In Honor of the 150th birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Say the name Laura Ingalls Wilder and it conjures up images of homesteading families settling—and struggling—on the grassy wide-open prairies in the 1870-80s. (It also conjures up images of the long-running TV show, but I won’t go there.)
I read Wilder’s “Little House” series over and over as a child, and even do as an adult. Almost every winter I pull out “The Long Winter” to help me fully appreciate the “grueling” winters I’ve lived through, compared to the one when Laura’s family practically starved and children were almost lost in a raging blizzard after leaving school on foot. Over the years, I collected books about her life and the places she lived. I crossed Plum Creek on a foot bridge and Walnut Grove in Minnesota, which seemed more enamored with the TV series than the author.
The Missing Link
As an Iowa farm girl, what appealed most to me was Laura’s brief time spent in Burr Oak, Iowa. It’s a gap in her story as she never published a book about it, although there is an unfinished unpublished manuscript. The story of their time in Burr Oak falls between “On the Banks of Plum Creek” and “By the Shores of Silver Lake.” The family struggled financially and emotionally while in Burr Oak, which historians think may be why Laura didn’t publish the book. The lone bit of happiness came when Grace was born there.
In 1876, after grasshoppers completely destroyed the Ingallses’ wheat crop in Minnesota, the family decided to move to Burr Oak, located in northeast Iowa just south of the Minnesota border. Laura was nine at the time. William Steadman, a family acquaintance who owned Masters hotel, wanted the Ingalls family to help run it. Tragically, on the way to Burr Oak, Laura’s nine-month-old brother, Freddie, became seriously ill and died. He was buried near Zumbro Falls, Minnesota, and the mourning family had to continue on.
At first, the Ingalls family lived at the hotel in a small basement room across from the kitchen. They helped cook, clean and complete daily chores. Mary and Laura waited tables, did dishes, and watched the Steadman’s young son when they weren’t in school. Rooms at the Masters hotel rented for 25 cents a night. Guests either shared a bed with two other people or slept on the floor.
The family moved out of the hotel to rooms over Kimball’s Grocery, which was next door to a saloon. Pa didn’t like the work at the hotel, so he became a partner in a grist mill. When spring came, he sold his interest in the mill and did odd jobs on farms in the area, often working away from home. Pa didn’t like Ma and the girls staying alone all day next to a saloon, so he rented a house from Mr. Bisby, a wealthy hotel boarder, just outside of town.
But Pa, always the wanderlust, soon wanted to go west again. Ma and the girls longed to return to their friends in Walnut Grove. So in the summer of 1877, less than a year after moving to Burr Oak, the Ingalls family returned to Minnesota, closing a short unhappy chapter in their lives.
Burr Oak is Laura’s only childhood home still on its original site. The hotel is now a museum.