Friday, September 27, 2013

Visiting the Almanzo Wilder farm (warning: long)

Frank and I had a little adventure on Sunday morning. We had planned to go to 11 am Mass. But when we skated into the church parking lot—right on the dot of 11—the lot was completely empty. Oh no!

Fortunately there was a sign taped to the church door: "The 11 am Mass will be held outdoors at [other parish] for the annual Holy Harvest Festival." We had no clue where [other parish] was, but thanks to a quick Google search, we made it to the outdoors Mass just in time for the opening hymn.

I'd never been to a harvest festival before, or a harvest Mass for that matter. It was quite the experience. I've never heard so many references to ripe corn and tomatoes in the Mass, nor so many intercessory prayers for a bountiful harvest! It was really cool and made me ponder how the Church in different parts of the world has such different needs and concerns, while still celebrating the same liturgy.

A bit of the Harvest Mass:

After Mass, we hit up an antiques store that Frank had visited the day before while I was doing people's hair for the wedding. In the parking lot, we saw this great bumper sticker:

Frank said, "I love Malone." A bumper sticker like that totally makes sense there.

Anyway, then it was finally time to go visit the Almanzo Wilder farm!!!!!

I really don't think I can convey the level of excitement I had for this moment. In case my blog name doesn't give it away, I'm obsessed with the Little House books. Little House in the Big Woods was the first chapter book I ever read. My dad read the series at the same time that Lillian and I did, and we all became obsessed. We went on to visit many of the Ingalls homes on family vacations.

We've seen the log cabin in Pepin, Wisconsin; the hill (once a dugout) on Plum Creek; and we even stayed overnight at the awesome Ingalls farm in De Smet, South Dakota (they have a cabin you can rent for the night). That last trip happened after I graduated from college, and I may or may not have worn a prairie bonnet for the occasion. My love for Laura knows no bounds.

So visiting Almanzo's childhood home—the only building from the books still standing in its original condition—was a long-held dream come true.

The first thing we saw when we entered the visitor's center was this darling model of the Wilder farm as it looked in Almanzo's day:

Then it was time for an hour-long tour of the house and barn, led by a very nice older gentleman dressed like an 1800s farmer. You know Frank and I prepped for the visit by reading Farmer Boy, so when the tour guide asked, "Has anybody read Farmer Boy?", our hands shot straight into the air. He was pleased to hear we had just been reading it, and throughout the tour he asked questions that only Frank and I could answer (somehow none of the other visitors had read the book?!).

Then I told the tour guide that I'd visited almost all of the other Ingalls family sites, and, well, that was it. He became my new best friend. For the rest of the tour he referred to me as "the Little House expert" and we discussed at length the differences between the farm in the book and the farm as it is today. He reminded me a lot of Ernie from Naper Settlement. I love people who dedicate their time to history education; it's such a good cause, and somehow they're always the nicest.

First we visited the barns:

These barns are enormous, but believe it or not, they're a lot smaller than they were in Almanzo's day! Unlike Laura's family, who were "poor as church mice" (said the tour guide), the Wilders were one of the the wealthiest families in Malone. Their barns were always stocked with a seemingly endless supply of grain and livestock.

Farmer Boy describes how Mr. Wilder was one of the most respected and influential man in his community. Even more than that, it constantly mentions how much food the Wilder family ate! Every chapter contains at least one long description of an enormous, feast-like meal.

There was a reason for that: Laura describes the abundance of food to make clear how wealthy the Wilders were. Such an interesting "sign of the times."

This tree is several centuries old, and was definitely standing when Almanzo lived there. I tried to imagine him climbing it as a little boy:

It's impossible to read Farmer Boy or visit the Wilder farm and not be incredibly impressed with Almanzo's parents. I've never heard of such a hard-working, smart, talented couple. They started off with nothing and through hard work and good sense became prominent leaders in their community.

And the skills they had! The book describes how Mother Wilder never sat still—she was constantly cooking, weaving, sewing, making candles. Hand her some raw wool and she would turn it into a beautiful, finely made broadcloth suit or a delicately woven afghan. Hand her milk and she would produce pounds of the sweetest, purest butter, or delicious ice cream. Hand her an animal's hide and she would turn it into waterproof moccasins. I would've loved to read her blog, if such things existed back then.

And Father Wilder knew everything there was to know about planting, harvesting and the seasons—and he could bargain, trade, and manage money with uncommon shrewdness to boot. Both of them possessed exceptional foresight, patience and tact. And knew how to do pretty much everything.

Honestly, after reading Farmer Boy and seeing their beautiful home, Mrs. Wilder is my new heroine.

At last, here it is—the original Wilder home!

We weren't allowed to take pictures inside, but you can imagine I tried to memorize every last detail of this place.

One thing that especially impressed me was the pantry, off the kitchen. Mr. Wilder ingeniously installed a hand pump in the pantry—so Mrs. Wilder had running water in her house, year-round! This was decades before indoor plumbing—in fact this house was built before the Civil War.

Another great feature was the guest room, next to the parents' room, which we discovered was also Mrs. Wilder's "birthing room" (she had six children). It had sky blue wallpaper and overlooked a pretty scene of trees.

Only a handful of items in the house were original, and the best one was a blanket woven by Mrs. Wilder herself—her children kept it safe over the decades. I wish I could have gotten a picture of it. It was dark blue with an intricate cross pattern, and woven so well that it still looks great today.

The curators did a great job making the house look just like it did in Farmer Boy. I was thrilled to notice pots of red geraniums in the kitchen windows—just like Mrs. Wilder always had! Almanzo thought the flowers made the kitchen feel so cozy and happy in the winter.

When we got back from our trip, Frank gave me a potted red flower of my own for my birthday, so I could get one step closer to being like my heroine Mrs. Wilder. I named it Angeline in her honor.

After the tour, we walked down to Trout River, half a mile from the house:

I thought of the great scene when Almanzo and his dad fish here in the rain. They caught a dozen fish and got soaked to the skin, and Almanzo thought it was the best time of his life.

Trout River was Frank's favorite part. It made him think of A River Runs Through It, which he loves. He took a lot of pictures and even made a little video to capture the feel of this peaceful place (he also suggested you listen to this while you watch it to understand why it made him think of that movie):

While we were at the farm, we learned a few "Wilder secrets"—super interesting for fans of the books. (If you're not, feel free to skip to the end.)

Almanzo's dad grew "hop" on his farm—you know, the stuff they use to make beer. In fact one of the original hop plants still grows today, and it's gotten huge.

That might not seem so scandalous except that the Little House books were published during Prohibition, and records show Laura went around telling curious fans that no, of course her father-in-law didn't drink or grow hop. But the farm itself clearly shows otherwise.

We kind of loved that. What a funny skeleton in the closet!

The other "family secret" is much more tragic. Laura never put it in the books, but the historical records show that Mrs. Wilder was actually Mr. Wilder's second wife. He originally got married quite young, and his first wife (and baby) died in childbirth. Years later he got married again, to Almanzo's mother.

Knowing about his loss puts the whole book in a different light. When we read it, I was constantly impressed by how patient, thoughtful and gentle Mr. Wilder was with his family. It makes so much more sense when you know about the suffering he endured as a young man.

It also put his incredible wealth and worldly success in a new light—it made me so happy that, after everything he'd been through, his life became much better and easier.

So that was it—our exciting adventure at the Wilder farm! We loved it and hope to go back some day.

Have you ever visited any of the Ingalls family homes? Or read the Little House books?


  1. Oh, I'm so jealous! Growing up in Minnesota, I've been to my fair share of Little House sites, but not this one. Now that we're within striking distance (4 1/2 hours), I'll have to try to convince Johnny to take me. This reminds me that I still need to unpack my set of Little House books. I was absolutely obsessed as a kid, and read my boxes set of paperbacks until they're quite worn. My mom spent a couple years collecting used library editions for me, so now I have a set of hardcover volumes (original Garth Williams illustrations included). I'd highly recommend this strategy if you need a nice set; I think she got each of them for under $10.

    1. Holly, wow, that sounds like the greatest collection! I'm jealous. :) I'll definitely keep that in mind as I start building my own collection of Little House books. The Wilder farm had copies of the Garth Williams-illustrated hardcovers for sale, and we were so tempted to buy the set—but it was just too expensive. Your mom's idea is much better!

  2. Farmer Boy was always my favorite of the books because there was no doubt that they had enough tot eat. Someday, you'll have to go to Missouri to see Laura and Almanzo's home.

  3. I l.o.v.e. the Little House books! This post was awesome! Thanks for sharing, Tess!

  4. This is so awesome! My littlest brother is reading "Farmer Boy" right now and I bet he would LOVE to go visit there.

    God bless you! ♥

  5. Great post. I love visiting the homes of authors. My favorite was the Anne of Green Gables house in Prince Edward Island.

  6. This just makes me want to read the books all over again!

  7. John wanted to know if the tour involved pancakes and donuts. :)

    Did they say why only the four siblings are mentioned in the books? I didn't realize there were six!

    1. Haha, I wish. That really would have made it perfect!

      Great question. Almanzo's oldest sister was already married and living away at the time the book took place, so Laura decided to leave her out rather than go into all those details. And Almanzo's little brother actually wasn't born yet—he was a lot younger than the other siblings. Still, it is kind of odd to exclude them entirely. She also squished together the ages of the four siblings she did mention—in real life their ages were a lot more spread out than in the book. She definitely took a lot of authorial license!