Monday, June 25, 2001
Final destination: Coffeyville, KS
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
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
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).
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
.) 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
(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,
we were on our way to the living room
where the bookcases were!
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
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
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.
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
- 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
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 AmericaAh,
Rose, you conservative leftist radical libertarian
I got a kick out of reading all the displayed letters as
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
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
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
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
it looked like a small, old post office).
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
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
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
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
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 gasonly $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.