I have long wanted to visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House sites scattered around the Midwest and decided this summer was the time to start with a quick trip to Pepin, Wisconsin—which also, coincidentally enough, is the closest to my West Michigan home.
One thing you should know about Little House Wayside, as the Little House In the Big Woods site is known, is that it’s in the middle of nowhere. Another thing you should know about this part of Wisconsin is that it’s gorgeous. This post will be about the Laura connection, my next about Pepin.
I started planning my visit by reading parts of Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life. McClure tried out all things Wilder from the Little House books, like grinding her own wheat and mixing up sourdough starter and churning butter. She also traveled to a number of the Little House sites. In some ways, her trip to Pepin was much like mine—quick and thrown together at the last minute. But McClure traveled to Pepin on a dreary March day, and I visited in August. So while she noted bare trees, gray skies, and Lake Pepin iced over, I saw lush green everywhere, brilliant blue sky, and sailboats dotting the lake.
And maybe because I read as much as I could about this Little House site before I visited, I wasn’t disappointed. I expected a reproduction cabin circa 1978. I expected the small, we-did-it-ourselves kind of museum. Laura, after all, was only five when she lived in the Big Woods, so she certainly didn’t leave a mark on Pepin, and the Ingalls family didn’t either. I don’t think I was quite as
disillusioned disappointed as McClure seemed to be after her visit to Pepin.
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum might better be called an interpretive center. Its recent expansion includes four rooms: a model kitchen, a room filled with household items from the era, a school room, and a room that houses a play area for small children and a covered wagon. There’s also a bookstore with the requisite Christmas tree ornaments, calico bonnets, coloring books, and postcards. I toured the rooms in fairly short order (no kids begging for a Little House book; no little ones to drag away from the play kitchen!) and wasn’t disappointed. I purchased a book (what else?!) titled Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder about the writer Laura—only two chapters are devoted to her childhood and courting years. Most of the book is about the adult Laura and her writing career. Can’t wait to start reading.
The collection of artifacts is impressive for such a small place, but the only items having any personal connection to Laura are a quilt from her teacher in the Big Woods and a donated quilt that had once belonged to Wilder. The docent explained that the entire museum is pretty much the efforts of a local artist couple who does the collecting, displays, and signage—and their love of All Things Laura shows. I wondered, however, what the efforts of an enthusiastic historian from a nearby university might add to the museum. What a great Master’s project for a budding curator.
The Little House Wayside is seven miles out of town on Country Route CC. It’s a beautiful drive through the winding roads of Wisconsin farm country. The Big Woods have made way for corn and beans. While the roads aren’t canopied by old growth forest, plenty of woods are left so that if you squint out the farm fields, you can almost imagine the miles and miles of forest that was just being tamed in the mid-nineteenth century.
My biggest surprise were the hills. Known as the Driftless Area, this part of Wisconsin remained untouched by glaciers during the last ice age. The gorgeous landscape is one of rolling hills and rocky bluffs, which I don’t remember being mentioned at all in Little House In the Big Woods. Pa, remember, walked the seven miles to town (Pepin) to sell the furs he had collected trapping all winter and I’m guessing the hike was made quite a bit longer in order to go around those hills.
The cabin itself is surrounded by cornfields. Built in 1978 it is an unfurnished replica of the Little House: a main room, small store room, and the loft. When I read the Little House books, I always wanted to sleep in that loft—and when I saw it, I still thought the same! Even though far from the fire, I’m guessing that loft was pretty snug and warm with the heat rising to the top of the cabin.
One of my school’s-out-for-the-summer gifts to myself was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. The book, published by South Dakota Historical Society Press, is the definitive book for readers who enjoyed the Little House books as children and want to read what is basically Wilder’s first draft of those books.
The night before I visited the sites in Pepin, I read the chapter “Wisconsin, 1871-1874” from Pioneer Girl. Sitting in a cozy B & B, the sun was setting over the river which was just visible from my window. Trains rumbled by every so often. A sprinkler hit the side of the house in perfect swish swish rhythm. I had chocolate buttercream pie left over from dinner and a stack of books by my side … a perfect way to end a long day of travel and get ready for a day visiting the Little House Wayside.