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.