By Cindy McKendall
Did you grow up reading the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder? Did you know that Laura wrote all those books only 379 miles from Champaign-Urbana?
Though none of her books are set there, she lived most of her adult life in Mansfield, a small town in the Missouri Ozarks. After her death in 1957 her home, Rocky Ridge Farm, was turned into a museum that attracts visitors from all over the United States.
As a Laura fangirl, I was thrilled to find out that it was so close. With my friend Jenny, a fellow fangirl, I planned a long weekend to visit Mansfield. We decided to drag all our daughters along, even though none of them are big Laura fans. All four girls (ages 5-9) were up for the adventure, though – probably because we promised to stay in a hotel with an indoor pool. Plus, we told them that if they behaved well and didn’t complain about being bored, we’d take them to the City Museum the next day.
Our visit to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum started off in the museum building, where we paid admission. The museum houses hundreds of possessions and artifacts from Laura and her family. You can look at clothes, photographs, dishes, and so much more.
A highlight of the museum is Pa’s fiddle, which sits in a glass case near the entrance, but I got chills looking at Laura’s china jewel box, next to the fiddle. Laura wrote about getting the jewel box for Christmas in On the Banks of Plum Creek, one of my favorite books. We all browsed in the museum for quite a while. The kids enjoyed looking at Laura’s sewing machine and a reproduction of the buggy that she traveled in to Missouri. Meanwhile, I got teary reading a letter from Laura’s sister Carrie with the news that their oldest sister Mary didn’t have long to live. I could have stayed in the museum for hours, just looking at everything.
When it was time for our house tour, a big group of us were ushered into another building to watch a short video about Laura and Mansfield. Our guide, a retired gentleman, mentioned that his wife had known Laura personally, and he instantly became my new favorite person. He was friendly and informative, answering questions from the group.
Afterward, the big group was split into two smaller groups to tour the house itself. Laura’s house has been kept much the same as it was when she lived there, except for the kitchen floor. The guide told us that the floor has been replaced three times because of all the foot traffic from thousands of visitors! It was fascinating to see the details of the house, like the countertops that were built for Laura’s small stature, and the clock that her husband wound every night. We got to hear the clock chime noon, which was really neat. Our guide was full of information about how the house was built almost one room at a time, and added on to as the farm became more prosperous.
The house tour went by quickly, and next we had the opportunity to take pictures outside the house. The kids played outside in the yard a little bit, and then we went to the bookstore/gift shop. The quaint little shop carries rag dolls, sunbonnets, CDs of fiddle music and, of course, everything that Laura wrote. I bought a couple of books to add to my Laura bookshelf (which is really getting full).
We ended our visit to Mansfield by paying our respects at the graves of Laura, her husband Almanzo, and their daughter Rose, who are all buried in the town cemetery. I can’t wait to go back someday, to visit the new museum building and see all the things I missed this time. Jenny and I might leave the kids at home next time and visit some wineries along the way. We’ll make sure to raise a glass to Laura.
Where to stay/eat: Because Mansfield is so small, it doesn’t have many hotel or restaurant choices. We opted to stay in Springfield, Mo., about an hour’s drive from Mansfield. The Comfort Inn in Springfield was clean and reasonably priced, with a good free breakfast. (Branson is another sort-of-nearby option, about 75 miles from Mansfield.) We ate lunch at Cozumel, a decent Mexican restaurant just off the town square. It’s one of only three restaurants in Mansfield.
If you go, check the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum website for directions, hours and admission fees. The museum is open from March 1 to Nov. 15. Kids under 6 get in free!