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Continued: On the trail of Laura Ingalls Wilder

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Last update: May 6, 2009 - 3:33 PM

My boys and I unbuckled our sandals and slid down a muddy bank, slipping our feet into the cool waters of Plum Creek -- Laura's Plum Creek.

Joe chased minnows. Isaac wandered into still, dark water, then suddenly stopped and lifted the hems of his shorts to examine his wet calves. Laura Ingalls, I recalled from reading her "Little House" books, had once taken revenge on mean Nellie Oleson by sending her to a similar spot -- maybe the same one. And I knew what Isaac was looking for: leeches.

Before I had children, I dreamed of taking my daughter on a pilgrimage to run in the prairies where Laura ran, to splash in the waters of Plum Creek. My husband, Jeff, and I were blessed with sons. Fortunately, Isaac, at 6 last summer, was as enthralled by the stories of Pa's can-do inventiveness and Laura's naughty streak as I had been. So we made the trip I'd longed for, traveling to several significant sites, including Plum Creek (though not in the same order as the wandering Ingallses). It would take us more than 450 miles, from Pepin, Wis., south to the Iowa border, and then north and west along Hwy. 14 through Mankato to Walnut Grove, Minn., and De Smet, S.D.

As we prepared for the trip, with Google maps, online travel guides, an iPod, cell phones, audiobooks and DVDs, I reflected on Ma's packing list: blankets, corn meal, salt pork, utensils, clothing, the little china shepherdess. Leave the rest behind.

City passed to suburb, farm and forest as the boys and I drove from the Twin Cities east to Pepin, Wis., Laura's birthplace. We followed a lonely road off the highway to a tiny replica cabin, built to replace the one that had gone from home to corncrib after the Ingallses' departure. I took in the cornfield behind the house, the few tall oak trees. The thick cloak of green described in "Little House in the Big Woods" had long ago been cleared for farming.

Isaac ran through the door, peered into the fireplace, climbed the ladder to the loft, checked out the two tiny bedrooms, then did it all again. No woods? No problem.

The boys ran outside, found sticks and started a sword fight. When Joe lost interest, Isaac looped his Pokemon cards onto the stick, which he slung over his shoulder all day.

From Pepin, we zig-zagged south along country roads in Wisconsin and Minnesota, bound for Burr Oak, Iowa, where the family moved from Walnut Grove, Minn., after the death of their infant son, Charles. Along the bluffs of Hwy. 43, red-tailed hawks and bald eagles wheeled overhead.

Tiny Burr Oak was silent and lonely on a Sunday morning. The museum we'd come to see -- the old Masters Hotel, which the Ingallses helped run during their difficult hiatus from Walnut Grove -- was closed. We passed time in a park. As I watched Joe and Isaac throw stones into a creek and play on a decrepit merry-go-round, I thought again of Ma, beaten back east to this town, mourning her only son, and I resolved to be more thankful.

When the museum opened, Clara Bergan -- a sweet 16-year-old whose claim to fame was as Little Miss Laura 2002-03 -- showed us the kitchen where Ma cooked and the bedrooms where Laura and Mary had bedmaking and chamber-pot duty. The boys tried not to touch the period china and textiles, but they enjoyed scratching on an old-fashioned slate.

We went home to Minneapolis for a few days, picked up Jeff, and then all four of us headed southwest. We looped to Mankato, our starting point on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, also known here as Hwy. 14.

Highway leads to old town

Farmer Stan McCone built a couple of sod houses, akin to the Ingallses' first home in Minnesota, on his property near a town made famous by Laura Ingalls, Walnut Grove. We paid $4 each to get into his Sod House on the Prairie and took a trip back in time.

Ten acres of tall-grass prairie stretched into the distance. As Jeff and I followed, the boys ran ahead, popping into doors, peering out the windows of the little sod-brick houses.

The place is a tourist trap, but this was no hands-off museum. Kids, in borrowed calico dresses and pinafores, coonskin caps, leather vests and bush hats, ran amok, immersed in playing olden-days, a game I'd once loved. A group of moms stood around trying to recall the details of each of the Ingallses' Walnut Grove homes. Clearly, their passion for Laura's books drove their vacations that year, as had mine.

McCone and his wife, Virginia, have two soddies on their 40 acres in Sanborn, Minn.

"I just wanted to see what one looked like," McCone said as we visited on his porch.

This was a busy Saturday. Our visit coincided with the Wilder pageant and festival in Walnut Grove, 20 miles west.

We pitched our tent at Plum Creek County Park and went for a swim in Laura Lake as a thunderstorm rolled in. We took refuge in the car and went to see the museum, in the old Walnut Grove depot.

As Jeff and I examined photographs and artifacts, and read the Ingalls-Wilder timeline, the boys were drawn to the back room, where reruns of the show played on a TV. In the gift shop, kids clamored for calico sunbonnets and cork rifles. By this time, I was beginning to fill in the gaps of Laura's story.

"I lived everything told of in the 'Little House' books," I had read her saying in "The Iowa Story," by William Anderson, "but I did not write all the truth."

As the clouds cleared, we got back in the car and headed north, out of town. Pay attention, I told the boys: This was the path Laura and her sister Mary walked to school.

Again, we pulled into a farm family's driveway; this one marked the Gordons. As we curved around a muddy road, I could see the heads of two sunbonneted girls bobbing through the tall, glistening-wet grass.

The dugout Ma made home

While the boys and I waded in Plum Creek, Jeff discovered a path behind the tiny dugout where the Ingalls family spent their first Minnesota winter, described so aptly in "By the Banks of Plum Creek."

The sun was getting low; we headed out, prairie on our left, plum groves on our right. The fruit was small and wormy, but these were Laura's plum trees. The prairie was a riot of coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and purple prairie clover. Laura's prairie.

We meandered back to our mud-spattered campsite. We struggled to make a fire with damp wood (Jeff managed in the end), and roasted hot dogs for dinner, despite my vague ideas about campfire johnny cakes and salt pork. We layered on jackets and jeans and joined the caravan to the charming town pageant, which chronicled Laura's days there.

I thought of Ma during the night, as my air mattress slowly lost its lift. How did she agree to be uprooted from field, friends and family by her husband's frontier fever? Where did she sleep, how did she care for her babies and cope with living out of a wagon, when what she truly wanted was a steady home and an education for her girls?

After flapjacks at Nellie's Café in town, we headed west.

Isaac and I remembered how Laura, Mary, Carrie, Ma and baby Grace had caught the train at the Walnut Grove depot, how Laura had promised to "see" for her sister, blinded by fever. As the boys dozed, Jeff and I watched the tracks follow us out of town and lead on westward.

We arrived in De Smet, S.D., around noon; the same trip had taken the Ingalls family a day and a half, even with help from the train. We followed signs to the Ingalls Homestead, a 160-acre farm museum.

I was dazzled by its bigness, by the blindingly blue sky and seemingly infinite prairie. The boys found a litter of kittens in a barn. Isaac was drawn to a wagon-wheel see-saw, Joe to a dark soddy down the hill. They took turns scrubbing cloths on a washboard; I asked why they didn't take this much interest in laundry at home.

We caught a covered wagon crossing the prairie. The driver, Brian Sullivan, 16, let the kids hold the reins. We disembarked at a schoolhouse, brought in from 5 miles east of town. The teacher, Cathy Kazmerzak Nelson of nearby Lake Preston, led kids through their lessons. The little kids, like Isaac, spelled their names or counted to three. The big kids tackled bigger words: apron, bonnet and pony (which Joe spelled correctly, thank you).

We headed back to town to see the surveyor's house, where the Ingalls family spent their first lonely winter as Dakota Territory pioneers, and to see the home Pa built for Ma when they moved to town soon after Laura married Almanzo Wilder.

It's a sweet, white house on a shaded street in town.

Ma got what she wanted. It was about time. Still, I found that I didn't want to linger at another museum.

My eyes were set west, to the Pierre Best Western.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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