why was he called “Mannie” or even “Manly”?) You can hear it for yourself on the recording “Laura Ingalls Wilder Speaks,” available at some homesite gift shops, where Laura’s own elderly, shaky voice can be heard clearly referencing her husband as Al-MAN-zo.

That’s why, in your travels through the Little House homesites, you’ll hear two different pronounciations of Almanzo’s name. The TV show’s reach is wide–and global–so the incorrect pronounciation is the most prevalent. But we purists are dedicated. We like to educate. The more respectful among us will simply pronounce the name the way we know to be correct, explaining why if asked; others may outright correct you faster than you can say “cinnamon chicken.”

Even Dean Butler, the actor who played Almanzo, through his work with the homesites and his interaction with rabid book fans, has changed his pronounciation for what is, for all intents and purposes, his own name.

Now that’s respectful.

My friend Dean. :)


Former (and longtime) Burr Oak director Ferneva Brimacomb speaks to a tour group at the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa.

Babette at the lovely cooking blog  Babette Feasts (which you all should read … go ahead; I’ll wait) tells us she read the Little House books as a child; her favorite was On the Banks of Plum Creek. After reading this post that details each of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s homesites, she says she’s curious: What bad things happened in Burr Oak? 

Judy Green, who presents educational programs as part of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Story Behind the Stories” in Ohio, offers this answer:

While the Ingalls family was traveling to Burr Oak, their son Charles Fredrick Ingalls died from an unspecified illness. He is buried in/near Zumbro Falls MN, but I think his grave is unmarked. (See the Pioneer Girl website.)

Life in Burr Oak was a struggle financially and emotionally. You can purchase a booklet from the Burr Oak homesite called “The Iowa Story.” (See the website for Burr Oak.)

Thank you, Judy!


In 2008, FamilyFun magazine was looking for a writer for a Little House travel story. A colleague of mine suggested me to her editor, and after I submitted a proposal (de rigueur in the magazine world), I was assigned the story.

My story about traveling to the upper-Midwestern Little House sites, "Little Trip on the Prairie," appeared in the June 2010 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

The following summer, my husband, my kids and I were scheduled to visit Pepin, Walnut Grove, and De Smet — in that order. Which we did do, sort of. Except my daughter got really sick just before the trip, which meant she and her Dad didn’t meet up with me and her brother until the two of us were already in De Smet. She got to hit Walnut Grove on the way back, but she missed Pepin completely. Plus we had to buy her and her Dad a whole new plane ticket, which the magazine would not reimburse.

From a parenting and a financial perspective, it was a pretty dodgy situation. From a professional one, it was definitely a little tricky—but we got it done.

I will say that I highly recommend visiting the Little House sites when you don’t have a photographer following you around.

The story was ultimately printed at the beginning of the summer of 2010. (My kids quite enjoyed their tiny taste of fame.)

Who knows what this is?

What is this a photograph of?

What are these strange things called “homesites”?

Homesites is a term assumed by Laurafans (itself its own self-created term) to describe the places Laura lived throughout her life. All of these places have been commemorated in some way, whether in tiny or grandiose fashion. Although Little House Travel is full of information on these homesites, here’s a quick-and-dirty rundown, in the manner of The Least You Need to Know.

Some homesites are actually located a bit outside of the town they are traditionally associated with (like Malone, Independence, and Westville); for these purposes I will be referring to them by their most popular names.

The following homesites, all found in the Little House books, are listed chronologically as Laura lived there:

Pepin, Wisconsin. Laura and her sister Mary were born here; setting for Little House in the Big Woods, which begins when Laura is four years old.

Independence, Kansas. Little sister Carrie was born here. The Ingalls family spent about a year in what they called Indian Territory/Oklahoma Territory, although in truth they were just a few miles north of the Oklahoma border into Kansas. This is the setting for the book with the best-known title, Little House on the Prairie. (After this the family returned for a second stint in Wisconsin.)

Walnut Grove, Minnesota. When the Ingalls family moved (for the second time) from Wisconsin, they settled in Walnut Grove for a few years. Interestingly, the town is never named in On the Banks of Plum Creek, the book that describes these years.

De Smet, South Dakota. In 1879, when Laura was 12, the family made their last stop in the newly-formed town of De Smet, South Dakota. This town in southeastern South Dakota is the setting for more than half of the books in the series: By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years, whose final chapter depicts her marriage to Almanzo Wilder at age 18, effectively ending the Little House books. The posthumously published The First Four Years also takes place in De Smet.

Looking at the farmhouse from inside the buggy house at the Almanzo Wilder Farm in Malone, New York

Also mentioned in the series is Malone, New York, as recounted in Farmer Boy, the book that depicts the ninth and tenth years in the childhood of her husband, Almanzo. This book was published after Little House in the Big Woods at a time when both books were viewed as standalones. However, it is usually listed between Little House on the Prairie and On the Banks of Plum Creek (although it actually takes place around the time of Laura’s birth). Yeah, it’s confusing.

The following homesites are places Laura lived that are not written about in the series, again listed chronologically:

Burr Oak, Iowa. The Ingalls family lived here between two separate stays in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Laura did not write about this town in the book series because it represented a sad time in her family’s life, though events from those years were used liberally in the TV series “Little House on the Prairie.”

Spring Valley, Minnesota. When Almanzo’s family moved from Malone, New York, they setted here. Laura, Almanzo, and their daughter Rose lived here for a time in their early married life.

Westville, Florida. Laura, Almanzo, and Rose lived here for less than a year, thinking it would help Almanzo’s health. Rose’s short story “Innocence,” which won an O. Henry award for fiction, recalls this time.

Mansfield, Missouri. In 1894, the family finally left De Smet for good. Laura was 27, and would spend the rest of her life in this town in Missouri. From here, she would write the Little House series. This homesite is also commonly referred to as “Rocky Ridge,” the name Laura gave to her home.

(The Ingalls family also spent a very brief time in Chariton County, Missouri, on their way from Wisconsin to Kansas.)


The homesite in Independence, Kansas claims the distinction of being the very first homesite I ever visited, way back in 2001. I’d just moved to the southwestern edge of Kansas the year before from Boston, and I planned my visit to Independence around a trip back to the east coast. It was a couple hours out of the way, but I was heading for an eight-hour drive anyway, all the way diagonally across Kansas from the Kansas City airport. I had time.

Back then, the site was just starting to gain momentum. It didn’t have regular hours, or a website (it was 2001, after all). But I had gathered what information I could online and navigated my way south from Kansas City, almost to the Oklahoma border.

My excitement was palpable, at once prickly and whooshing through me. From behind the wheel, I saw a sign, green with white lettering: “Verdigris River.” With a shuddering intake of breath I looked down as I drove over a small bridge, but the brush was so thick I couldn’t identify any water. But still! I had driven over the Verdigris! The same Verdigris River mentioned all over the book! The one that likely fed the creek that Mr. Edwards had braved in flooded conditions, clothes on his head and potatoes in his pockets, just to bring Laura and Mary their Christmas candy.

It’s like that when you first approach the homesites. You see the signs: Lake Thompson or Plum Creek or Pepin. Your heart begins to flutter in a speed directly proportional to the level of your fandom. Your breathing seems to stop.

That Sunday in June, as the sign directed me to turn south off route 160 toward the tiny town of Wayside, Kansas, my anticipation grew. By the time I approached the wide expanse of fields and saw the fenced-off log cabin replica, I was so excited I almost forgot to park. But I managed it, then walked over to the fence, where I was greeted by this handwritten sign:

Ever see that Charlie Brown special “Snoopy Come Home”? Specifically this part (and the song beginning at :33)? And do you remember how you felt? 

Then you know.

Twelve years later, I’m happy to say, the site is much different. And today, May 6, 2012, the Sunday edition of Tulsa World provides a great rundown on the site and what it’s like to visit. I’m pretty picky about my Little House articles; this seems well done.

Planning a Little House trip and need to work out some details? Trying to figure out when and where to go — or what to do while you’re there? Ask Little House Travel. We’ll be starting a regular weekly feature on submitted questions or questions we’ve been asked in the past. Questions can be specific to one homesite or as general as you need. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll find someone who does.

You may include your name if you like or choose to be anonymous. It’s up to you. All questions will be linked on the Q & A page for easy access.