Saturday, October 07, 2006

Laura Ingalls Wilder Home

Our first full day in Missouri we went to the Wilder Home, Rocky Ridge Farm, in Mansfield. It was wonderful.

We were instructed to go to the museum first. There we saw Pa's fiddle. We also looked at lots of pictures of the family, letters, clothing, different beautiful homemade items, and other personal artifacts. We saw one of the nickel Big Chief notebooks on which Mrs. Wilder wrote her first Little House books. There were Little House books in many different languages. There was a carriage similar to the one Manly and Laura drove to Missouri. Lots of china. And a section of the museum was dedicated to Mrs. Wilder's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who was a writer and war correspondent, and initially encouraged "Mama Bess" (Laura) in her writing for the Missouri Ruralist, and later in writing her Little House books.

After the museum, we were permitted to go through the white farmhouse with a docent. After we all squeezed into the little kitchen, the docent explained how Almanzo had cleverly rigged indoor plumbing so that Laura would have not only running water, but hot water any time the woodstove was heated, as the water pipe ran through the stove! The kitchen was cozy and neat. There was an electric stove which was added in the twenties, but the docent said Laura rarely used it except in summer, as she felt food did not taste as good on an electric stove. After the kitchen came the dining room. Originally these were the only two rooms in the house. There was a little staircase to the side of the dining room, which led to a loft room where Rose slept as a child. The kids were disappointed that we couldn't go up and see. The clock Almanzo bought for Laura is still sitting on a shelf in that room. From the dining room we walked into the bedroom, which had a little bathroom off to the side. Then came the writing room, which contained a desk and a fainting couch. After the writing room we went up a few steps and down a few steps and into the music room/living room/library. They had an organ and a little alcove with shelves for books, as well as big windows in the living room.

The house reminded me of other homes I have visited that were simple, unassuming and neat. There were several items of furniture and lamps that Almanzo had made with his own hands, walking sticks made from wood he had found on the property, and pillows and other decorations made by Almanzo, Laura and Rose. I felt comfortable there, and a little ashamed of all the commercially produced items I have come to expect and desire where my own home is concerned.

After that we let the kids run down the hill and look into the next meadow; went to the bookstore and found souvenirs; ate lunch and had a rousing game of hide and seek; and then drove around to the Rock House, which Laura and Almanzo's daughter, Rose, had built for them in the 1920's, after she had achieved some financial success. It was simply gorgeous-- a little cottage in the 1920's style, built with native rock and all the "latest" amenities of the age-- insets in the walls for figurines and candles, tiled windowsills, even the closets were innovative for the 20's. Almanzo had rigged another water system at the back of this house, which would catch rainwater and transport it to the basement and then up through the house. The Wilders lived in the Rock House for eight years, while Rose occupied the original farmhouse, and this is where Laura began writing the Little House books.

There was a large meadow in front of the Rock House. After patiently walking through two different houses, a museum and a book store, the children were glad to run off a little energy. They had been more interested in the walking sticks (insects, not implements) on the back porch than any of the quaint innovations in the cottage. I admired Almanzo's red barn at the top of the rise, and looked for the little door to the springhouse down in the creek where he stored his milk. I watched the children gallivant and wished for a simple life.

And yet Almanzo and Laura's life was not easy. They had a lot of struggles-- Almanzo's health, constant financial strain until they were well into middle age, a seemingly difficult relationship with their daughter. Their extended family lived far away. But they disliked debt, tried to live within their means, worked hard to provide for themselves, loved each other and their daughter, and kept good thoughts. This may be simple, but it was not easy, I'm sure.

I felt a little like Laura on the farm tonight, baking a pumpkin pie to take to church and please Mr. Honey. (It's still acting like summer here, but we are going to pretend it's fall anyway.) I thought of her in her simple, tidy kitchen, putting together a pie to please her Manly. My pie is made with canned pumpkin and canned sweetened condensed milk, which I am sure she never would have used, at least prior to 1915. That was the year she visited the Del Monte plant while on a trip to see her daughter, and came away believing that, contrary to her previous thought, a factory could have as high a standard of cleanliness as her own kitchen.

Interestingly, my grandmother worked in the Del Monte factory after she and her family emigrated to California from Texas in the 1930s. She was fourteen, and at that factory she learned two things: one, that southern politeness is not always accepted in California (she was sternly reprimanded by her supervisor after saying "Yes, ma'am" to instructions, as her supervisor felt it was demeaning!); and two, that generic canned goods really are the same as the fancy brands (her job was to switch the labels in the labeling machines when it was time to make the fancy, regular or generic cans. Just the labels, not the cans.)

Visiting the Wilder home was one of my favorite parts of our Missouri trip, and strangely enough, it took me back to my Northern California roots. At the bookstore I was able to purchase a book of letters written by Laura in 1915, when she visited Rose for three months, who was then living in San Francisco.

From this book I learned that she and my girls both dipped their feet in the Pacific Ocean for the first time at Ocean Beach near Cliff House in San Francisco. How about that.

Rose lived in a beautiful house on Russian Hill, near Chinatown. During my time in San Francisco I frequently babysat for a family who lived on Russian Hill. They had a picture window with a gorgeous view of the skyline, and Oakland and Berkeley across the bay. After I put the children to bed I would turn off all the lights and just sit on the couch and look.

Laura ferried to Sausalito like we did once, and fed the gulls that followed the ferry just like us. She enjoyed sitting in the back of the ferry so she could feel the spray on her face, as my children did.

She did not get to cross the Golden Gate Bridge, or any bridge, as they were not built yet, but she did get to ferry to Berkeley, which was a commuter town, a city of homes, and listen to a violinist who was raising money for children orphaned by the Great War (World War I, which the U.S. was not quite involved in yet). I used to take BART (under the bay rather than on it) to Berkeley for jazz piano lessons, and my granddad can remember when the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge were first built. (For that matter, he can probably remember when all the bridges across the bay were built, but I haven't asked him about all of them.)

Laura went to the Santa Clara Valley, which was then a farm community "with access to the sea breezes," to investigate farming methods. Nowadays it is better known as Silicon Valley. My dad had a sales office there when I was in school.

The sense I got from the Wilder home, and from reading Laura's letters, was that these folks were just that-- folks that we might have known had we lived in the time they did. I have a hard time infusing reality into my own thoughts about history, but seeing the Wilder's home, so similar to the homes of some of my elderly relatives and friends, and reading her reaction to many scenes and settings I grew up with, has helped me to better picture the reality of early twentieth century life in the United States.

Here is my Non-Laura-Ingalls-Wilder-Canned-Pumpkin-And-Milk Pumpkin Pie recipe. I got it off of a can of Kroger pumpkin when I was a newlywed in Tennessee and it was an instant success.

Traditional Pumpkin Pie

1 15 oz can pumpkin
1 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 tspn ground cinnamon
1/2 tspn ground ginger
1/2 tspn ground nutmeg
1/2 tspn salt
1 9" unbaked pie crust (recipe follows-- I cheated tonight and used frozen premade crusts)
whipped cream

(oven 425)

1. In a large bowl, combine filling ingredients, mixing well.
2. Pour into pie crust, covering edges of crust with foil to prevent burning.
3. Bake 15 minutes.
4. Reduce oven temperature to 350 and bake 35 to 40 minutes more, or until knife inserted in center comes out clean.
5. Cool pie before cutting
6. Serve with whipped cream (Mr. Honey says it has to be real dairy whipped cream. None of this Cool Whip stuff).
7. Refrigerate leftovers

And a surefire recipe for two light, buttery pie crusts:

2 cups flour
1/2 tspn salt
1 tspn baking powder
2/3 cup butter
6 to 7 tspn cold water

1. In a mixing bowl stir together dry ingredients
2. Add butter, dividing/cutting it with your fingers until pieces are the size of small peas.
3. Sprinkle 1 tbspn water over part of mixture; gently toss with a fork. Push to side of bowl.
4. Repeat until all is moistened.
5. Divide dough in half; form each half into a ball.
6. On a lightly floured piece of wax paper, flatten one ball with hands; sprinkle with flour.
7. Place another piece of waxed paper on top and roll into a 12" circle.
8. Wrap pastry around rolling pin; ease onto pie plate, careful not to make holes.
9. Trim pastry so that about 1/4" is hanging over. Tuck edges under to make a thick edge.
10. Repeat with other shell.
11. For a baked shell, prick pastry with fork, bake at 450 for 10 to 12 minutes.
12. For an unbaked shell, follow pie directions.

1 comment:

Julie in Texas said...

I loved your post about Rocky Ridge. I still remember distinctly visiting the farm when I was 10 years old, oh my, could that have been 30 years ago! At that time in my life I "was" Laura, I even had (have) a Charlotte doll.

My boys have humored me, and listened to some of the books. I don't believe they would love a trip to visit the home....they would love that hill though!