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Midwest From Home - DAY THREE
July 2001
Otherwise known as, "What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Part I"….

DAY THREE
Monday, June 25, 2001
Final destination: Coffeyville, KS

Laura's House

We got up early, and, on the way back to Mansfield, we stopped by an Albertson's and stocked up on breakfast/Road Trip Food. Then, sharing a bag of Baked Lays, oooh, back to Rocky Ridge Farm!

We got there around 10; it was a peaceful summer morning, and, happily, there weren't a whole lot of cars in the parking lot across the street from the farm. We crossed the street and headed up the gravel drive. Laura's house! Rose's house! *doing doing doing*

Next to the house, on the left, was an ugly little building that housed the museum collection, and to the left of the museum was another, much cuter (if contrived) little building for the Little House Bookstore. We went inside the museum to buy our tickets, and there, in a display case next to the front desk, was Laura's velvet dress! I'd seen several pictures of her in it, but never in color. Oh, it's TINY! I mean, I knew Laura was small (as was Almanzo, for that matter), but I felt like a hulking Baby Huey Woman, all wool and a yard wide, looking at that little dress and realizing Laura really was MAYBE 5' tall… if that! "Half-Pint!"

According to the docent who sold us our tickets for the tour, we would have to sit through a "video presentation" before being led into the house itself. We had a few minutes, so we went into the bookstore. There was a little wood patio in front of the store with an octagon wooden planter in the middle, and an Amish family - parents, grandfather and children - were sitting there waiting for their tour of the house. Anticipating elements of LittleHouseLand, I peeked in the store cautiously. Oh yeah… the usual array of books and "collectible gifts." Fortunately, the displays were small, but there were still "china shepherdess" figures and tin cups and lanterns and china "Jack" figures and "I *heart* Laura" pins and stacks and stacks of Kuntry Kute Little House t-shirts. I was reeeeally hoping for a crack at hard-to-find/out-of-print books, and gravitated toward the shelves that took up half the store. Mostly it was the pastel-covered versions of the Little House books, plus a whole bunch of biographies I already had, but there was a tiny section of Rose's stuff. Again, 99% of it was stuff I already had, but I found a book collection of letters between Rose and Dorothy Thompson. I didn't want to cart a bag around the house, though, so we headed over to the room (a sliding-glass door'd "patio" room attached to the bookstore that reminded me of Strega Nona's house) where the video presentation was taking place. We sat on benches, and a teenage guide hit "play" on a VCR.

Standard and predictable hokiness followed: fiddle music, long shots of prairies and of Rocky Ridge Farm, familiar photographs. I picked my cuticles, waiting for the syrupy stuff to end so we could check out THE HOUSE. Then something took me by surprise. A woman's voice, an old woman's voice with a country drawl and a slight creak, was describing Pa playing the fiddle: "…he nearly always sat in his chair when he played, and kept time to the music by patting his foot on the floor…" LAURA! That was LAURA'S VOICE! Unexpectedly, my arms broke out in goosebumps and tears smarted in my eyes. Yeah, I know, I know… but that was LAURA talking! I'd never heard her voice before!

Another thing that surprised me was that Almanzo's name was pronounced Al-MAN-zo, not Al-MAHN-zo (as per the TV show).

After the video, our Teenage Tour Guide lead us over to the back screen door and then, oh, we were in Laura's kitchen! (Of course, if you're merely a fan of the TV show or even just the books themselves, this means nothing to you, but if you're a Wilderphile, you know that some of the first writing Laura did was about her "Ozark Kitchen" in local rural papers….) It was both spacious and tiny, with all of the cabinets and counters that Almanzo had built to Laura's height (or lack thereof), and I seriously coveted her dishes and china, the complete set of willowware… all über-first-half-of-the-20th-century. (In fact, I burbled with delight to see that Laura had, yes, A CHICKEN DISH! Gleefully, I pointed this out to The Husband-Type Man, who looked pained, as he still maintains that The Chicken Dish is a thing of Evil, not Importance. Hah! Foolish mortal!). One of the kewlest things was Laura's old cookstove. Even through the 1950s, Laura still preferred her old wood stove; long before hot running water was available, Almanzo had piped spring water to run through the stove, so there would be hot water for the kitchen sink. I wanted to poke and rummage and inspect as much as possible, to see every immaculate inch of this Old Lady Kitchen that, at one time, had seen the interactions and conflicts between the two strong-willed women who'd shared this space. Both Laura and Rose, as I stood in that yellow tacky-wallpapered kitchen that reminded me of Strega Nonna's, were palpable and human, imperfect real people.

Not only that, but there was a kick-ass breadbox in the kitchen that I wanted.

We went on to the dining room, where, to my delight, I immediately spotted the clock Almanzo bought for Laura the first Christmas they were married. The dining table, set underneath the "pass-through," was covered by a pleasingly cheesy 50s red-flowered tablecloth. (I eyed the china cupboards for a glimpse of the bread plate, but it wasn't there). Oh, the meals that had been served here, that had seen the likes of some of the greatest female writers and thinkers of the 20s and 30s when Rose had her friends over for long stays and salon-evenings…!

Then it was on to Laura and Almanzo's bedroom, a long, skinny shoebox-shaped room painted a truly hideous shade of blue-green, with some equally hiddy-tacky circa-1930s linoleum on the floor. From the doorway, Laura's bed was to the left, Almanzo's to the right, both covered with groovy chenille spreads. While our Teenage Tour Guide talked, I hovered as close as I could to Laura's little dressing table and tried to peek into the bathroom, which was roped off. (Hey, nothing like seeing an idol's toilet to make her human, huh?) The night-table next to Almanzo's bed had a wooden box on the lower shelf, still filled with bottles… the medicine he used to take for heart ailments: sulfur, turpentine, good old stuff. Laura evidently couldn't bear to throw it away after he died, and just left it as he always kept it.

Past Almanzo's bed was a doorway to Laura's small office. It was papered with more Craptastic 50s Barkcloth-Patterned Wallpaper, and there was a low chaise on one side of the room, and a tiny secretary desk on the other. Our Teenaged Tour Guide told us Laura used to snooze on the chaise when she'd been up late writing and didn't want to wake Almanzo. A hand-knit shawl was draped there. I wanted to wrap it around my shoulders, knowing how old and musty it would smell, and perch on the desk chair to riffle through the decorative bits of mail and notepads. Not likely to happen. Ah, well…. There was a box near the chaise, too… a ker-nifty looking box with stuff in it that I couldn't figure out; according to our Teenaged Tour Guide, they were vacuum attachments. No time to linger, though… we were on our way to the living room… and where the bookcases were!

CLICK PICTURES TO ENLARGE!

We filed up a narrow stairway past another curving staircase that lead to the upper bedroom, but, dammit, it was roped off too. I craned my neck and looked up quickly, coveting the all-white furniture, the chenille bedspread, the lacy curtains. If Laura and Almanzo's room was an eyesore, THIS was ideal! But Teenaged Tour Guide was gathering us in the south end of the living room. There was a little adjacent parlor area, with an organ (not Mary's) and Rose's childhood lesson book - with her handwriting on it - was propped open on it. Next to the parlor was the bookcase alcove… the crux of my Mission.

See, with my graduate paper, I started looking at political ideas in the Little House books. I knew both Laura and Rose had strong political convictions and held many similar ideas, but I wanted to figure out just how much of the ideas could be traced to Rose's influence and input. First and foremost, I need to get my hands on the un-edited manuscripts, and will have to visit a couple libraries for that. But I also just wanted to check out Laura's library, to get my hands on the books/papers/magazines/literature she was in everyday contact with.

But, durn it all, the living room was roped off, so I couldn't even get close enough to decipher book titles! As our Teenaged Tour Guide told us about the furniture Almanzo had made and the rock fireplace that I'd read about countless times, I kept trying to find a way to look over the dividing wall to Inspect. But Teenage Tour Guide was hustling us out, and onto the front porch. Much as I wanted to check out the porch (having seen numerous Wilder family pictures that had been taken there), I had to make a last-ditch effort to find out about the books. Quickly, I explained what I was looking for and the aim of my paper. But Teenage Tour Guide looked a little perplexed. "Well," he said, "Rose only did some light editing-" NO SHE DIDN'T! NO! *stomp, stomp, stomp* Gads, don't patronize ME, Teenaged Tour Guide! You're just afraid that the Melissa Gilbert-lovin' idjits on the porch will freak out if they find out Laura had "help" writing the books or something! Nyah! I see through your shifty motives! YOU WILL NOT THWART MY MISSION! Ah hahahahahaaaaa!

And then me and The Husband-Type Man went and took pictures on the front porch and looked at the fossils in the fireplace and scrutinized the oak trees and huge ants and wandered around to the back of the house to see where Rose's upstairs room was and look for the creek behind the house. THEN, once the small clutch of people from our tour had thinned out somewhat, we went back to the museum.

CLICK PICTURES TO ENLARGE!

Teenaged Tour Guide was in there talking to the older woman/docent at the front desk, and, when I came in, he said "You might want to ask her," to me. So, clutching my notebook and pen and salivating slightly, I asked the woman what she knew about the books in Laura's library and what papers she read. The woman didn't have much, politics-wise, to tell me, although she happily described the copies of The American Mercury Laura'd had stacked in the living room. "Any idea about the books in her library?" I asked eagerly. "Oh, she loved to read, especially Poe and Hawthorne," the docent told me. Poe and Hawthorne? I mean, everyone hears about the copy of Tennyson's Poems that Laura received for Christmas when she was fifteen… but Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne are some creepy, fucked-up shit, doncha know? I was really tickled to find out that Laura enjoyed the dark and disturbing stuff.

After I'd annoyed the docent for a while, THTM and I set to our explorations of the museum. It was one breathtaking familiar and/or exciting item after another for me (and I was tickled that THTM found it all so interesting, too). After several hours inside the museum, I sat on a bench under the oak tree, making a hastily-scribbled list in my journal of everything I'd seen, such as:

  • velvet dress
  • wedding certificate (Pa & Ma)
  • Pa's fiddle
  • diary excerpts (pages from OTWH)
  • family letters
  • Laura's childhood sampler
  • lap desk
  • replica peddler's wagon
  • bread plate [yes, THAT bread plate!]
  • cup and saucer jewel box
  • white dress
  • Laura's glassware and cow creamer
  • willowware
  • Rose's books and letters
  • Rose's Russian tea set, total 50s, and Ladies' Home Journal maple dining set
  • passport picture, regal, turban
  • Rose's office!

Yes, whole rooms of Rose's from her Danbury, Connecticut home had been moved, intact, to the museum… including her office and bookshelves. And this time, there was no one to stop me from leaning as far forward on the railing as I could and spending as much time as necessary, scanning the shelves for titles. THTM and I read out loud, and I scribbled in my journal. Rousseau's Conscience of an Era. Milovan Djilas's Conversations with Stalin . Human Destiny by Pierre LeCompte du Nouy, Revolt on the Campus, Paris in the Terror, Colonialism of North America—Ah, Rose, you conservative leftist radical libertarian…!

I got a kick out of reading all the displayed letters as well… like Rose's from France and Germany and Egypt and Albania. My favorite was a chatty epistle about a trip to Egypt addressed to "darlings" instead of "Mama and Papa"; I, too, would like to write effusively and astutely about my world travels to my dear (if backward and unsophisticated) parents back on the home farm! Hee! Go Rose! The bits of articles were deeply interesting… especially the Op Ed anti-communism Vietnam piece. THTM and I read each carefully, discussing them, not sure if either of us agreed with her per se, but it was impossible not to be deeply impressed by her sophisticated grasp of politics and social issues. There were also pictures… several of which (despite my owning just about every Wilder-related thing in print) I hadn't seen before. I loved the passport picture of Rose, in her 70s, looking young and regal in a turban, preparing for a trip to Vietnam. As we flipped through displays of Rose's adventures, with pictures of her in her 30s and tooling around in an old car, or looking dashing in a suit and hat with the veil fluttering out, THTM remarked "Rose was a hottie." Well, yeah. That too.

Foof-wise, I decided, as I took three trips around the museum and looked carefully at EVERY SINGLE ITEM displayed there, that I liked Laura's Stuff better than Rose's. I mean, Rose's stuff was kewl in theory and all - knick knacks from her travels, especially - but her late-50s/early-60s maple furniture and austere accessories (once featured in a Ladies Home Journal spread) didn't appeal to me nearly as much as Laura's older, foofier china and glassware. I gooned over the fact that I have a willowware platter at home similar to one of Laura's that was displayed in the museum, that I had a similar chicken dish and puking cow creamer, that her depression glass was the same as pieces I've eyed at flea markets and antique malls. And I finally saw the bread plate, too… the picture of which had inspired this whole Quest twenty years ago. I saw pages of family bibles, old books, and, with lust in my heart, I eyed the cabinet with a few original mss. and unedited copies of the Little House books. LET ME IN! LET ME IN TO LOOK AT THEM!

Particularly poignant was the letter from Carrie to Laura, telling of Mary's final illness and pending death, penstrokes wavering slightly as she wrote "Oh, Laura," and described Mary's spirits.

After our hours in the museum, we stopped in again at the gift shop, where I scooped up the RWL/Dorothy Thompson letters, as well as some of the postcards I didn't already have (to take the place of the pictures we weren't allowed to take inside the house and museum), the Little House cookbook that I'd been meaning to buy for years, and a couple new booklets. I then tried to determine the Ultimate Tacky Souvenir. I couldn't do the t-shirt route, wasn't interested in the fake-Charlotte rag dolls, already have a couple sunbonnets, own all the good posters and booklets they already sell there, and wouldn't pay a counterfeit penny for the videotaped TV show episodes. On a lower shelf, I caught sight of a bunch of cast-iron pencil sharpeners, shaped like antique household items. Kinda dorky… but… hey, perfectly Barbie-sized! So my Barbies now have an old-fashioned typewriter AND sewing machine, each with a tiny Rocky Ridge placard on one side.
Our Adventures in Mansfield weren't nearly over yet, though. We got back in the car and drove a little further east to the driveway of the Rock House… the little English-Tudor style cottage Rose had built for her parents in the late 1920s (while she herself lived in the farmhouse and had all sorts of cosmopolitan and literary guests hanging out until scandalously late hours, to the outrage of the Mansfield townfolk). When we got there, no one else was about, so we sat on a bench out front and listened to the wind in the trees, watching the little blue flowers and grasses and Queen Anne's Lace flutter. Ain't we pastoral? Finally, a few more tourists showed up, and a docent, an older woman dressed in a long old-fashioned dress, came out of the nearby admission building (admission shed, really… it looked like a small, old post office).

The Rock House, built from a Sears plan, was actually more appealing to me than the farmhouse; while I was all excitified about seeing the farmhouse, I wouldn't want to LIVE there… but the Rock House, THAT was just my style! It actually reminded me, inside, of a SoCal bungalow, with its arches and niches and dimensions. There was some groovilicious green linoleum in the kitchen, and I was in abject envy of the built-in linen cupboards. The rooms were small but charming, and the back bedroom was where Laura began writing the Little House books.

We didn't linger overlong at the Rock House;  we still had one more stop… the cemetery. West of town, not far from the Laura Ingalls Wilder library (which was closed), it was a small and covered a low, gentle hillside. At first, we were struck by the beauty of all the flowers. Almost every grave had bunches of them, and the whole place seemed to bloom. As we got out of the car, though, we saw they were all… well… fake. Okay, so, they looked all right at a distance. The Wilder plot, fenced off, was easy to spot. Clutches of fake flowers were in front of Laura and Almanzo's headstone. (Almanzo's middle name was on the headstone, Laura's was not; she was Laura Ingalls, not Laura Elizabeth or Laura Elizabeth Ingalls). Rose's grave was next to her parents, and if the senior Wilders' headstone was simple and straightforward, Rose's was- well, was not. On the back, hers was inscribed:

An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot. Neither the Channel nor the Rhine will arrest its progress; it will march on the horizon of the world and it will conquer

That inscription, and the solemn contemplation it prompted, seemed an appropriate leave-taking for Mansfield.

I took the wheel, and we headed for Kansas. It was almost time to start thinking about dinner; we hadn't had lunch, needless, as absorbed as we were in the museum stuff. On the way out of town, we passed, on Highway 5, the Little House Inn and Country Buffet. THTM offered to stop, in case I wanted to search for those Pa burgers and Laura fries and Almanzo chops, but I declined. Instead, when we turned off the highway in Joplin to Quest for dinner, THTM spied a billboard, with pigs in sunglasses playing guitars, for Red Hot and Blue Memphis BBQ.

How could we pass THAT up?

The food, admittedly, was pretty mediocre, but the most impressive thing about it was that everything - EVERYTHING - was deep-fried. I was served breaded and deep-fried corn on the cob. Pretty good, and hey, I didn't even need butter!

About an hour later, we crossed out of the Ozark mountains, onto the prairie, into Kansas.

I'd never seen anything like the sunsets out here on the prairie - for yeah, finally, Lil' Dwanollah was on a prairie. Everything - sun, clouds, light - turned pinkish-red, and then twilight seemed to just hang in the sky for well over an hour. I had turned off Highway 44 to Route 66, and then turned again onto the much smaller 166. Two straight, empty lanes of highway bisected the land. We crossed a little river, then another, and another… more than I could count. (And to a SoCal girl, a river - one with water in it, not just a dried riverbed/arroyo - is special!) I rolled down the windows to smell the grasses and trees, and whenever we crossed a river, there would be small, scraggly trees growing on either side of it, from which the strident hum of insects would rise. Then we'd pass, and all would be quiet again. I overtook the occasional semi, but mostly it was just us, passing endless square parcels of land rimmed with trees and/or rivers. But unlike my previous assumptions, Kansas wasn't flat … not pan-bottom flat. Instead, the land seemed to undulate, flow, with swells and rises giving way to depressions and eroded areas.

Studying our map, we decided to see if we could reach Coffeyville, the nearest bold-typed town to the Little House on the Prairie site. (Laura's books mention Independence as the nearest town, but that's north of the Little House, and we were coming in southeast of it, maybe only a few miles away from the Oklahoma border if we'd turn and drive south instead of west.) We stopped for gas—only $1.29, compared to the nearly $2.00 at home! Wow!—and headed on.

Coffeyville was what THTM and I dubbed "a Wal-Mart town"… you know, where the biggest and kewlest thing to hit it in fifty years was the opening of the big Wal-Mart. That's about all it has. That's all it needs. Not even a Starbucks-and-Barnes&Noble town or a Home Depot town…. We got there about 10, heeded the siren song of the EZ-8 motel, and conked immediately.

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