What’s In a Name?

Today I was on Facebook, trying to share a link about an author reading at a bookstore. The bookstore is in a city where a friend of mine, who likes the author too, lives, so I wanted to let her know about it. I clicked the “Share” button for the link, then looked at my options: share in a message, share on my own timeline, share on a friend’s timeline. None of those applied, I thought. I wanted to share it on my friend’s WALL.

Oh, right. There is no more wall. There is now only timeline.

I ultimately made a successful share (on my friend’s TIMELINE), but it reminded me of a Little House issue. Names are big things. When you’re a writer thinking about your audience, you consider names a lot. Names have importance. They help us associate one thing with another–be it a place, an emotion, a person, whatever. Changing names changes our association. In Boston, where I’m from, two event centers, two in Boston and one in the suburbs, have had their names changed more times than I can remember in the past 20 years. But regardless of what they are called now, I will always think of them by their original names: Harborlights, Great Woods, the Boston Garden.

The folks who did such a wonderful job preserving the site at Malone made one misstep, I think. The site was always known as the Almanzo Wilder Farm; to this day, the url remains almanzowilderfarm.com. And that makes sense. Almanzo’s a farmer boy. We read about his ninth and tenth years in the book Farmer Boy, which was all about farming, farming, farming—to a more marked degree than the Little House series en masse.

But while the tagline—boyhood home of Almanzo Wilder—is still the same, the powers that be have in the past few years decided that the homesite is now the “Wilder Homestead.”

The Wilder Homestead?

Now, I’m no expert on the Homestead Act, but I do know it was a west-of-the-Mississippi thing. The Wilder property was never the “Wilder homestead.” But it was, quite plainly, the “Wilder farm.” James Wilder did not have to prove up on a claim, the way Pa did. He was just farming his land, land he already owned.

So why the change? I’ve never asked. And I’ve never made a big deal about it (although now, someone may Google it and find this post—ah well). I don’t want to make a stink or be disrespectful. But I can’t help wondering about their reasoning. Did they think it would sound more like “Ingalls Homestead,” thus increasing their tourist draw? Did they feel left out because all the other homesites—well, the ones in Walnut Grove and De Smet—had homesteads associated with them?

I don’t know.

The Wilder Farmhouse is the only home mentioned in the Little House books that is still standing on its original foundation.

The thing is, fans love Malone. And they love it for what it is. It may be out of the way for the folks who go to the Midwest sites, but it’s not out of the way for East-coasters. And besides, it’s not like the other homesites. On certain days, heck, it may well be my favorite. The lovely red farmhouse is the only home mentioned in the Little House books that’s still standing on its original foundation. No other building—not even in De Smet—can claim such a distinction. The grounds surrounding the farmhouse are gorgeous—lush and green (at least in summer, when I’ve visited), with the only noticeable sound the gentle, non-Dakota winds whispering through the trees. And across the street and down the path is Trout River, still flowing, just as we pictured it when we read Farmer Boy.

It doesn’t need a name change to prove its homesite mettle.

The powers that be can call the homesite in Malone whatever they like. But I’m always going to call it The Wilder Farm.

So What Are These “Homesites,” Anyway?

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.)