by H e a t h e r B e r r y | h b e r r y @ r u r a l m i s s o u r i . c o o p
In the heart of the Ozarks about 40 miles east of Springfield lies the little town of Mansfield, population 1,300. It’s one of those places you drive through and feel as if you should slow down and soak in the beauty of the old town square or visit the locals at the town cafe over a cup of coffee.
But no matter why you’re there, don’t miss the opportunity to see Mansfield’s tourism jewel, Rocky Ridge Farm, home of author Laura Ingalls Wilder for more than 55 years.
“We’ve had visitors from every state and 30 countries,” says Jean Coday, director of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum. “Her books are loved worldwide.”
The home and museum, served by Se-Ma-No Electric Cooperative, draws nearly 35,000 people annually.
Jean adds that many foreign visitors say the Wilder home is what brought them to the United States and that the tourists often know more about the place than many Missourians.
Laura’s saga begins in South Dakota. Laura married Almanzo James Wilder on Aug. 25, 1885, and settled on his farm just north of DeSmet, S.D. Here, the couple faced what would be the hardest times of their lives.
Their crops were ruined by hail storms. Diphtheria struck the family and both Laura and “Manly,” as she often called her husband, suffered terribly. Almanzo tried to return to farm work too early, relapsed and suffered a stroke and partial paralysis. He never totally recovered. Then came a devastating fire that destroyed their home in 1889, followed by a four-year drought.
What must have been one of the few joys during those tough years was the birth of their daughter, Rose, in 1886. They also had a little boy in 1888, but the baby lived only days and was buried in a prairie grave near DeSmet.
Living in a rented home and working hard to save what they could, Laura and Almanzo decided to pick up and leave the prairie that had taken so much from them. Their dream was of “the land of the big red apple” they’d heard about in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri.
After 650 grueling miles and 45 days of travel, the Wilders ended up in Mansfield in August 1894. With only $100 to their names, the young couple bought a 40-acre farm with a small one-room cabin and began clearing the land Laura soon aptly named Rocky Ridge.
Eventually, they owned 200 acres and cleared 80 of them. Laura and Almanzo had an orchard, raised hogs, sheep and Morgan horses. Their leghorn hens and Jersey cows were the pride of the farm. Over the years, Almanzo added one room at a time to the house, until it had 10 rooms in 1913.
While the family built their Ozark dream home, daughter Rose had grown up and settled in California where she worked on the staff of the San Francisco Bulletin. As Rose’s journalism career developed, Laura’s did also. In 1911, at age 44, Laura’s first article was printed by the Missouri Ruralist. She also wrote for the St. Louis Star, Globe-Democrat and McCalls, among others.
By 1917, Rose had become a well-known writer on the West Coast. The Red Cross asked her to travel to Europe during World War I to report on conditions. When she returned to the states, Rose asked her mother to write down the pioneer tales she had heard all her life so they would not be forgotten.
Laura took on the task, thinking that her memories might help Rose in her own writings. Rose was impressed with her mother’s work and showed it to the editors at Harper and Brothers. After their review, Rose sent them back to her mother with the comment, “These are good, but put some meat on them.” She did and, in 1932, at the age of 65, Laura’s “Little House in the Big Woods” was published. So successful, it was marketed as “the book the Depression couldn’t stop.”
Children wrote to her from everywhere, begging for more pioneer stories. She began the next in what became a series of nine books, covering her pioneer life from the 1870s to the 1890s. Laura captured in vivid detail the joys and trials of prairie homesteading, traveling in covered wagons, encounters with American Indians and surviving the hard winters and droughts through the years.
Although the townsfolk knew of Laura’s writing ability from her articles, to many people around Mansfield she was mainly a farmer’s wife and neighbor. Cleo Chambers, a Mansfield native, remembers Mrs. Wilder from childhood.
“My aunt lived across the road from the Wilders,” she recalls. “I was about 8 years old, and I would help my cousin when he gathered eggs or helped milk the cows on the Wilder’s farm. I remember going into their kitchen and seeing Mrs. Wilder at the kitchen table.
“She was quiet and kept to herself as I recall,” adds Cleo, 79, who works at the Wilder home each summer. “I can still see the teacher at our one-room school reading the Little House books to us just like I read them to my granddaughter today.”
On Oct. 29, 1949, Almanzo, 92, died at his Mansfield home. The Wilders had been happily married for 64 years, 55 of those spent in Mansfield.
Laura’s remaining years were filled with public appearances, school visits, book signings and visits from friends. She spent her quiet hours crocheting fine lace, quilting or reading.
The writer celebrated her 90th birthday on Feb. 7, 1957. Three days later, she died and was buried next to Almanzo in the Mansfield cemetery.
More than 80 years after writing her first “Little House” book, Laura’s pioneer stories still resonate with readers of all ages.
Portions of this story are reprinted from “Mansfield’s Best Kept Secret,” which was printed in Rural Missouri’s September 1996 issue.
Article and photos courtesy of Rural Missouri magazine. You can see their link on the “Guest Authors” page.
(We have no affiliation with this book or author.)