Where Wilder wrote the 'little house' books
A sojourn to Mansfield, Missouri, including rare seeds.
By Lisa Brunette
I highly recommend both places for a visit, making little-known Mansfield a worthy destination no matter where your journey originates.
Rocky Ridge Farm
While Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tales of pioneer life seem to be waning in popularity, for those of us who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they were iconic. I read Little House on the Prairie and Little House in the Big Woods over and over again, and these were among the books that made me dream at a young age of becoming a writer.
My mom even handmade bonnets for me and my sister to match the ones Laura and Mary wore.
I recently re-read the first six Wilder books as a way to learn what life was like before fossil fuels and industrialism. I think they have a lot to teach us about homesteading, and possibly, our own future.
The Wilder site is comprised of two homes, actually, as well as a museum and gift shop. You can take a guided tour of the farmhouse Laura and Almanzo built by hand at Rocky Ridge Farm, where they lived from the time the two were in their late twenties and thirties, respectively, until their deaths. They purchased a 40-acre plot in 1894, moving with their daughter, Rose, from South Dakota after Almanzo suffered a damaging bout of diptheria and they’d endured years of drought and crop failures.
There in a tiny room off the bedroom is Laura’s writing desk, where she wrote many of her books by hand, on a legal pad. You can see her home library and the stone fireplace made with rock quarried on the property. The kitchen Laura designed herself is tiny by today’s standards and decorated in her favorite colors, yellow and green. The stove must have been pretty fancy for her, considering the woodstoves of her youth, as captured in the novels.
You can tour the second home as well, one Rose Wilder Lane had built for her parents in the 1920s called “the rock house.” Lane was a wildly successful author in her own time who deserves credit for prompting her mother to write the books that would go on to worldwide fame. Some of the novels were written in the years when Laura and Almanzo resided there, but they missed their farmhouse too much and eventually moved back.
The museum is full of treasures, with numerous items from the Wilder family on display, most notably Pa’s fiddle, a key touchstone in the novels. Music helped this enduring family survive great hardship as pioneers.
The fact is that while there has been a good deal of discussion for and against women in business, farm women have always been business women, and I have never heard a protest. — Laura Ingalls Wilder
When you visit, make sure to stop at Mansfield’s town square, where there’s a lovely memorial to Laura Ingalls Wilder tracing her books’ publication dates. You might stay and eat in Mansfield as well. Try Vaccaro’s for from-scratch Italian food if you can get a seat, as locals seem to agree the food is tasty. I recommend the calzone. The town has steadily lost population over the last three census counts, and many downtown buildings were empty when we toured, so your patronage is surely welcome.
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Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co.
If you keep a vegetable garden, you probably already know Baker Creek for their heirloom seeds enclosed in packets adorned with vibrant, full-color photos. What you might not know is that you’re encouraged to visit their operations, and that includes an entirely preserved pioneer town, Bakersville.
On site is the seed store, an herbal apothecary, a mercantile, blacksmith shop, windmill, an old-time jail, bakery, poultry coops, and a speaker’s barn. The buildings were either already in place, as part of the founder’s original homestead, or brought to the site to be preserved. The whole thing is so dang picturesque, it’ll make you want to chuck it all and find a homestead of your own. Or else travel back in time to Wilder’s days.
There’s also a farm-to-table restaurant serving vegan fare, deliciously prepared. We had the homemade noodles with red-pepper sauce and hibiscus soda.
I challenge you to get through the seed store without breaking the bank. I hadn’t even thought about stocking up on seeds until I walked in there. I justified the first handful of seed packets on the basis that I was saving on shipping by buying them in person, but that doesn’t explain the massive mound I have to show for my lack of restraint. As the woman behind the register said to me at checkout, “It’s an addiction.” Indeed, if you do manage to resist but pop into the store theater to view videos chronicling rare seeds, that will get you right back out there looking for Chinese pink celery or green zebra tomatoes.
Though we haven’t been to any of these, Baker Creek sponsors a great many festivals throughout the year on everything ranging from the traditional fall harvest to tulips. It’s well worth the trek into the Ozarks backwoods to visit.