Little Log Houses for You and Me
Anthologized in Inspired Journeys, Travel Writers in Search of the Muse (University of Wisconsin)
There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.
Willa Cather, My Antonia
Little House on the Prairie
The summer we went searching out the Little Houses of Laura Ingalls with our daughters, we were trying to remember things that had been lost a long time ago. We were traveling to try to preserve things, too, that we knew were disappearing, things perishable, the present turning into the past and we helpless to stop it.
We’d passed through Oklahoma in the heat of that first day on the open road: congregations of cows flicking their tails, a truck full of melons on the side of the road, the skeleton of a weathered gray barn, a rusted out school bus in a field, hand-painted signs that said things like “Fresh Produce Right Here” and “You call it Abortion. God calls it Murder,” barbed wire fences, telephone lines.
We arrived in Kansas at sunset and camped at a lake near the Little House on the Prairie. In the tent that night, the air motionless and the big moon almost bright enough to see by, I read to the girls from my childhood copy of the book that was set there, with its pale yellow cover and brittle pages and Garth Williams illustrations. My grandmother had sent it to me when I was in kindergarten, before I could read, about the age that my Sabine, four, and Mary Martha, six, were that summer. I told the girls, though it’s entirely possible that I invented this out of a desire for it to be true, that looking at the indecipherable characters on the pages of Little House on the Prairie is what made me want to learn how to read. That night in the tent I chose “Camp on the High Prairie”—the chapter after the perilous crossing of the Verdigris River when the Ingalls family’s covered wagon nearly gets swept away in the swollen creek and Jack, their trusty brindle bulldog disappears. “While they were eating supper the purple shadows closed around the camp fire,” I read, pausing for effect, hoping the girls would see the connection between us and them. “The vast prairie was dark and still. Only the wind moved stealthily through the grass, and the large, low stars hung glittering from the great sky.”
To breathe life into inert words, to make what once existed alive again within us—this was my intent. In one of the earliest recorded narratives of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Egeria, a woman most likely from Galicia, writes of her travels through the Holy Land and across the Sinai Desert into Egypt from the years 379 to 388 AD. On Mount Horeb, she notes that, “There we offered an oblation and an earnest prayer, and the passage from the book of Kings was read; for we always especially desired that when we came to any place the corresponding passage from the book should be read.” If my husband, Terry, and my daughters and I were on a pilgrimage ourselves of sorts, then the words I read to the girls that night in the tent—for we always especially desired that when we came to any place the corresponding passage from the book should be read—were those of the saint whose shrines we were seeking.
Since her death, Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of eight books about her childhood on the frontier (and a ninth, Farmer Boy, about her husband, Almanzo’s, as well) had become a bonnet-clad icon, and all the little log houses she’d lived in, or even just the land itself, had been preserved and memorialized by devotees, among whom I numbered myself. When I say that as a child I was a Laura Ingalls’ devotee, let me clarify. I was obsessed. I read all nine volumes in order, over and over again. I wanted to be Laura. Every day I plaited my long brown hair into two straight braids. My mother sewed me a muslin frock with a dark green calico apron and matching calico sunbonnet, which I wore for several Halloweens and as often as I could get away with it otherwise. I took quilting classes. I taught myself embroidery and needlepoint. Despite our living in Houston, I fantasized about making candy by drizzling hot molasses over milk pans filled with snow. I watched the television show starring Melissa Gilbert as Laura and Michael Landon as Pa every Monday night on NBC after my bath, not caring how drastically it diverged from the books. When I found out, in reading a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which my parents gave me for Christmas one year, that our birthdays were the same, it seemed somehow predestined, written in the prairie’s infinite stars.
And when I say that my grandmother sent me Little House on the Prairie, this is because the summer before my kindergarten year, my parents, who had both been raised in St. Louis by parents who had themselves grown up in St. Louis, packed up a U-Haul and left behind their brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and the small Missouri town where my father had been coaching football and wrestling and teaching Drivers’ Ed on the side to make ends meet, and headed south to Texas to try to make a better life for their children than they were likely to find in the Midwest, which was dying. Along with other “pioneer families,” as the first one hundred were literally called, we settled in a new development north of the city of Houston called The Woodlands, on land in the Piney Woods once part of a large logging operation. Before that, native Atakapan tribes had ranged through the area, hunting and gathering and smearing their bodies with alligator grease to protect them from mosquitoes. But they were all gone by the time settlers began arriving in the early 1800s so that There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries were made. We drove up in our U-Haul in 1974, at the beginning of a regional population boom. In The Woodlands, whose marketing campaign declared it “A Real Hometown,” my father, not unlike Pa Ingalls, eventually made a life for himself and our family building houses. It never occurred to me at the time, but I see now that I didn’t need the sunbonnet or the braids to be like Laura Ingalls. I, too, grew up on a frontier. I, too, was party to creation through destruction.
And now I was reading the Little House books to my daughters. I had passed on my pioneer dress and sunbonnet to them. I taught them to knit and to sew. We baked bread together and, every once in awhile, made butter by shaking a mason jar filled with cream. In the playhouse Terry built out back, the girls would travel in their imaginary covered wagon, put out imaginary prairie fires, and shiver through imaginary long winters while I cooked dinner or folded laundry or swept the back porch. But they were growing—Ellie, the oldest, especially, who was ten and thinking of boys and wearing black nail polish and reading Harry Potter the way I’d read Laura Ingalls, insatiably. And Terry and I knew, I suppose, in the way that you’re always aware as a parent of how quickly time alters your children irrevocably, that we only had a short window of opportunity left to us during which we might convince our daughters that a 3,000 mile road trip in a Volvo station wagon to visit little log houses that a small girl in a sunbonnet lived in many years ago might be fun. For ourselves, though I believe we actually even said to each other that the trip would be educational, Terry and I really just wanted to have our daughters all to ourselves in a little tent on the prairie, to try, for a moment to still the traveling hands of time.
Next morning, on our way to the Little House on the Prairie, we stopped at a gas station for some drinks and to get directions. When the cashier, a young man sporting a thin black mustache and a camouflage cap, heard where we were headed, he told me his Aunt Ruth owned the land that the replica log cabin sat on. Trying either to impress me or to shock me, I’m not sure which, he said, “We used to drink beer in the covered wagon in the front yard there.”
Which was initially all I could think about as we stood before the Little House on the Prairie, as nearly perfect a reproduction as the owners of the property could muster from the scant evidence of the one-room, squared-log, mud-chinked cabin Charles Ingalls built there. Inside was the china shepherdess on the mantle, a replica of the one Ma always carefully unpacked after each wagon journey to say that they were settled; the cornhusk mattress on the corner bedstead; the red-checked tablecloth on the hand-hewn table.
The August 1870 census for Montgomery County, Kansas lists one C. P. Ingles, a 34-year old carpenter born in New York state, and his wife, Caroline, 30, born in Wisconsin. Mary was five, Laura three, Carrie a newborn. The Ingalls family moved to this land near Independence in September of 1869 during a land rush that began the year before. They probably had heard that the Osage Diminished Reserve would soon be opened for settlement, after the Osage Indians signed a treaty selling their land to the United States government and agreeing to move to their new reservation—later Osage County, Oklahoma. But while those details were being negotiated, the Ingalls, along with thousands of other settlers, and at the encouragement of various formal settler groups, actually began squatting illegally on Osage lands—“Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve,” as the scholar, Frances Kaye, puts it. The Leavenworth, Lawrence, and Galveston Railroad had managed to negotiate a draft treaty with the Osage that would have allowed it to purchase a large part of the Osage Reserve for $.20 an acre over fifteen years—a steal in every sense of the word. Though confirmation of this treaty was eventually blocked in the Senate, by persuading settlers to move onto Osage land before a legitimate treaty was enacted, settler groups hoped to ensure that farmers—not businessmen or other railroads—would be the beneficiaries once the Osage left.
And so at the end of Little House on the Prairie, when the Ingalls family must leave behind the cabin and the hand-dug well and the newly-planted garden just beginning to sprout and the field of grain and the plow that furrowed it, Pa blames the federal government for misleading the settlers. But Pa is wrong. He had settled his family on land that did not belong to them. The trees they felled to build their house were not theirs. The water from the creek, the grasses on which their horses fed—all of it was owned by the Osage.
While she may fudge on this issue—consciously or not—Wilder as author does seem to recognize the complicated and contradictory nature of her family’s place on the prairie. While Ma—gentle, refined Ma!—always speaks of the “savages” in the Indian camp near their cabin, Laura is particularly keen to see the exotic natives when they move to Indian Territory, and she even wants Pa to get her a papoose, whose black eyes she meets one day and whose gaze she cannot shake. She cries and cries for it. Pa tells her, “Hush, Laura. The Indian woman wants to keep her baby,” signaling an awareness in the adult Wilder that now she knows better, though I still find this scene chilling.
And even though we know that Pa does not believe that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” he most certainly would have agreed with their neighbor, Mrs. Scott, who declares to Ma that, “Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that’ll farm it. That’s only common sense and justice.” One evening, playing his fiddle, Pa sings of an “Indian maid, Bright Alfarata,” who roams the banks and, in her canoe, plies the waters of the Juniata River singing of her warrior lover. But the song also mourns the fleeting years that have “borne away the voice of Alfarata.” After Pa stops playing, Laura asks, “But please tell me where the voice of Alfarata went?” and Ma replies, “Oh I suppose she went west…. That’s what the Indians do.” But Laura, in a scene every parent will recognize, keeps pestering. “Why do they go west?” she asks. Ma tells her that they have to. “Why do they have to?” “The government makes them, Laura,” Pa says. “Now go to sleep.” But she’s still not satisfied. “Will the government make these Indians go west?” she asks.
“Yes,” Pa said. “When white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on. The government is going to move these Indians farther west, any time now. That’s why we’re here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?”
“Yes, Pa,” Laura said. “But, Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won’t it make the Indians mad to have to—”
“No more questions, Laura,” Pa said, firmly. “Go to sleep.”
Just two or three years after the Ingalls arrived in Kansas and began illegally squatting on Osage tribal lands, John Gast painted American Progress (1872), an allegorical representation of Manifest Destiny in which Columbia, a personification of the United States in flowing white toga, leads farmers and frontiersmen, oxen and horses westward, holding a school primer in one hand and stringing telegraph line with the other. Native Americans and wild animals flee before her advance.
One of the final chapters in Little House on the Prairie acknowledges this particular ruin in which the Ingalls family, however unwittingly, took part. The Osage are leaving their ancestral lands, pushed west by the government that makes them go. Laura and Mary and Carrie, Pa and Ma, stand in the doorway of their little log cabin watching. Pa tells Laura, “Look at the Indians, Laura. Look west, and then look east, and see what you see.” Laura looks:
As far as she could see to the west and as far as she could see to the east there were Indians. There was no end to that long, long line…. It was dinner-time, and no one thought of dinner. Indian ponies were still going by, carrying bundles of skins and tent-poles and dangling baskets and cooking pots. There were a few more women and a few more naked Indian children. Then the very last pony went by. But Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary still stayed in the doorway, looking, till that long line of Indians slowly pulled itself over the western edge of the world. And nothing was left but silence and emptiness. All the world seemed very quiet and lonely.
“Every act of creation,” said Pablo Picasso, “is first of all an act of destruction.”
After the girls had grown bored with sitting on the corncob mattress and pretending to eat puffed up vanity cakes at the table, we wandered over to the gift shop in a white clapboard farmhouse nearby. The girls, our giddy little consumers, had been chattering in the dark tent the night before about what they might buy with the money we’d given each of them to spend on the trip. Ellie ended up purchasing some books written by Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s daughter, a novelist and journalist herself and the one who encouraged her mother to write down the stories from her childhood, and who even collaborated to some extent in the writing itself. Sabine chose a tin cup with a peppermint stick and a penny taped down inside, a replica of the present Mr. Edwards carried for Laura and Mary in a bundle on top of his head across the icy Verdigris River that Christmas on the prairie. Mary Martha bought a calico Barbie dress with sunbonnet and white, lace-edged apron, in which Enchanted Evening Barbie looked entirely ill at ease. As the girls were taking out their crumpled bills from their Hello Kitty wallets, I chatted with the woman at the register about why she thought people come from all over to see this little house where Laura lived. She told me, “I think, even though we know life was harder then, it seemed simpler somehow.”
I was trying to decide what I thought about this theory outside the gift shop, while the girls ran around in the sun and Terry and I sat on a bale of hay beneath a shade tree. We struck up a conversation with Norma, an older woman from Independence with carefully arranged, abundantly sprayed hair, and her two teenaged granddaughters. Norma told us about growing up nearby, about how she remembered churning butter in the days before electricity and television, when horse-drawn plows still tilled the fields. She knew that life was harder then, she told us, but she thought families were closer, too. She glanced at her granddaughters, dressed in nylon football jerseys and tight jeans. When I asked them if they’d come here because they liked the Little House books or because their grandmother made them, they sort of laughed and looked away.
Later, on our drive north, we stopped for lunch. Terry and I share an affinity for these Midwestern towns passed over by the interstate or hollowed out when Wal-Mart moved in. Their worn storefronts housing video stores and Family Dollar shops or nothing at all remind us, perhaps, of what is always passing, what has passed. We ended up at a Pizza Hut because the local café was closed down. As we were waiting for our food to arrive, we bribed the girls with quarters for the jukebox so that we could talk in peace. Terry said to me then, “I think out here, we’re seeing the last effects of the Industrial Revolution.” When I asked him what he meant, he said, “What made life easier ended that old way of life.” He paused for a moment. “But you know, even if life was harder then, those girls we met don’t have it easy. They don’t have the connection to the land that the older generation does. And they’re just stuck in these dead-end towns.” I remembered the open field of soybeans we’d snapped pictures in front of. The big blue sky. In an odd mirroring of what Pa says when that endless line of Osage pass before the Ingalls’ cabin, there had been a sign along the fence behind the Little House on the Prairie that read, Stand here and imagine a line of wagons heading as far west as the eye can see. I recalled how strangely moved by this I’d been—perhaps because of all the hope and desperation it took to drive a wagon that far into what was, to the settlers, nowhere. It was not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. Perhaps because of the inevitable devastation it would lead to.
Little Town on the Prairie
Nebraska, late afternoon. The Sand Hills like dunes rolling and rising to the horizon, grasses clinging to them. Cattle huddled together in each other’s shade. Windmills. Round steel tubs beneath them half-filled with water. Railroad tracks, but no train.
In the old black and white photos, the women stand with babies on their hips in the big bluestem grasses of the prairie, which come up to their shoulders. Driving across these plains, I could picture them as the sea the settlers often compared them to. I could begin to imagine how insignificant one might feel against such vastness. Heading west in their covered wagon toward Dakota Territory, Laura says,
The farther they went . . . the smaller they seemed, and the less they seemed to be going anywhere. The wind blew the grass always with the same endless rippling, the horses’ feet and the wheels going over the grass made always the same sound. The jiggling board seat was always the same jiggling. Laura thought they might go on forever, yet always be in this same changeless place, that would not even know they were there.
I wondered, driving across the Sand Hills of Nebraska as the sun pooled in the western sky, did this feeling of smallness inspire a sort of humility that can hardly exist anymore? And wasn’t that a more accurate version, really, of existence? Isn’t all civilization—that effort, whatever form it takes, to tame the wilderness—merely an attempt to make ourselves feel less inconsequential? And—always in this same changeless place, that does not even know we are here—aren’t we just fooling ourselves?
Nebraska also made me wonder: if this terrain had once inspired humility, did our hubris explain what had subsequently become of it? How could we have ever thought we’d need all that land? And was this seeking of fresh starts in wide open spaces always doomed to end in strip malls and fast food restaurants, Wal-Marts and K-Marts and Targets, miles and miles of concrete? In the books that chronicle Wilder’s years in Dakota Territory—By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years—I see the beginnings of an American narrative of sprawl. Traveling to Silver Lake, where Pa has gotten a job as timekeeper and storekeeper for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad as it pushes west, Laura sees the grooves of old Indian trails and buffalo wallows, grassed over now. Then she watches as a town, with its false-fronted, stove-piped buildings, springs up in weeks where nothing had been before. In this town, she attends sociables and literaries and a revival. She makes friends. But later she says, “The town was like a sore on the beautiful, wild prairie.” Strangers move in. Then they move on, some further west, some back east. Pa says, “They come and they go.”
The Book of Genesis is in part the story of a series of covenants God makes with various Chosen Ones—Adam, Noah, Lot, Abraham. Again and again, the Lord creates a world and then watches as his creatures destroy it. So he wipes the slate clean—banishment and flood and fire and brimstone—and begins again. It’s an optimistic story in a way—drawn forward always by the possibility of eventual perfection. It’s the American Story, too. As Nick Carraway looks out over the waters of Long Island Sound at the end of The Great Gatsby, he imagines the continent as it must have looked to the Dutch sailors who first settled there, their wonder in beholding it. And he thinks of Gatsby’s wonder when he first saw the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Over and over again in America, we have wanted, like God, to make something more perfect, to finally get it right. And the earth was without form, and void. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. Over and over again, from puritans to pioneers to suburbanites, we have forsaken what we made when it became corrupted, abandoned it for the next Eden, for the newer world washed clean of the iniquity of the old. The town was like a sore on the beautiful, wild prairie. But what a mess we continue to make.
We camped in the Black Hills of South Dakota for a few days on our way to DeSmet, the Little Town on the Prairie. That first evening, we set up our tent in the last light of an August night, sweating. I wiped the girls’ arms and legs with a wet cloth to help cool them so they could sleep. Sometime in the night, a windstorm swept through the canyon we were camped in, and for hours our tent filled like a lung, then emptied, and filled again.
In the morning, the heat and haze of the previous day had been erased, so that the world seemed to have crystallized around us, come into sharper focus. The girls picked wildflowers and we put the bouquet in an empty tin can on the picnic table, which I’d covered with a red-checked vinyl cloth. I made coffee in our blue speckleware percolator and pancakes on the camp stove, and thought of Ma, who always made do, but made life lovely as well—the pie of green pumpkins which would have otherwise gone to waste, the bright button lamp fueled by axle grease, white muslin curtains trimmed with remnants of Laura and Mary’s calico dresses. I looked at the table and the flowers and the stack of pancakes I had made by adding water to a packaged mix and felt unjustifiably but inordinately pleased with myself.
“It’s everybody’s story,” Tim Sullivan told us as we stood in a barn on the actual Ingalls Homestead in South Dakota, now a living history museum comprised of a series of replica buildings—Ma’s Little House, the Burvee Shanty, the Dugout, the Little Prairie School.
“It’s everybody’s story,” Sullivan, the owner of the Homestead, said again. “It was bigger than just the Ingalls’ family.” I thought about the grassed over Indian trails and buffalo wallows and supposed it was, in a way, everybody’s story. Playing his fiddle, Pa had often sung,
O come to this country
And don’t you feel alarm,
For Uncle Sam is rich enough
To give us all a farm.
Those farms were provided by the terms of the Homestead Act of 1862, which essentially said that any citizen of the United States, or any immigrant who intended to become a citizen, could claim 160 acres of land as long as a 12X14 foot home was built on it, the land was cultivated, and someone lived on the claim at least six months every year. If all these conditions were met for a total of five years, the land was given to the claimant—free. Charles Ingalls filed his claim on these 160 acres southeast of the town of De Smet on which my daughters and I now stood in February 1880. Six years later, he proved up on the land and it was his.
“You know what a hay twist is?” Sullivan asked the girls. I was so relieved that the night before I’d chosen to read to them this exact chapter from The Long Winter. Ellie told him, “It’s what they had to burn instead of wood.” “Okay. It’s December of 1880,” he began the story of that desperate season, “and the town is snowed in. Trains can’t get in or out to deliver the coal and food supplies, see. And remember, there were no trees here when the settlers first came. This was all prairie. So they didn’t have wood to burn.” He grabbed a handful of hay from a bin behind him. “Now you know what this is, don’t you?” The girls looked at him, blinking. “This is slough hay. I’m going to teach you how to make a hay twist. Do you remember how many twists they had to make to boil water for a pot of tea?” he asks. “About seven?” Ellie answered. “Yes!” I thought when Sullivan nodded.
Sullivan sat with the girls and began to twist the slough hay, turning and turning until it coiled in on itself, golden flecks of straw clinging to his shirt. But this was summer. And just for fun. There was no blizzard raging. We weren’t starving. We would never have to do this day in and day out for months on end to keep from freezing. “Their hands were red and swollen,” Laura writes of that endless chore she and Pa performed, “the skin was cold and covered with cuts made by the sharp slough hay. The hay was cutting away the cloth of their coats on the left side and along the underneath of their left coat sleeves. Ma patched the worn places, but the hay cut away the patches.”
Standing there in the barn, I realized that part of the reason I had wanted to make this trip in the first place had something to do with the lesson Sullivan was, in effect, teaching. I wanted my daughters to understand how difficult life had been for these pioneers they like to pretend to be. When I was little, I’d often thought to myself, “I want to live in the olden days!” Which meant I wanted to wear calico dresses and knit woolen socks and satisfy my inexplicable and persistent yearning to churn butter and make cheese. Now my girls had taken up the refrain. “The new-en days are boring!” they would chime, their sunbonneted faces upturned. But there was something in me, some perversity, perhaps, that wanted them to see that life wasn’t so simple back then. I remembered what the woman in the gift shop at the Little House on the Prairie had told me—people are drawn to these stories because they describe a simpler life. But was it more simple? Look at the photographs, the faces creased with worry and work, I now wanted to argue. Look at the houses, I wanted to point out to the girls, how small and dark and cramped! Look at the chores they had to do, even when they were very young! Look, I wanted to say to my increasingly sassy tweenager, at that rule about no speaking unless spoken to! Look at how few gifts they got at Christmas—mittens! oranges! a peppermint stick!
At the Homestead gift shop, Ellie bought a corncob doll kit (corncob, scrap of calico, ribbon)—a replica of Laura’s first doll. Sabine purchased a stuffed Jack the Brindle Bulldog. Mary Martha found a new calico bonnet, which she would go on to wear continuously for the rest of our trip, even to bed. I bought tapes of pioneer songs played on Pa’s actual fiddle: “Swanee River,” “Captain Jinks,” “Buffalo Gals,” “My Old Kentucky Home.” But I was beginning to worry: Why did we need to validate our experience through buying?
The twelfth-century Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela describes what would have been a familiar sight to pilgrims arriving at that shrine in northern Spain, where the body of St. James, brother and apostle to Jesus, was said to reside: “Behind the fountain, as we have mentioned, there is the parvis,” (the open space before a church) “all of it paved out with stones. It is there that scallop shells, the insignia of Santiago, are sold to the pilgrims; and one sells there also wineskins, shoes, knapsacks of deer-skin, side-bags, leather straps, belts, all sort of medicinal herbs no less than sundry drugs and many more things.” As at the Little Houses, an entire industry sprang up in the Middle Ages catering to pilgrims. Medieval churches licensed merchants to sell sacred keepsakes: candles, badges, boxes of earth from which God fashioned Adam, models and paintings of various holy sites, ampullae of clay or silver filled with water from the Jordan or the diluted blood of a martyr. Pilgrims were the first tourists and the mementos they brought home were the earliest tacky souvenirs. But their souvenirs could work miracles. I wondered again about my daughters and me in the gift shops at the Little Houses. Were we buying the trinkets of a saint? Was this our feeble attempt to get nearer to Our Lady of the Prairie? If so, what saving miracle did we seek?
At the northern edge of the Ingalls Homestead, just below a slight swale in the land, the five cottonwood trees that Pa planted, one each for his wife and four daughters, still shivered in the late afternoon breeze. While Terry looked at the map in the station wagon to check on directions for our drive to Minnesota, my own daughters and I stood among them for a long time. We watched the light spangle and weave. We listened to the leaves rustle against each other like silk dresses. We wondered about departed spirits. We tried to listen to what they said from that other world.
On the Banks of Plum Creek
In the tent that night at a campground on the banks of Plum Creek just outside Walnut Grove, Minnesota, Ellie lay with her corncob doll, whom she had named Charlotte—the name of a doll of Laura’s. “I wouldn’t know how it is to love a corncob doll since I don’t have one,” Mary Martha said. “But I would like to know how to love a corncob doll,” she added when she saw Ellie taking offense. “I think having a corncob doll is kind of weird,” Sabine continued, oblivious, “because corncobs are what you eat and eating is good but hugging something you ate is yucky.” When Ellie blurted out some rant against this great injustice, I heard myself saying to her, “Do you think Laura would have talked to her sisters that way?” In the moonlight through the windows of our tent Terry and I caught each other’s eye. “WWLD,” he mouthed. When I looked questioningly back at him, he whispered, “What Would Laura Do?”
Outside the tent, the insects’ pulsing call to each other in the dark was like a giant heartbeat. Their voices now seemed oracular, since this was the site of the grasshopper plague that nearly ruined the Ingalls family. In early 1874, Pa traded his team of horses for a small farm near Walnut Grove. With no trees nearby for a log cabin and no money yet for lumber, they lived at first in a dugout in the creek bank with a front wall and roof made of sod. Instead of glass, they had oiled paper windows. Pa plowed and sowed his fields and, eventually, with his fine crop of wheat nearly ripe, he built a house of sawed boards on credit.
But in the dry late summer of 1874, farmers across the Midwest began to report strange glittering clouds in the sky. The millions and millions of grasshoppers that made up these clouds descended to earth and ate everything—crops, of course, but also every green leaf on every living plant, the sheets and cloths laid over vegetable plots in futile attempts to save them, human hair and skin, even each other. “The whole prairie had changed,” Laura says in On the Banks of Plum Creek. “The grasses did not wave; they had fallen in ridges. The rising sun made all the prairie rough with shadows where the tall grasses had sunk against each other. The willow trees were bare. In the plum thickets only a few plum pits hung to the leafless branches. The nipping, clicking, gnawing sound of the grasshoppers’ eating was still going on.” Scientists aren’t fully certain what caused the grasshopper pestilence, though they suspect that, in part, it may have been the clearing of land for farming itself.
One Sunday, in the midst of this pestilence, Laura recalls how Ma read to them from Exodus about the plague of locusts: “For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruits of the trees which the hail had left; and there remained not any green thing on the trees, or in the herbs of the field, through all the land of Egypt.” Then Ma reads of the promise God makes to bring his people “unto a land flowing with milk and honey.” This confuses Laura and Mary. How could land flow with milk and honey? Wouldn’t that be sticky? “Well, Laura,” explains Ma, “if good milch cows were eating grass all over this land, they would give a great deal of milk, and then the land would be flowing with milk. Bees would get honey out of all the wild flowers that grow out of the land, and then the land would be flowing with honey.” Ma says that Pa thinks the Promised Land is right there in Minnesota.
There were two successive years of grasshopper plagues, two successive years of crop failures. In November of 1875, the Ingalls had a son, Charles Frederick. Freddie, they called him. By the following summer, he was dead. In 1876, a daughter, Grace, was born. Perhaps her name signified a frail hope that their afflictions were at an end. Then Mary suffered a stroke, the lingering result of a case of the measles. She went blind. After that, they left for South Dakota.
Walnut Grove was a sad little town of railroad tracks and grain silos holding fast to its tenuous link to Laura Ingalls. In the museum we saw a sewing basket that resembled Laura’s and a quilt believed to have been sewn by her. The building also housed memorabilia connected to the television show, which was located in a highly fictionalized version of the town. Here was the mantel from the set; here, a plate collection with scenes from the series; here, panty hose worn by Allison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson; here, a scale model of the show’s house built out of 32,700 toothpicks. Down the road at the Little Café on the Prairie, where we stopped afterwards to get something to eat, the girls begged us to buy them “Laura’s Lunch Pail”—essentially an empty paint can with PB&J, an apple, and some licorice—all for $8.95. We couldn’t bring ourselves to do it, though. In the bathroom of the restaurant, a sign hanging above the toilet read, as if responding to my thoughts, “So what if this isn’t Home Sweet Home. Adjust.”
After lunch, we drove out to the actual site of the Ingalls’ dugout. What was once their homestead is now owned by the Gordon family. To get to the home site, you put $3 into a mailbox near their big white farmhouse and red barn, then drive past fields of corn and soy beans and swathes of prairie grasses to Plum Creek, which is hidden from view by thick vines and brush. We climbed a sandy bank to the site of the dugout, which had long since caved in. Now there was only a wooden sign marking the spot. “The Charles Ingalls Family’s dugout home was located here in the 1870s,” it informed us. “This depression is all that remains since the roof caved in years ago. The prairie grasses and flowers here grow much as they did in Laura’s time and the spring flows nearby.”
The girls were disappointed and began to pout. They liked the replicas, liked being able to lie in a cornhusk bed even if it wasn’t Laura’s cornhusk bed, liked riding in a covered wagon even if teenagers used to get drunk in it. For them, she became real only through the imagined. And for them, no home here on the Banks of Plum Creek was an offensive waste of their time.
But I found myself inexplicably moved. All along the bank, wild plum trees were growing in lush strands—maybe, I thought indulgently, grown from the seeds of trees Laura and Mary and Carrie picked from, seeds Ma discarded as she lay the fruit on clean sheets to dry in the sun. “The shade of the plum thickets was a thick shade,” Laura says of this exact spot (for we always especially desired that when we came to any place the corresponding passage from the book should be read). “Sunshine flickered between the narrow leaves overhead. The little branches sagged with their weight of plums, and plums had fallen and rolled together between drifts of long grass underfoot.”
Terry and the girls and I climbed up to the top of the bank and looked out over the open prairie of the tableland. Slender footpaths led among the trees and through the grasses, and the girls darted off along them. I could see their small backs disappearing into the brush. Mary Martha’s sunbonnet hung between her tiny shoulder blades.
Unlike at the museums we’d been to, the replica houses, here there were no reproductions, no attempts to preserve time, to annul time, to reverse it. Time had, in fact, gone on, had ravaged this site and erased all evidence of human habitation. Which was in its way pitiless, and thus just right. There was something honest about this wall of collapsed earth in a way that all the facsimiles we’d visited were lies. Here, on the banks of Plum Creek, all that had endured and thrived, continuously, as the sign said, from the Ingalls’ days to ours, had been the natural world—trees and grasses, water and sand.
Little House in the Big Woods
“I don’t think I would like to live back then anymore,” Ellie was saying, “because it just seems too hard and there were a lot of ways you could die—like of sicknesses. And doctors didn’t know what to do about them.” We were sitting on camp chairs around our fire in Wisconsin, near the town of Pepin, the girls debating the advantages and drawbacks of living in the olden days. Mary Martha, holding her blanket and sucking her thumb, agreed: “I think it would be hard to do all those chores,” she said, taking her thumb out of her mouth just long enough to make her statement. “And in the winter and stuff. From doing all those hay twists, my hands would get really, really sore.” “Yeah, and people, they have to wear long dresses and that’s very hot in summer,” piped in Sabine, who was curled up like a little kitten in my lap.
I looked up at the stars, which were near to me and clear against the darkness, little pinholes of light. The sky was so wide and open it seemed I could see from rim to rim. I felt dizzy, and thought I could sense the spinning earth beneath me. I was almost afraid, if I stood up, I might fall off.
“The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house,” Laura says in the beginning of her first book, “and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and wild animals who had their homes among them.” But the Big Woods and much of its wildness were gone now, most of it converted to pastureland. To get here, we’d driven along the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway, through green hills and valleys, past big red barns with stone foundations, Holstein cows with heavy, swaying udders, spruce trees, fields and fields of corn. We’d seen a facsimile of the Little House in the Big Woods, where Laura was born. At the museum in town, the woman behind the desk, who gave us directions to the home site, told us that the first log house the town built had to be reconstructed because people had stolen the chinking to take home as souvenirs. Relics of the saints, I’d thought, remembering that as early as 385 AD, armed deacons had to surround the True Cross in Jerusalem, which, like the Little House in the Big Woods, was certainly a reproduction, in order to prevent pilgrims from kissing it and taking a splinter away with their teeth.
Back in De Smet, South Dakota, I’d asked one of the tour guides why she thought so many people were drawn to the Little House books and to making this pilgrimage to see the homes Laura had lived in. “I think it’s the writing,” she’d said to me. “Remember, when Mary went blind, after she was struck by Scarlet Fever, Laura became Mary’s eyes. She had to see for Mary, and I think that’s where she learned to describe the land so beautifully.” If she did nothing else, Laura Ingalls Wilder preserved that land and that time—the clear creek, the prairie grasses, the slough, the big blue sky, the near stars. Maybe I love these little houses, these small towns, these wide prairies because they are so rapidly disappearing. Maybe I love them because they are vulnerable. And there is something about the vulnerability of the land that moves me in the same way as does the vulnerability of my children—both are changing and moving continuously toward some inexorable end.
I have an uncle who lives in Dent County in the Missouri Ozarks, not far at all from where Laura and Almanzo eventually settled with their daughter, Rose. On our way to see this last Little House in Mansfield, Missouri, we stopped to see him. Uncle Bob lives with Larry, his “roommate”—as my grandmother prefers to say—of more than thirty years. They share an apartment above an old general store in the town square. Larry is a self-described country lawyer. His offices are where the store used to be. My uncle keeps the books and gardens and has managed to learn Italian by listening to satellite television stations broadcast from Italy.
We had arrived the evening before and camped by the Black River, down the road from their place. In the morning, my uncle took us to see the Holler. In 1971, just a few years before my parents left the Midwest for The Woodlands, Bob and Larry and a small group of friends from St. Louis tried to found a new life, away from the city, away from modernity—reverse pioneering—on sixty-five wooded acres they called “Hippie Holler.” For centuries this forest had been the hunting grounds of the Osage, who had villages nearby with gardens where they grew their squash and corn and beans. These would have been the same Osage Laura watched leaving from the doorway of her Little House on the Prairie.
For three years, Uncle Bob and Larry lived in a tipi that they sewed themselves while they and the others built a house and put in a garden and tried to subsist. When I asked Uncle Bob as we drove through the forested hills if he was influenced more by the Native Americans, who once lived here, or by the homesteaders, who pushed them out, he told me, “Both. We just thought it was essential to know how to do things ourselves. We were trying to preserve arts that would be lost.”
When we arrived at the Holler, the sun was high and the cicadas frantic in the heat. We pushed through dense undergrowth as we climbed up towards the house. On our way, Uncle Bob pointed out the spring where they used to keep a stoneware crock for their—here I experienced a wave of unmitigated envy—butter and milk and homemade goat cheese. We passed the outhouse, which at one time had sported a stained glass window from an old church. Just beyond, through the trees, he said, was the stone chicken coop he’d mortared together himself one summer.
Though in a state of disrepair, the house Uncle Bob and Larry and their friends built was stunning. Arched doors lined the front and back of the house, made of stones collected from the land and paneled inside with walnut wood from trees on the property. A massive rock fireplace anchored one end of the cavernous space. It had the feel of a desolate medieval hall whose inhabitants had died ages and ages ago. “This is only half of what the house was imagined to be,” Uncle Bob told us as we stared, amazed at the craftsmanship, amazed that anyone living today could make—would bother to make—something so beautiful with only their own hands and some simple tools. “The kitchen was through that arch,” he explained, “and that other arch was going to open to a library. We had a player piano. There used to be a deck. We were going to build a greenhouse.”
In the end, though, this self-reliant life was impossible, as my uncle puts it, “for 1970s suburban thirty-year olds.” One of the couples, who was part of the core group, divorced and left the Holler. Eventually the others followed. And Larry had to move to town when he was elected prosecuting attorney or risk getting snowed in. Winter was coming on, my uncle told us, and it all just fell apart. “I couldn’t go back to the Holler for years and years because it was so depressing, the failure. And I can still sit up on a hillside there and hear all the noise it took to build it, what little there is.”
These Happy Golden Years
These Happy Golden Years ends on the day Laura marries Almanzo Wilder, as the couple lingers in their own little house, built by Almanzo, after their first meal together. “It’s a wonderful night,” Almanzo says to Laura, and she replies, “It is a beautiful world.” In her mind, she hears the voice of Pa’s fiddle and the echo of a song: Golden years are passing by, it goes. These happy, golden years.
Hardly. Farming was no easier on Almanzo and Laura than it had been on Pa and Ma. Drought and hail storms ruined their crops and kept them in debt. Diphtheria crippled Almanzo—he walked with a cane for the rest of his life. They had a daughter, Rose, in 1886, but their second child, a son, died of convulsions two weeks after his birth. Their house burned down. In a manuscript composed during the Great Depression for the Federal Writers’ Project, Rose Wilder Lane, by then a middle-aged woman, tells the story of her parents’ leaving South Dakota where, “It was a saying . . . that the Government bet a quarter section against fifteen dollars and five years’ hard work that the land would starve a man out in less than five years. My father won the bet,” she says. “It took seven successive years of complete crop failure, with work, weather and sickness that wrecked his health permanently, and interest rates of 36 per cent on money borrowed to buy food, to dislodge us from that land. I was then seven years old.”
Rose tells of their journey to the Missouri Ozarks in 1894, during the worst economic depression the United States had yet experienced, when twenty percent of the workforce was out of a job and commodity prices for farmers were plummeting. Transients clogged the roads and byways. “The whole country is just full of emigrants, going and coming,” Laura recorded in a journal of that trip by covered wagon. When they arrived in Missouri, Rose recalled, “It was strange not to hear the wind any more. My parents had great good fortune; with their last hoarded dollar, they were able to buy a piece of poor ridge land, uncleared with a log cabin and a heavy mortgage on it.” In time and with achingly hard work and frugality, this land became Rocky Ridge Farm: 200 acres in meadow, pasture, field, and wood lot; three houses with central heating, modern plumbing, refrigerators, electric ranges; garages for three cars. The American Dream.
When we pulled into Mansfield, the small town near Rocky Ridge, we were greeted by a sign that reminded us, “Seven Days Without Prayer Makes One Weak.” Because there was no campground to be found, we stayed near the highway at the Little House Inn, with its thin sheets and an air conditioner that rattled all through the warm night. We slept restlessly. In the morning we ate next door at the Little House Diner. We wished we were home. We couldn’t stand to see one more artifact loosely tied to Laura’s life, one more commemorative spoon in one more gift shop. Even the girls seemed exhausted. But like Pa and Ma, we forged ahead, cheerfully and without complaint. We took the tour of the white, rambling farmhouse on the hill that slopes down through trees to open pasture, where horses were grazing. We heard how Almanzo built the kitchen on a smaller scale to suit Laura’s tiny build. We walked through the bedroom where they slept in separate twin beds. The girls looked up at me questioningly. We saw the desk where Laura wrote the Little House books. We looked out the picture window that she wanted instead of art, a view that framed the hills. We viewed Pa’s fiddle, childhood books of Ma’s, Mary’s Braille slate, Laura’s sewing basket, Laura’s shawl, Laura’s iron, Laura’s bible. Afterwards, we sat outside in the grass beneath some shade trees. It was noon. None of us had anything to say. But I was thinking that the plenitude of Rocky Ridge is a happy ending, at least.
Laura began writing the Little House books in 1930, when she was sixty-three years old. Pa and Ma and Mary were all gone by then. Carrie and Grace lived far away. At the end of Little House in the Big Woods, Laura lies in bed listening to Pa’s fiddle playing softly, to the lonely wind.
She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.
She thought to herself, “This is now.”
She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.
The Little House books were written in nostalgia and longing for a time that was gone. They were written, perhaps, in an attempt to give life again, through memory, to what no longer remained. Sitting there on that grassy hillside with my children surrounding me, little wild flowers, I recalled the photographs of the Ingalls girls in their own youth, which we’d seen in the museums, how they had died years and years before my daughters were even born. “This is now,” I told myself. And I tried to hold on to the picture of my daughter’s faces, flecked by sunlight and shadow, before they got restless and stood up to walk away.