Raised as a pioneer girl on the virgin prairie lands of the 1870’s, eighteen-year-old Laura Ingalls married a Dakota homesteader ten years her senior in 1885—and started a whole new story. She had already lived a lifetime full of adventure—and hardship—and the stories of her growing up in the wild new frontiers of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa, and South Dakota are the ones that got told to the millions she wrote for in her later life. But did you know that Laura Ingalls Wilder, famed author of the Little House on the Prairie series of children’s novels, actually lived most of her life not on the “wide-open” prairie but as a farmer’s wife on a little wooded ridge in the Ozarks of southern Missouri?
Nobody worked harder to make the drought-ridden farmland of De Smet, South Dakota, produce a crop than Almanzo “Manly” Wilder and his vivacious, spirited, and hard-working wife “Bess” (Laura’s middle name was Elizabeth). But the economy was a disaster, they got only one good wheat crop in a half-dozen years, and, to make an already devastating situation that much worse, Almanzo suffered a stroke during a bout with diphtheria that left him partially crippled in his hands and feet. Finally, in 1894, after getting her Pa to play his fiddle one last time, the young couple packed up all of their worldly goods, crowded them into a Morgan-horse-drawn wagon along with their only child, eight-year-old Rose, and headed off toward paradise—Mansfield, Missouri—where verdant valleys and hills covered in apple orchards and pine forests welcomed their dreams of a better life.
And once they got there, they never left. Long before Laura became one of the world’s favorite children’s authors, she and Almanzo had become a favorite couple of Mansfield and the surrounding rural region. They turned a couple of hundred acres of mountain forest into one of the most well-maintained and productive farms in the area, and Almanzo built Laura every farmer’s wife’s dream home made “stick by stick” from materials they harvested from their own little Rocky Ridge. In addition to the apple orchard they tended, he devoted himself to his beloved Morgan horses while she raised chickens—and told lots of growing-up stories to Rose.
Rose grew up a stellar pupil (her mom had taught school at age fifteen) and left the dawn-to-dusk work-to-the-bone labor of farm life to find her way in the bigger world as a writer. She found quite a bit of success in those early years of the twentieth century, and as she watched her parents age, she tried to think of how she might help them get ahead just a little in the money side of things. The farm kept them fed and warm, and they were really quite content for the most part, but the Wilders didn’t have plans for how they might provide for their latter years. Laura had written a few articles on farm life for local periodicals. So Rose suggested “Mama Bess” try her hand at writing down the stories of her childhood, of her growing up on the prairie in the 1870’s. Laura, in her sixties by now, thought it a lovely idea and gave it a shot—and the parents and children of successive generations are mighty glad.
Mansfield is glad too. Almanzo and Laura are now long gone, but Rocky Ridge Farm lives on as a tribute to the hard work of these beloved Mansfield neighbors—as well as a project of the National Trust for Historical Preservation and a Laura Ingalls Wilder–Rose Wilder Lane Museum. You can tour the grounds and houses, see Pa’s fiddle, peruse handwritten manuscripts for the “Little House” books, and observe all sorts of other artifacts and interesting keepsakes of the Wilder and Ingalls families. And every third weekend in September the town of Mansfield and “Little House” fans from all over come together to celebrate “Wilder Days,” a Friday and Saturday festival featuring parades, Laura and Almanzo look-alike contests, Ozark music, and dramatic performances featuring the century-and-a-half-year-old memories left by this lovely and talented southern Missourian—a pioneer in more ways than one from first to last.
And everyone who knew her, or who knows someone who did, would tell you little five-foot-tall Laura would be right there in the center of it all were she still alive, playing hostess on her own front porch, talking up a storm, telling story after story, and getting somebody to get that fiddle down and play it one more time.