Little House in the Present: America's economic downturns run through Laura Ingalls Wilder's books like a big three-hearted river

Now it's more overtly commercial, with funnel-cake vendors and kid-friendly games. The most ardent local Lauraphile I met was Kaiser, another recent arrival who first read the books upon moving to Mansfield a few years ago. "I love to introduce people to Laura," he told me. "To me she's still alive." Maybe if you grow up in Mansfield doing school projects on the Little House books and taking field trips to the local Little House, Laura becomes part of the landscape and Mansfield the town matters more.

When Kaiser was president of the chamber of commerce, he was an ardent supporter of what he calls "old-timey things." Now he makes room on the front porch of his shop for Colleen Ferries and her collection of butter churns, pie-pan graters and other nineteenth-century household implements. Ferries schlepped it all from her home in Sheridan, Wyoming. She has been a Lauraphile since fourth grade, when she wrote a book report about On the Banks of Plum Creek. (She brought that too, sheathed in plastic. The cover is a crayon drawing of the scene where Laura nearly drowns in the creek.) At first she sought out antique tools, but now people just give them to her.

After she put a little girl to work cranking a coffee grinder to turn wheat into flour like Laura's little sister Carrie had to in The Long Winter, Ferries showed the grownups jars of dirt she'd collected from each of the Ingalls homesteads. Back home in Wyoming, she'd planted wheat in them to see which was the most fertile. The seeds grew best in the dirt from Kansas. It's probably just as well Pa never found that out. It would have made him even angrier at being forced out, and all the more so because (according to Ferries, anyhow) wheat was his favorite crop.

Aimee Levitt
Laura Ingalls Wilder as a young girl in De Smet, South Dakota.
Laura Ingalls Wilder as a young girl in De Smet, South Dakota.

From booths along the perimeter of the square, vendors hawked countrified tchotchkes — aprons and sunbonnets and wooden signs announcing that somebody's "gone fishin'." None of it has anything to do with Wilder, aside from the fact that Ma made Laura wear sunbonnets. The lack of Wilder-specificity stems from the fact that the vendors are itinerants who travel the Ozarks' town-festival circuit all summer long, selling the same souvenirs. This weekend they had a choice between Wilder Days and Hootin' an' Hollerin' Days in Gainesville, 50 miles away.

Wilder Days typically nets the town $5,000 to $6,000 annually. This was a down year, though, because the Little Laura/Little Farmer Boy lookalike contest that kicked off Saturday's festivities was immediately followed by a downpour, washing out the petting zoo, the bed races, the fiddling competition and, saddest of all, the parade.

The previous evening hadn't gone so well, either. Laura's Memories was moved from the outdoor amphitheater to the high school gym owing to the threat of rain. Because none of the books so much as mention Mansfield, the action is set on the day in 1951 that the city dedicated the Laura Ingalls Wilder Library, which its namesake had helped fund from her royalty payments. As the actress portraying Wilder reflects on her life, performers dramatize high points from the books: the sugaring dance at Grandma's from Little House in the Big Woods; the fording of the creek in Little House on the Prairie, complete with the dramatic loss and reappearance of Jack the brindle bulldog (played by a live puppy, though not a bulldog); the county fair from Farmer Boy; the epic feud between Laura and archrival Nellie Oleson from On the Banks of Plum Creek and Little Town on the Prairie; and Laura and Almanzo's courtship from These Happy Golden Years.

Wendy McClure, who is probably the world's greatest expert on Little House in pop culture — she has watched most of the 205 episodes of the TV series, all three made-for-TV movies and even the stage musical and the Japanese anime interpretation of the books, Laura, A Girl of the Prairie — notes that every generation has put its own spin on the Little House legend. During World War II, for example, a radio play of The Long Winter emphasized sacrifice and doing the right thing for the common cause, even as listeners were enduring Meatless Mondays and collecting scrap metal. The '70s TV series pushed the notion that families were supposed to watch television together and that programs should promote family values and engender conversations about the evils of drug addiction. (For the record, no Little House book contained a character named Albert who got hooked on morphine.) Michael Landon, the show's star and co-producer, refused to depict a single homemaking scene, on the grounds that "you can't film someone making a pie." This was long before the advent of the Food Network. Viewers today would likely tune in to watch a woman dressed in pioneer garb throwing together a green pumpkin pie just like Ma did.

Were the Mansfield version of the story true to the spirit of our times, it would highlight the hard times the Ingallses faced and the DIY ingenuity with which they surmounted them. (Admittedly, it would be difficult to stage a genuine plague of locusts, but picture a live pig butchering that concludes with the bladder being auctioned off!) There's no mention, though, of the Long Winter or of Laura's career as a teenage schoolteacher, undertaken to earn enough money to bankroll Mary's tuition and board at the Iowa College for the Blind. Instead the tone is one of civic self-congratulation: What a grand place Mansfield is! In the closing tableau, Laura and Almanzo tell Ma and Pa they're moving to Mansfield. Pa is sad to be losing his little Half Pint, but who wouldn't want to pick up and move to the Land of the Big Red Apple? The locals welcome them warmly. And then everyone sings.

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