Laura Ingalls Wilder would love the new museum on Rocky Ridge
It was one of those perfect days on an early spring Sunday afternoon that inspire people to head out somewhere, and the new $2 million Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum was open for visitors within sight of her home on Rocky Ridge.
A grand opening has been scheduled for April 22, a week after Wilder is inducted into the Missouri State University Public Affairs Hall of Fame (see events schedule at left).
Word is that the case that protects “Dear Pa’s” prized fiddle will be opened for a rare performance, the same German fiddle that Charles Ingalls played as his daughters danced to keep warm in The Long Winter. Her father protected his fiddle in the arduous and even dangerous journeys by covered wagon described in Little House on the Prairie.
The new, state-of-the art museum is within site of Rocky Ridge Farm. Designed by Jon Dodd of Buxton Kubik Dodd Creative Architects & Interior Design, it resembles a barn that looks like it was always there.
Jean Coday, the long-time director of the museum says the new facility will house many of the same exhibits from the original museum built in 1973, but in a new way, properly lit in custom cabinets and frames.
As you might expect, a well-stocked gift shop offers her books and autobiography, hand-made jewelry and a variety of other souvenirs.
“We had homemade cases and such at the old museum and it just wasn’t proper for taking care of these historic items,” says Coday. “This is such an improvement.”
Rightfully so since the museum holds the most comprehensive collection of Ingalls/Wilder memorabilia anywhere, including first-edition books, seven of Wilder’s original manuscripts and countless other personal items.
When she was 16, Laura Ingalls became a teacher. When she was 18, she married Almanzo Wilder, giving up her eligibility because married women weren’t allowed to teach.
When she was 65, again needing money after some poor investments went sour, she turned to writing, telling the stories of a family that fell on the hardest of times farming in several states, including nearby Kansas, where they homesteaded on what turned out to be land that was part of the Osage Indian Reservation.
They settled in Iowa, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Eventually, they bought 40 acres, including an established apple orchard east of Mansfield, then a scrawny little village in Wright County.
Their intention was to sell apples from the orchard, but they soon rented a house in town, which the historical society owns.
Almanzo delivered freight on a “hackwagon,” to help make money. Laura baked pies using apples from Rocky Ridge. She also raised chickens. Eventually, she went to work in the land office in nearby Hartville to the north, where farmers borrowed money, including the Wilders.
They kept their money at the oldest business in Mansfield, the Bank of Mansfield, still under the direction of Jean Coday, campaign chair of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum, who has made the project her life’s passion
“They were just common, everyday folks,” recalls Kay Davis,who remembers her frequent visits to his grade school class.
“She liked to walk to town, but she didn’t like to walk on the sidewalk.”
Eric Dodson,, is far too young to have known Wilder, but he loves history:
“The Ozarks was a hard place to live, because of the soil,” says Eric Dodson, a Mansfield native who now teaches fifth grade in Rogersville “It’s a hard way of life.”
Young boys who lived on the farm would kill rabbits with a rock and sell them in town. Eventually, they would kill quail and stuff them in a rabbit, then freeze them for shipment on the “Memphis Line” in a barrel “That was how they made money then. It was hard.”
Almanzo cut and sold sold firewood for 40 cents a cord.“Wish I could get some wood for that price now,” someone jokes.
Laura’s oldest daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was sent off the school with her grandparents in Louisiana. Eventually, Mary married a journalist, became famous and noteworthy herself as a travel writer and philosopher. (Along with Ayn Rand, she is credited with having starting the Libertarian movement.)
Soon Rocky Ridge was 200 thriving acres. When the Depression hit, the Wilders lost heavily in the stock market crash, having followed their daughter’s investment advice.
And that is why Laura Ingalls Wilder became a writer, like most of us, to earn extra money. You can read all this in her autobiography, Pioneer Girl, published in 2014 by the South Dakota Historical Society.
Having gotten her start as a writer when “The Ruralist” published her stories about growing up, she was encouraged to turn them into her first novel, Little House in the Woods.”
Eventually, there were nine books by Wilder from 1932 to 1943. The ninth volume was published posthumously in 1971. “Little House on the Prairie” aired for 10 years from 1974-84, starring Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon. It is still in syndication
Once a year, Mansfield turns back to clock, cranks up the music on the bandstand, with vendors lining the square selling a little bit of everything.
At the Mansfield Area Historical Society, 111 Park Square West (417) 924-4041), you can browse artifacts that define the history of the town.
Laura Ingalls Wilder would be proud of her adopted home town.