If someone gave me a plane ticket and told me I had to use it to visit a Laura Ingalls Wilder homesite but I could only pick one, it would probably be a difficult decision. Each homesite has its own unique charm and they all contribute to the story of LIW but when it's all said and done, I know where I'd go if I could only pick one. I'd go back to where it all began...for me.
Back in the dark ages, before Google searches and the Internet, we had to get all our research information from books. Nowadays if some kid wants to learn about Laura, within minutes she will find out about all the books she wrote, all the Ruralist articles and have directions to each and every homesite. But back when I was in school, I didn't know about any of that stuff. I just knew about the Little House books that I could borrow from my library. I knew she was real but I didn't know you could visit the very places she had written about and see the houses she lived in.
Until a biography came out that changed everything.
This book came out in 1977 and changed everything for me. Despite the TV series cover (yuck), there were pictures of the real Laura and the real Ma and Pa inside and although they weren't as pretty as the TV actors, I found them fascinating and I loved learning so much about the real Laura.
Of course better biographies have come out since but this one had a special treasure waiting for me on the back pages - the contact information for each of the homesites. And that's the most important thing I learned from this book - THERE WERE HOMESITES! But they were all so far away from Virginia, scattered across the mid-west in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, Missouri and the furthest of all - South Dakota. Sigh. I wanted to see them so badly but it just wasn't going to happen.
But then, a couple of years after the book came out, a miracle. My parents were planning a cross-country trip to visit my grandparents and Dad was holding business meetings along the way. Somewhere in the planning it came out that he had meetings in...wait for it...South freakin' Dakota! Oh happy day, I was finally going to get to visit De Smet, the best of all homesites because that's where Laura and Almanzo fell in love.
Except, oh the horror, Dad had a meeting one night in Sioux Falls and another one the next night in Rapid City, clear across the state. There was no time to spend a day or two in De Smet. I was crestfallen so Dad said that if we got up really early we could drive out of our way to De Smet and be there around 6am and see the town but we could only spend an hour because then we had to be on our way to Rapid City to make the meeting that night.
So I wrote a letter to the LIW Memorial Society address that was listed in the back of my book, explained my situation and asked what I might be able to see from the outside that early in the morning. Keep in mind that, because there was no Internet, I had no idea what they had there or what the town looked like. Now I could just go to my friend Zoie's site, Frontier Girl, get all that information and make a plan but back then, I was flying in the dark so I really wanted to make sure there were places we could drive by so that we weren't wasting our time.
My parents didn't really expect that I'd hear back but one day there was a fat letter from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society in De Smet, South Dakota. It was from a wonderful woman named Vivian Glover, who was the president at that time. She took pity on me and told me she'd meet me at the Oxbow Restaurant at 6am and take us on a personal tour.
And that's exactly how my first Little House homesite visit happened. Mrs. Glover met us at the restaurant and we followed her back to the Memorial Society. She took us through the Surveyor's House and then over to the Third Street house. I got to spend as much time as I wanted (keeping in mind that we had to leave to drive across the state, of course) and ask all the questions I could think of without having to compete for space and attention with a noisy group of tourists. I repaid her kindness by buying up everything in the gift shop, I had come prepared for that and had been saving money for months. I still have most of the things I bought and they are so special to me.
You may have noticed a raven-haired doll in my pictures. The pictures are from my 2010 trip with Mr. French but the doll is my prized possession from that trip from long ago.
|Charlotte enjoying a pancake man in 2010|
Meet Charlotte. She's modeled after a doll that Laura got as a kid, the story is in Little House in the Big Woods, and I adore her. She was the first thing I picked up in the gift store all those years ago and she's been my favorite companion ever since. She reminds me of the kindness of strangers who are brought together through a common interest. She reminds me of Mrs. Glover who went out of her way to be nice to a girl just because we both had a passion for the writings of another girl that neither one of us got a chance to meet. She reminds me that you never know the lasting impact you can have on another person.
So, even though I love all the homesites (and I desperately want to re-visit Mansfield, Missouri sometime soon because it's been too long since I've been there) if I had to choose just one, I know which one it would be. It would be my first.