Every American child has heard of, read from, or watched the television series based on, the Little House books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. They chronicle the life of a young girl growing up in an America that was reaching ever outward, and ever westward. Laura’s family was part of that pioneer settling of a young and expanding nation, and in so doing experienced the joys and the inevitable hardships felt when seeking life and opportunity in lands previously unknown, often misunderstood, and always demanding.
Charles and Caroline Ingalls moved five times from homestead to homestead with Laura and her sisters, ever looking for that one spot to put down roots for good. Laura’s books tell of the challenges of those years, but they also tell of a young girl who loved the land and grew attached to it in many of the same ways her Pa had done. The books speak of the simple pleasures of living in the vast unknown as well as the hard times that came and went over the years. The books also speak to the love and closeness of family.
Pa and Ma finally found that place to put down permanent roots…Ma finally put her foot down…in the town of De Smet, Dakota Territory (South Dakota now). Laura and her husband, Almonzo, lived on their own homestead near her parents. But they eventually suffered many of the same hardships as had plagued Charles as he sought out his place to call home. In July of 1894, the young Wilders with their daughter, Rose, packed up their belongings and moved…south and east…to the Ozarks of Missouri.
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home in Mansfield, Missouri, about an hour and forty-five minutes from where we live, has become a popular tourist destination for those who love Laura and her books. We have been there several times, but on this visit a few weeks ago, we went with newer questions, and a different purpose for what it was we wanted to see. After reading, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books, by Marta McDowell, this trip was to be about the land, the property, the Ozarks and its draw to a young couple seeking “home”.
Mansfield is located in the Ozark Mountains, and sits on the Salem Plateau. While the Ozarks are not the highest or most grandiose of mountains, they are very hilly, and they are very rocky. Farming them was a challenge, and a lot of hard work. For Almonzo and Laura, it was a new start, in a new place, with what they believed to be endless opportunities. They named their new home, Rocky Ridge Farm.
Almonzo found apple trees on the property when they arrived, added many more, and the Ben Davis apple became their primary crop. They also planted row crops such as corn. The land was rich in oak, hickory and black walnut trees. Black walnuts remain a major product out of the Ozark region, a taste so much deeper and stronger than the well-known English walnut.
Laura and Almonzo were very happy on their Ozark farm, and remained there for the remainder of their lives. They worked hard on the land, producing much of what they needed as a family. They were also active in their community.
Here in Missouri we celebrate Rocky Ridge Farm as the place where Laura wrote all of the Little House books. She also authored many articles for various newspapers and magazines about her life at Rocky Ridge, as well as practical articles about living life successfully on a farm.
When Rose grew up, and began her own successful career as a writer, she returned to Rocky Ridge to build her parents a “modern” house, with modern conveniences based on a floor plan from Sears Roebuck & Co. Yes, Sears once sold plans for, and kits for actual houses! The house was called the Rock House. Laura and Almonzo lived in the house for some years, but after Rose moved away permanently, they returned to the original house, where they felt most at “home”.
You are not allowed to take pictures inside either of the houses when you take the tour, so our main objective was to tour the houses, and then to walk the lands that Laura walked in Missouri. We wanted to imagine her life as she settled into her new home with new responsibilities and new challenges. We wanted to explore this Missouri homestead so loved by Laura and Almonzo, just as we love our own Missouri homeplace. But, on that day…
if you know anything about the weather of the American Midwest, you know that big, complicated storms can arise at almost any time, especially in the heat and humidity of a typical Missouri summer.
We had wanted to walk the three-quarter mile path between the two houses. Seeing this storm quickly approaching, and feeling the heavy winds that began to develop, we knew it was no time for a walk, and definitely time to seek the safety of the car and our drive home. What we did not know was that we would be driving into a tremendous storm known as a derecho. A derecho is a storm that is the result of several severe thunder storms which gather together to create a storm that stays together long enough to cover many, many miles. It is characterized by strong straight line winds, many of which can reach hurricane force, heavy rains, and tremendous lightning The rain poured, the thunder crashed, the lightning was the most impressive I had ever seen, and the winds and my steering wheel fought for many miles. My white knuckles should have informed us that being on the road, in the car, was not our best option! But we made it home…and it was actually kind of exciting…after the fact!
I was determined to walk that path between the houses, so the very next week, we went back. I was so glad we did! We left very early in the morning because Missouri is too hot in the summer for an afternoon walk. The air was rather still, and fog and haze was with us most of the morning, which only made the walk more beautiful. One can only imagine Laura and Rose walking the path back and forth to visit one another. Here is what we found on our walk in 2019…
And then there was the flora and the fauna…
But what I like best was a walk along a path that was traveled so many years ago by people who loved this area of the country as much as Jim and I have come to love it…
If you visit Laura and Almonzo’s home in Mansfield, you will begin your visit at the Visitor Center which has a very nice museum about Laura’s life on the prairie, in the big woods, and in Missouri.
After your visit, you are bound to be hungry. There is a little shop in Mansfield that sells the best fresh lemonade, a great hamburger that tastes like I made it at home, and ice cream cones that taste great even while driving through a thunderstorm.
If you find yourself in Missouri, I hope you have a chance to visit Mansfield, and that you take the time to take a walk back in time…a walk not so different from our Missouri walks today.
Midwestern Farm Food
Ma Ingalls Chicken Pie
This is a hearty meal to come home to after a hard day of work on the farm…or any day of hard work. I found this recipe in a book I purchased many years ago, The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories, by Barbara M. Walker. I adapted it a bit, primarily using my mom’s flaky crust for the topping. It reminded me of the big dinners she would make for us after we had gone out into the countryside to pick fresh fruits and vegetables to can in our city home. When I make this again, and I will, I will omit the hard-boiled eggs which did not really add to the dish.”
- 1 large chicken, 4-5 pounds cut into serving pieces
- 3 hard boiled eggs
- 3 slices bacon
- 2 Tbsp. flour
- Salt and Pepper to taste
- 1 pie crust large enough to cover your dish
- About 6 hours before serving, simmer the giblets and backbone in 2 cups of boiling water for about 30 minutes. Leave the saucepan uncovered as it simmers.
- Prepare the pie crust, cover and set aside.
- Fry the bacon in a skillet until crisp, remove it to drain on paper towel.
- Brown chicken in hot fat on all sides. Remove pieces to a 2 quart baking dish, putting the white meat on one side, and dark pieces on the other.
- Slice the eggs and crumble the bacon. Scatter them over top of the chicken pieces.
- Pour off most of the fat in the skillet, and stir in the flour.
- Mash and add the simmered liver.
- Pour the liquid from the saucepan into the skillet, stir well, and cook just until it begins to bubble.
- Salt and pepper the gravy to taste, and pour over the chicken, eggs and bacon in your baking dish.
- Place the rolled out pie crust over the top, crimping the edges around the rim.
- Vent the top with designs to distinguish the light meat side from the dark. Ma would use two different pine tree designs.
- Bake for 4 1/2 to 5 hours.
This is a really good chicken dish. The chicken simply falls off the bone. Add a salad from the garden, and you will have a great meal, certain to satisfy any hungry person at your dinner table.