Parenting “Little House” Style–If Only We Could

September 30, 2008

One of the most venerable online publications, Slate, has delivered my favorite type of writing: the kind that combines Laura Ingalls Wilder, modern times, and parenting all in one:

This tempts me to let loose the Laura Ingalls Wilder lecture. No, I won’t spare you. In The Little House in the Big Woods, when Laura is about 5, she gets one rag doll named Charlotte. One.

Here’s the full article.


Laura Visits Laura

September 27, 2008

Say what you will about the man who’s served as this country’s president for the first eight years of the 21st century, but his wife has darned good taste in books.

Back in 2002, Laura Bush invited board members of De Smet’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society (as well as Laura heavyweights Bill Anderson, John Miller, and Les Kelly) to a special symposium at the White House. Last spring she told Newsweek that reading the Little House series was one of her greatest literary memories.

And this weekend, the press in Springfield, Missouri — big sister to Laura’s hometown of Mansfield — is reporting that Mrs. Bush will be visiting Rocky Ridge next Friday, October 3. Mansfield residents, justifiably, are giddy with anticipation, preparing the town’s Sunday best.

No doubt, if she’s the fan she says she is, she’ll be mesmerized. I’d go if I could, but it’s too long of a trip to make at the last minute. I hope fans who are close by can make it. If you do, please report back!

Seems like as good a reason as any to reinstate Rocky Ridge Day …

The Harborview Cafe Deserves Its Own Post

September 25, 2008

Over the years I’ve gotten used to homesite dining. Establishments draw me in and, at times, squeeze me out. I have my favorites, but the list is small. To be fair, the homesites are all in small towns. Restaurants have to cater to the local clientele, and when that clientele isn’t that large, it’s only natural that their menus stick pretty closely to the standard fare. While that standard fare can be tiresome, it isn’t always. There is a fine line between country home-cooking and a menu that depends on burgers and the deep fryer. If you’re like me and consider one of the joys of traveling to be getting a chance to eat outside of that standard fare, the frustration of small-town dining can feel particularly acute.


Such was my expectation when I arrived in Pepin. But as I discovered so many times on this trip, expectations have a way of being shattered.


My first night in the area was a culinary bust. I drove straight from the airport to Wabasha, but I was still too late to catch both the Irish pub fare and the Chinese across the street. I had a granola bar for dinner. And a big glass of water.


Next day, I partook of some good home cookin’ from the various food vendors at Laura Ingalls Wilder Days. Later that afternoon, back in Wabasha, my friend Laura and I decided we’d try our hand at Wisconsin dining. We’d heard the Pickle Factory was good, so that was on our list. Earlier, scouting the eating options, I’d also driven by a place called the Harborview Café.

Harborview Cafe in Pepin, Wisconsin

Harborview Cafe in Pepin, Wisconsin

It hadn’t been open at the time, but by the time we got back to Pepin and parked, there was a line out the door. Maybe the Pickle Factory it would be.






But I was intrigued by the Harborview Café and suggested we go in to see how long the wait was. Forty-five minutes to an hour. Laura and I looked at each other. How hungry were we? How much did we want to wait? The atmosphere was among the most inviting I’d ever seen. The walls above me were lined with books; families with children dined alongside sophisticated couples sipping wine.


“You won’t regret it if you wait,” a voice said. The voice belonged to Josie, a young woman from nearby Red Wing who’d traveled to Pepin specifically to dine at the Harborview. “This place is amazing.”

We decided to trust her and put our name in. We took the opportunity to wander around the lake shore. Boats bobbed in the harbor. Trains sped past between the harborside road and the lake. I remarked that the Minnesota shore looked a lot closer than Laura made it sound in Little House in the Big Woods. We both snapped pictures and enjoyed our leisurely investigation of harborside Pepin. By the time I’d selected a necklace charm from an artisan jewelry store, Bnox Gold and Iron Works, a few doors down from the restaurant, we started to worry that maybe we’d missed our chance to eat. The man in charge, whom I wasn’t sure was the bartender or the manager or the owner, saw us come in. “I was just about to call you.”



BNOX Gold and Iron Works in Pepin, Wisconsin


The restaurant’s entryway opened on both sides, and he led us to the side we hadn’t been in. “Menu’s on the chalkboard,” he said. Indeed it was. We sat and proceeded to enjoy a meal unlike any I’d expected to find in Pepin, Wisconsin. I savored my tomato soup studded with gorgonzola. The stuffed mushrooms were laden with full cloves are garlic. I even congratulated myself on my wine selection, which suited the curry entrée I’d selected perfectly. I saw Josie stick her head in the room and survey the crowd. Before I could decide whether to gesture to her, she spied us and headed to our table. “I just wanted to see how you were doing. Oh, you got the mushrooms! Isn’t that garlic great? You’re glad you stayed, right?”


Her Minnesota accent was irresistible. If you’ve heard native Minnesotans speak, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Enough said.


The owner himself came over to check on us. Josie had told him we were from Kansas, and he wanted to know how his travelers liked their food. I’d never seen a restaurateur so down to earth. And later on, when we left, Josie was outside with her companions waiting for us to see how it all went.


Best homesite dining experience ever.

Longing For Home?

September 24, 2008

Rebecca commented:

I remember all the comments in Malone of people marveling at the beauty, and I remember thinking, Okay… it just looks… normal. That’s how I feel about Pepin too. It just looks normal. Pretty, sure, but normal. But De Smet… those prairies! Absolutely awe-inspiring! I could never live there, but do I ever drink in the views while I’m there. Having lived in the mountains my entire life, I had never before seen anything to match the splendor of that flat open prairie before my first Little House trip.

I therefore find it interesting that you, who being in Kansas I assume see prairie-like land all the time, marvel at the beauty of places like Pepin and Malone that look much more like the kind of places I see every day. I guess it’s all beautiful, it’s just what’s new and different that provokes such inspiration.

Then DakotaGirl added:

I stand in awe at both De Smet and Pepin because neither are like my home state.

Both comments got me thinking. More than a little bit of my awe over the beauty of Pepin and Malone is rooted in my Bouchie-like disdain for the empty and perpetually windy plains. I’m never far from longing for the trees and slight breezes of the state I’m from. I do prefer the South Dakota landscape over my own, with its abundance of hills and even a natural body of water or two. But basically, yes, Malone and Pepin call to me because it’s what I miss. I was projecting. I’m glad it was pointed out to me.

Then I took it a step further in my head. Laura, after living in the rocky Ozark hills for over thirty years, incorporated the landscape of the land she grew up on so much into her autobiographical work it was almost its own character. Was Laura missing her homeland too? How much of her sentence choice was rooted in her longing? Was the beauty of those treeless hills and open sky looming perpetually in her mind, forever out of her reach, even as she made her home in the mountains? And was the Little House series in aggregate as much a tribute to that land as Little House in the Big Woods was to Pa’s stories?

It’s something I’ll continue to think about.

Although I love the looks of Pepin, it’s not the landscape that makes me think I’d be able to make my home there. It’s the people. More on that in my next post.

Pepin’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Days — September 13-14, 2008

September 22, 2008

When Rose Wilder Lane saw Pepin, so the story goes, she declared that if this area of Wisconsin were in Europe, people would flock to it.

Now that I’ve been there, it’s easy to see why. Laura fans know that each homesite has a different feel, and moreover, that feel may seem different from person to person. I’ll be honest and admit that I didn’t have the highest of expectations when I headed to Pepin. It’s the site I’ve heard the least about. It was my sixth homesite to visit; I was going there, essentially, to cross Pepin off my “list.” I assumed it wouldn’t make much of an indent in my collection of Laura travels.

I love it when I’m wrong.

Through visiting Laura’s homesites, I have developed a deep appreciation for the Midwestern small town. Each homesite, in its own unique way, has its particular relationship with Laura–a blend of the portrayal of the site in the books, the town’s current residents, and the overall attitude towards Laura. Often this relationship manifests in one of two eventual ways: either the Laura portion is isolated from the rest of the town, or the people politely accept Laura as their town’s meal ticket. You got no sense of either of these in Pepin. Everything was fully integrated. Pepin residents may love Laura, but they love their town just as much. Pepin drew me in in a way a homesite has never done. I felt absolutely welcome. For the first time ever in my Laura travels, I looked around and thought: I could live here.

Out of all of the homesites I have been to, only Malone rivals Pepin in sheer beauty. Glorious trees, rolling hills of farmland, greenery. And this was all noted, it must be said, in the rain. Saturday morning of Pepin’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Days, as I drove the few miles from Wabasha across the Mississippi, I kept one eye on the sky. The weather didn’t look promising. But the rain mostly held off in the morning, spitting and drizzling. I parked at the museum, which sits side by side with the gift shop on Pepin’s main drag. The museum is large and airy and not quite full; you get the sense that much more can be made of it. Conversely, the gift shop is adorned with many artifacts that give the shop a museum-like feel. I bought a hardback Little House in the Big Woods there to join my Malone-bought Farmer Boy and Little House on the Prairie purchased in Independence (an idea shamelessly stolen from Amy Matson Lauters, author of The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane and RWL expert extraordinaire). Suzanne, behind the counter of the gift shop, generously offered to retrieve a newer-looking book from the back to replace the slightly worn one I’d picked up.

A few blocks down the road—I parked at the gift shop and walked—was the park that was set up for Laura Ingalls Wilder Days. I noted that Sarah Sue Uthoff’s talk at the Pepin Library wasn’t until 11, so I headed to the main stage just in time for — I checked my schedule — the spelling bee. The spelling bee! Now maybe I’m just a big nerd, but nothing pumps my adrenaline like a spelling bee. I sat next to a woman whose daughter finished second; her excitement, and that of her mother next to her, was palpable. I marveled at the sleek craftsmanship of the stage, recently built expressly for Laura Ingalls Wilder Days, and the fact that an academic event like a spelling bee was placed so front and center in the festivities.

It was past eleven and raining for real by the time I made it back to the library where Sarah Sue was speaking. Sarah Sue encouraged participation from the kids in the audience and generously shared stories related to her collection of Laura-related objects, all neatly displayed on a table next to her. For what felt like the twentieth time that day I wished my six-year-old was there. At Pepin’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Days, kids are king.

It was time for lunch. Back at Laura headquarters the park was filled with craft and food vendors, almost all featuring local wares. I bought polished agate jewelry whose rough forms had been collected around Pepin. I picked out rocks painted like ladybugs for my kids. I sampled local dips—pizza was a favorite—and Wisconsin maple sugar candy that melted on my tongue. Food vendors were varied and reasonably priced. Grilled chicken and corn on the cob beckoned from the center food stand, dubbed–cleverly, I thought–Laura’s Vittle House. The town, it was clear, took this event seriously, both for their residents and for their visitors.

I wandered around eating maple ice cream and hand-cut French fries and watched dozens of girls in pinafores and sunbonnets compete onstage for the title of Pepin Laura, reading essays and answering prepared questions. I visited the tent of a local artist, and only the thought of having to schlep a frame back onto the plane kept me from buying some of his work.

I had intended to catch some of Pepin resident Kitty Latane’s talk on the history of Pepin at the library, but I only arrived back there in time to catch the last few minutes. I did get a chance to talk with her afterward; what an asset she is to Pepin’s preservation of Laura’s legacy.

After meeting up again with Sarah Sue and our friend Laura from Wichita back at the park, the three of us headed to the living history craft demonstrations, which I’d somehow managed to miss thus far. We crossed a road that ran behind the stage and all at once we were in the 19th century. I meandered through the craft booths, all demonstrated by craftsmen and –women in period attire. Blacksmithing, open-fire kettle cooking, woodcarving—every historical handcraft you could think of was represented. I stopped to examine the model of Laura’s writing desk courtesy of a woodbuilder; he’d been to Mansfield to get the exact measurements of the desk Almanzo had constructed so lovingly for his wife. Sarah Sue has posted a picture of the desk, which was for sale at $250, as part of her blog post on her own experience at Laura Ingalls Wilder Days. At that price I reluctantly decided I could live without the desk, but later on at the pottery booth I couldn’t say no to a handmade honey pot. It sits as I type in my kitchen, filled with Wisconsin honey.

For fabulous pictures of the living history crafts at Pepin’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Days, visit this blog.

To be continued.

Minneapolis Travel and The Historic Anderson House in Wabasha, MN

September 17, 2008

As far as the Minneapolis airport goes, here are two pieces of info you might find helpful—or at least I, who can sometimes be a bit of a spaceshot, would find helpful. 1. There are two terminals in the Minneapolis airport – Humphrey and Lindbergh. Make note of which one you flew into so you can know where to drive back to.

2. If you’re renting a car, you’ll ride a tram after collecting your luggage to get to the rental area. It’s not as bad as it might seem. I was worried that returning the car in the very early morning might prove complicated, but it wasn’t. (Well, it wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t somehow managed to return my Alamo-National car to the Dollar area. How? I have no idea. Not a mistake you want to make at 5:15 in the morning. I was terrified of the tire-killing metal spikes.)

The drive from Minneapolis to Pepin is gorgeous. You head south for a while before swinging east towards Wisconsin. After you turn off the highway onto a county road (which can be hard to see in the dark, so bring your GPS or set your odometer and know the mileage), you’re making your way through twists and turns of farmland banked by trees. So pretty. I saw lots of corn and soybeans, though I’m told that years ago this area used to grow substantial wheat.

One of the towns you drive through is Red Wing – the original location of Red Wing shoes. We actually have one of these just down the road. Quite a nice discovery for me, as I’m not used to saying that.

I checked in to the Historic Anderson House, an inn in Wabasha, Minnesota right on the Mississippi River that gets high marks in Bill Anderson’s Little House Guidebook. Once you leave your contemporary lodging expectations behind, the inn is delightful. There are no elevators between its three floors; you’ll want to take that into consideration when booking your room if you have lots of luggage or can’t easily navigate stairs. The not-quite-level floor gives the hallway a bumpy feel, but it’s not unpleasant. Hallway décor consists of velvet-backed chairs and benches and other historic touches. The rooms — I only discovered this on my second day, and only as an afterthought — don’t have phones. I didn’t even ask about Internet access. Also, if you want a hairdryer, you’ll have to ask at the front desk.

Rates vary based on size of room; since I was by myself, mine was one of the smallest. Most of the space was taken up by the bed, done up with crocheted pillows and homey quilts. The tiny bathroom with shower and toilet were in the corner of the room behind a light door, and the sink was outside that, actually in the room. Still, traveling alone (read: without kids) I found I had everything I needed—even enough outlets to charge my cell phone, iPod, digital camera, and wireless headset, though I did have to rotate a tiny bit.

I also had a cat. The inn offers something unique for its guests—cat rentals by the night. Actually, rental is a misnomer, as the cats are free. My cat was Fred, a muscular, brutish black cat, and I was told “He thinks he’s a dog.” This turned out to be true. He was very friendly and often turned on his back demanding a scratching. The cats are put in your room in the evening, where they remain until the morning. Food and water are placed in the room (as well as an unsightly litterbox, but that can’t be helped). Fred and I had a nice couple of nights together, though he did try my patience once or twice walking across the nightstand, objects falling to the floor in his wake. (I’d link to the web page about the cats but it doesn’t seem to be working right now.)

The town of Wabasha itself is charming and low-key. My window allegedly faced the Mississippi River, but the view is only partial and requires squinting. For a true riverside experience, forget about renting a room for the view and just go outside. It’s a three-minute walk to the water’s edge. Both mornings I woke up in Wabasha I went running along the edge of the river and through the cozy downtown. Restaurants within walking distance of the inn include a Chinese place that I didn’t visit but looked quite nice from the outside, and an Irish Pub that served traditional pub food (bangers and mash, Shepherd’s pie) till 9 PM.

There’s also a restaurant right at the Anderson House. Room rates include a seven-dollar voucher to breakfast in the restaurant, not an arbitrary amount as the main breakfast dishes top out at about that much. (Small point: the inn calls itself a bed and breakfast, but it’s not. If you have to pay for breakfast, it’s just a bed.) Breakfast was fresh and filling and best of all, coffee and water were continually replenished, which is my pedestrian litmus test for the first meal of the day. The restaurant also offers dinner, but I didn’t sample that meal. There’s also a lounge downstairs from the lobby, which I kept intending to visit but didn’t quite make it.

The staff, as were most of the people I met in Minnesota and Wisconsin, were perfectly lovely, from the desk agent to the restaurant hostess to the owner to the waitstaff. I felt comfortable in their presence and felt as if they cared about getting to know me personally. All in all, a great experience and I highly recommend it.

Next post: Pepin.

A Few Things You Should Know

September 16, 2008

The first thing you need to know is that the play is coming to Denver late next year. Now I could be saying that just because Denver is local to me, but I’m not. Denver’s all that has been announced so far, but I’m on the hunt for more dates. If you are a fan of the Little House book series, go see this play. You will not be disappointed. Heck, even if you’re a fan of the TV show, word is Melissa Gilbert will be starring in the touring show as well. I have a lot of thoughts on why I think the play was fantabulous, but I’ll save those for my next few posts.

The next thing you need to know is that the Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura DVD trailer is out. I’m iffy on what I think of the real-life dramatizations, but other than that, it looks like something any Laura Ingalls Wilder fan would be proud to add to her (or his!) collection. (Though I’m still trying to figure out the importance of the alternate videos offered for watching at the end. Is that a YouTube thing or a Wilder Farm thing? At any rate, it was sweetly nostalgic to re-view “Sweet Sixteen.” Laura and her high heels!) The DVD is only available through the Wilder Farm site; order it here.