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

Nov 24, 2011 at 4:00 am
Laura Ingalls Wilder as an old woman in Mansfield.
Laura Ingalls Wilder as an old woman in Mansfield.

In late August 1894, the Wilder family — Almanzo, Laura and their seven-year-old daughter Rose — arrived in Mansfield, Missouri. They'd spent the past six weeks on the road, traveling the 650 miles from De Smet, South Dakota, in a covered wagon called a hack that looked more like a Model T than a prairie schooner. They had two horses, some furniture, a stray dog named Fido Laura had adopted somewhere in Kansas and their life savings in the form of a $100 bill hidden in Laura's lap desk.

De Smet had endured a Bible-worthy run of droughts dating back to the year of Rose's birth. The Wilders' house had burned down. Their second child, a boy, had died in infancy. Laura and Almanzo both contracted diphtheria; the infection left Almanzo with a permanent limp. Having given up their dream of turning their homestead into a prosperous farm, they'd abandoned it to work for Almanzo's parents in Minnesota, then for an ill-fated venture to central Florida and finally for a rented house in De Smet, where Almanzo got stuck for months on jury duty and Laura earned their $100 by working twelve-hour days for a seamstress.

A massive bank collapse the previous year and its aftermath, the infamous Panic of 1893, was the worst economic depression in U.S. history to date. A band of unemployed workers in Ohio, led by a small-time politician named Jacob Coxey, marched on Washington to lobby the government to create jobs. Its ranks swelled as it marched through Pennsylvania, and eventually Coxey's Army set up camp in Maryland. Similar protests erupted in the Pacific Northwest. If news of the protests reached De Smet, Laura didn't deem it worthy of inclusion in her journal. The Wilders didn't protest. They moved.

In De Smet Mansfield was hailed as the "Land of the Big Red Apple," a paradise of fertile fields and orchards. But on the road, the Wilders encountered dozens of settlers headed in the opposite direction who had failed and were on their way back to the Dakotas.

Using the $100 bill as a down payment, the Wilders purchased a farm a mile outside of town, fittingly named Rocky Ridge. There they would live out their lives.

I arrived in Mansfield in the fall of 2011, traveling the 200 miles from St. Louis by car, carrying a notebook and an overnight bag. It's only a four-hour drive, but once you exit Interstate 44 in Lebanon and head south through the rolling hills of the Ozarks, two-lane Route 5 transports you back in time, through dying old towns without a single gas station or fast-food joint, separated mostly by farmland. You get held up by tractors. There's no cell phone service.

Back in St. Louis (and virtually every other U.S. city), people had set up tent compounds in public spaces in the name of the Occupy movement, collective but disparate acts of civil disobedience meant to protest the unequal distribution of wealth between Wall Street and the other 99 percent of the country. Mansfield epitomizes the 99 percent: The unemployment rate here is 9.5 percent, slightly above the national average, and one-quarter of all households pull down less than $15,000 annually. Like virtually every place else in America, it's worse off than it was ten years ago. The population has dwindled to 1,300 since reaching a peak of 1,429 in 1990. But you'll find no Occupiers here. Unless you count the tourists — 40,000 come every summer, and the mid-September weekend when I drove down, the town was so packed that I had to stay in Ava, fifteen miles to the south.

My fellow visitors and I had come for Laura Ingalls Wilder Days. History tells us that 40 years after settling in Mansfield, Laura began writing the Little House series of semiautobiographical novels about her childhood that were destined to become classics. Since Little House in the Big Woods inaugurated the series in 1932, the books have sold more than 60 million copies and spawned an entire industry that includes sequels, prequels, cookbooks, a stage musical and, most famously, a TV series, which in its own way is also a classic of Americana. (It's said to have brought tears to the eyes of President Ronald Reagan, who liked to watch it in the White House.) Within weeks of the author's death in 1957, Mansfield had turned her house into a shrine, and the town has drawn pilgrims by the score ever since, an endless stream of calico dresses and sunbonnets.

Laura had been on my mind for months, beginning right around the time that I finally gave up on the notion that the economy was improving and the Great Recession would soon recede gently into the past. Like most, I suspect, I'd moved beyond the turbulent Sea of Shock and Outrage and into the stagnant Pool of Doing Without.

As it happens, Little House in the Big Woods appeared at about this same stage of the Great Depression. Not only that, but the time period the book chronicles, the 1870s, marked another strikingly similar hard time. Yet Wilder's books made those hard times sound, well, exciting. There's nothing to make you feel better during hard times than wallowing in nostalgia for even worse hard times, and there was Mansfield, with an entire festival celebrating Laura Ingalls Wilder and hard times just 200 miles from where I live!

St. Louis could never in a million years be mistaken for El Dorado, but its neighborhoods and shopping districts that chugged along before the current Recession continue to chug, if at lower rpm and the occasional sputter. Mansfield, though, looks defeated. As you drive south into town on the main drag — named, ironically, Commercial Street — the first thing you see is a boarded-up motel. The next is a sign advertising an outdoor pageant called Laura's Memories, with performances every Friday and Saturday night from late August through early October. The show, I later learned, was written by a Mansfield woman who'd always aspired to create a Broadway musical; the cast comprises Mansfieldians ranging in age from two to eighty-two (plus one puppy).

Downtown Mansfield extends three blocks or so and consists of old wooden buildings in need of repainting. There are two restaurants (one is missing half its sign), a hardware store, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Library and a shop called Laura's "Sweet Memories" that sells penny candy and used copies of the Little House books. There's the Mansfield Historical Society, featuring vintage farming equipment, football memorabilia from Mansfield High (including a program from the team's "perfect season" — 1946, when it finished 0-8), Laura's blue willow china and a backgammon set and an armchair that Almanzo made.

The town square contains two structures (one a gazebo, the other a pair of restrooms) and a bust of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The square, though, is named for Mansfield's other famous resident, Carl Mays, who played for fifteen seasons in the major leagues and was among the best pitchers of the 1910s. It doesn't say so on the small metal plaque honoring him, but Mays was also one of the most ill-tempered players of his time and is best known for an incident in 1920 when, while pitching for the New York Yankees, he fatally beaned Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman.

Mansfield grew up along the railroad line. The tracks run behind the town square, and every ten minutes or so a freight train roars through, drowning out the stentorian voice of Kate Barrad, secretary of the Mansfield Area Chamber of Commerce and emcee for Wilder Days. The train doesn't stop here anymore, though, and the interstate is 30 miles away. Time has passed Mansfield by.

Like a lot of Little House readers, I don't remember the plots of the books as well as I remember the details. Like when Pa killed a pig, he'd blow up the bladder and Laura and her older sister Mary would bat it around like a balloon. Or how the best part of a pig is the tail, roasted over an open fire. (I'm still waiting to see pig's tail at the farmers' market.) Or how Ma let Laura and Mary make candy by drizzling maple syrup over a pan of snow. The books are like a wormhole back into the 1870s. That's the beauty of them: the clarity of those details. It doesn't even cross your mind to wonder how Laura Ingalls Wilder kept them in her mind for 60 years, until the early 1930s when she finally wrote them down. As little Laura thinks at the very end of Little House in the Big Woods, "This is now.... It can never be a long time ago."

The Little House books are all the more appealing because they make living in a tiny log cabin in the middle of the Wisconsin woods or a one-room log house in the middle of the Kansas prairie or a dugout in a hill in southwestern Minnesota seem fun. It never occurred to me that Laura never ate chocolate or that she might have been bored with nothing to read besides Pa's big green book of animals. I wanted to sweep floors (drawing the broom, as Ma counseled, rather than flipping it). I wanted to help my mom make cheese by pressing curds into a hoop, instead of driving to the grocery store to pick up a brick of Kraft Singles. I wanted to get only one stick of candy every year for Hanukkah (we didn't celebrate Christmas) and make it last as long as I could.

This past spring Wendy McClure published The Wilder Life, a book-long meditation on her fascination with all things Laura Ingalls. She made the maple candy. She visited all the places Laura had written about in the novels. She bought a butter churn and churned butter. (It turns out making butter isn't as impressive an achievement as it seems: You can do it by shaking a Mason jar filled with cream, as McClure demonstrated when she came to St. Louis for a reading. But that was almost beside the point.)

Inspired, I went back and reread the books, applying my own version of the McClure method. I swept the floors of my apartment (careful to draw the broom). I found a hunk of salt pork at Schnucks and fried up the Ingalls pantry staple in an iron skillet per Ma's instructions as laid out in By the Shores of Silver Lake. (It was very salty.) On weekends I made big batches of Bolognese sauce to "put up" in the freezer. I laid in several months' supply of toilet paper in the basement. At night I lay in bed and thought about how gosh-darn cozy everything was.

About halfway through On the Banks of Plum Creek, something that should have been quite obvious finally dawned on me: The Ingalls family didn't live in a dugout in the ground because Ma and Pa thought it would be neat. They lived there because they were poor. And after Pa bought a prefab house on credit against the wheat harvest, which was then devoured by locusts, they were even poorer — so poor that Pa had to walk 300 miles back east to find work.

There was a real-life Midwestern locust plague in 1874, which followed close on the heels of the Panic of 1873, an international financial catastrophe that brought on the original Great Depression — subsequently redubbed the Long Depression, for obvious reasons.

Could it be mere coincidence that Little House in the Big Woods was published in 1932, just as Americans were coming to grips with the fact that the Wall Street crash of 1929 was more than a passing turbulence in the stock market?

When I asked McClure that question, she explained to me that Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't sit down to write Little House in the Big Woods because she felt moved to reminisce about her childhood. She started writing books because she needed cash.

As an adult, Rose Wilder Lane abandoned Mansfield for a career as a globetrotting journalist. She made a good living writing for slick magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, and she invested a good deal of it in the stock market — along with Laura and Almanzo's savings, which had grown considerably from that first $100 bill. When Black Monday came, the family lost everything.

With no other recourse, Lane returned to Mansfield and took up residence in her parents' farmhouse, displacing them to the English-style cottage she'd built on the farm back when she had money to burn. She proceeded to cook up potential get-rich-quick schemes. Should they move to California and try their hand at chicken farming? Laura was in her sixties; Almanzo was ten years older. It would be more practical to stay put. Perhaps, Rose thought, her mother could turn the many vivid childhood memories she'd retained into stories they could sell to magazines. After all, for fifteen years Laura had written a column, "As a Farm Woman Thinks," for The Missouri Ruralist. A book might actually prove to be profitable, especially with a boost from some solid editing from Rose.

William V. Holtz created quite a stir with his 1993 biography of Rose Wilder Lane, The Ghost in the Little House, which drew on correspondence between Wilder and Lane to reveal that Rose's role in rendering her mother's childhood in fictional form was decidedly hands-on. (Regardless, the experiences recounted in the books are undeniably all Laura's.) But the collaboration between mother and daughter, coupled with the circumstances that brought the series into existence, highlights a more compelling confluence of historical context: When Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing about the 1870s, she was up to her eyeballs in the realities of the 1930s — the very same eyeballs, no less, that had taken in the life-altering events of the 1890s.

So the Great Depression runs through Little House in the Big Woods like a big three-hearted river.

Perhaps most striking, however, is that the book's central theme is made most conspicuous not through the events and details described in its pages but by the things that aren't there.

There's no Depression in the Big Woods. There's no sign that the Civil War was less than a decade in the nation's rearview (aside from one minor character, Uncle George, who ran off to be a drummer boy and came home "wild"). There are no banks. There isn't even a cash economy: A description of the family's visit to the store in town depicts a dazzling oasis of consumerism, but Pa pays for the calico and the sugar in trade, with bear and wolf pelts. There's no government. In fact, a government would seem superfluous. No need for police or courts, because everyone gets along. The Ingallses have everything they need thanks to Pa's seemingly limitless frontiersman skills and Ma's "Scottish ingenuity" on the domestic front.

In the real world of 1932, meanwhile, Franklin Roosevelt was campaigning for the presidency on the promise of a "New Deal" that would expand government in order to provide more jobs, chiefly on public-works projects. Later, after he was sworn in, Roosevelt proposed that farmers destroy their crops in order to decrease supply and drive up prices. For lifelong farmers like the Wilders, this could not stand. It was anathema especially to Rose, who while stuck in Mansfield was developing her own political philosophy, based on individualism and freedom from government interference. To everyone his or her own Big Woods! Though others were following the same line of thought, it was Rose Wilder Lane who gave it a name that stuck: libertarianism.

Laura wasn't overtly political, but she shared Rose's libertarian ideals. As she wrote in a 1937 letter to her literary agent: "One thing I hate about the New Deal is that it is killing what, to me, is the American pioneer spirit.... All the old character-values seem simply insane from a practical point of view: the self-reliant, the independent, the courageous man is penalized from every direction."

In other words: There goes Pa!

The real-life Ingalls family, though, wasn't always so self-reliant. Historians have made a game of finding discrepancies between the books and the historical record: periods the Ingallses had to crash with friends or relatives, times when Pa worked as a carpenter rather than a farmer and, most egregiously for those who approach the books as autobiography, the year the family spent in Burr Oak, Iowa, where they helped run a hotel and wound up skipping town to avoid paying their back rent. (Pa did eventually settle up.)

As the series progresses and the family moves farther from the Eden of the Big Woods, the government works its way into the cozy world of the Ingalls family and turns it upside-down. At the end of Little House on the Prairie, the third book in the series, they are forced to abandon their homestead near Independence, Kansas, just as it's about to yield a profit after a year of hard work, because the government screwed up. As Pa explains it, "'If some blasted politicians in Washington hadn't sent out word it would be all right to settle here, I'd never have been three miles over the line into Indian Territory. [Discrepancy alert: They were in fact nearly 40 miles inside the border of the Osage reservation.] But I'll not wait for soldiers to take us out. We're going now!'...His face was very red and his eyes were like blue fire. Laura was frightened; she had never seen Pa look like that."

Later, in The Long Winter (book six, which corresponds to the winter of 1880-'81), the family nearly starves to death because they've grown dependent on the railroad to bring them food, and the constant blizzards keep the trains from running. If only the railroad men had, like Pa, noticed that the muskrats were building the walls of their houses thicker than usual (an unmistakable harbinger of a hard winter)! And in the next book, Little Town on the Prairie, when the family temporarily abandons its claim shanty and settles in town for the winter, Pa becomes a leader in the group that arranges the evening socials and insists that there be no committee meetings.

The theme of this year's Wilder Days was "Laura, Teacher of the Ozarks."

"But Laura didn't teach school in Mansfield," I pointed out to Kate Barrad.

"Well, she made a lot of school visits," the emcee replied. "And we wanted to honor the teachers by letting them lead the parade."

Barrad moved to Mansfield three years ago, in order to help her father and sister run a complex of vacation cottages just a short walk from the Wilder house. (It's said there's a cave on the property where young Rose once got lost.) During her time in town, the biggest Wilder freak Barrad has seen was a woman who came from Vienna, stayed for a week and visited the museum every day. But Barrad was more interested in talking about Mansfield and the goings-on of the festival than she was in discussing Laura. All she said was, "I like to tell people, 'If the end of the world comes, these are the best books you could have, because they tell you how to do everything.'"

According to the town's website, Wilder Days date back to 1974, but no one in town seemed to remember whether that's accurate. Over the years the festival's character has changed. In the past there were displays of pioneer-era tools — button lamps like the one in The Long Winter, which Ma makes from a button, a scrap of calico and some axle grease when they run out of kerosene; a cobbler's bench to illustrate the shoemaking chapter in Farmer Boy, the second book in the series, which tells the story of Almanzo's childhood in rural New York; the ubiquitous butter churn; old-fashioned crafts such as candle-making and blacksmithing. Every fall, during the week preceding Wilder Days, some of the townsmen go rambling around the countryside in wagons (like Laura and Almanzo in These Happy Golden Years!) and return in time to kick off the celebration with a bonfire outside the high school.

This year the wagon riders came back quietly, not even bothering with the customary celebratory lap through town. "People are getting older," explained Kathy Short, who volunteers at the Mansfield Historical Society. "They can't get off work anymore."

I'd been talking to Kathy's mother-in-law, Marge Short. Marge has lived in Mansfield for 65 years, long enough to have known Laura — or Mrs. Wilder, as the townspeople called her — but she didn't have much to say about her. Of course, they were of different generations, and, as Jim Kaiser, the amateur historian who runs Laura's "Sweet Memories," told me later, Mrs. Wilder had intimidated the other women in town, not because she wrote books but because of the biting intelligence she displayed at club meetings. Marge's Mansfield was football games and the wagon rides that her husband Amon, who has been dead eleven years now, joined in every fall. "Wilder Days was much more fun then," she told me.

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.

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.

During intermission I learned that the couple seated next to me had five children performing in the pageant: Their three sons danced in the "Farmer Boy" number, their younger daughter was an extra in the schoolhouse scenes, and Sis played Plum Creek-era Laura. Mom and Dad had seen the show a lot. During the "Farmer Boy" song, they clapped along almost absentmindedly. They'd also come prepared, with books to read.

I was about to ask them about the rehearsal process, which I imagined would have been more interesting than the actual show — sort of a cross between Friday Night Lights and Glee, with a dash of Waiting for Guffman — but just then a woman sitting up front collapsed. It was an hour before the paramedics finally wheeled her out on a gurney. During the extended intermission, some audience members called it a night; others stuck it out and passed the time by gawking politely. The piano accompanist played hymns. My neighbors read.

As the show was about to resume, the actor who played Pa stood up to announce that the stricken audience member was named Doris and that she had a problem with her leg. He asked that we all bow our heads while he said a short prayer for her recovery and for wisdom for the doctors who were tending to her. Everyone did. Maybe that's the spirit of Mansfield.

Before the rains came, I helped judge the Little Laura/Little Farmer Boy Lookalike Contest on Saturday morning. One of the judges had dropped out and Kate Barrad had asked me to step in, figuring that as an out-of-towner, I'd be impartial.

Contestants were to be evaluated on the basis of their costumes, their poise, their personality and the judges' overall impressions. As each kid walked — or was carried by his or her mother — across the gazebo, Barrad read off her name, age, hometown, favorite subject in school and favorite Little House book. There were about 50 children in all, the vast majority of them girls aged six to ten. Many were from out of town, and a lot of them were homeschooled.

The job was harder than it sounds. In their long calico dresses and sunbonnets and pigtails, the girls all looked alike. I wound up awarding extra points for creative accessorizing (a live duckling) and deducting for blatant costume discontinuity (gym shoes). My favorite contestant was the girl who announced that she ought to be allowed to be Mary, because they both had blond hair and Laura's was brown. Though Wilder's Laura once slapped Mary out of envy for those golden curls, a logical mind and a strong sense of fairness were two of her most prominent traits, and I decided she'd have liked the blond girl's spunk.

The rain didn't begin in earnest until Barrad began announcing the winners. I hid under a tree to hear the results (the blond girl didn't win) and then ducked into the library, a single room with a few bookshelves and a few computers that looked old enough to be obsolete. Brandy Elliott, the librarian, showed me scrapbooks she'd assembled of newspaper clippings about Laura and Almanzo and the paper dolls Laura made as an old woman, each dress carefully shaded in colored pencil. (Who did she make them for? I wondered. Rose Wilder Lane never had children of her own, though she did unofficially adopt a number of promising students in Mansfield and Albania, where she lived in the 1920s, and paid for their education. One recipient of Lane's largesse, Roger Lea MacBride, ran for president in 1976 on the Libertarian ticket. He also inherited the Wilder estate when Lane died in 1968.

Though Laura had stipulated that the copyrights should pass to the Mansfield library, Rose willed them to MacBride instead. The library received a single royalty payment of $28,011.05 from the publisher, HarperCollins, in 1972. In 1999, contending with a broken heating system and a leaky roof, the library sued MacBride's heirs and HarperCollins for an undisclosed sum. At the time, the editor of the Entertainment Law and Finance newsletter told the New York Times that the estate could be worth as much as $100 million. The library ended up settling for $875,000.

Elliott led me to the china cabinet in the back of the room to show me the library's most treasured relic: Laura's autograph album. She flipped through the pages, which bore the signatures, nearly all inscribed in elegant Palmer Method script, of Laura's school friends from De Smet: Mary Power, Cap Garland, Ben Woodworth, Ida Brown and several who didn't make it into the books. And a message from Mary, embossed in two lines of Braille.

They were real!

There are more relics up at the farmstead — which, I was astonished to learn, Elliott has never visited. (She didn't grow up in Mansfield.) Letters and dresses and Laura's pistol and the little china box she received the first Christmas they lived on Plum Creek and the little wooden lap desk that carried the $100 bill to Missouri. The house itself is a little house indeed, because Laura and Almanzo were little people: She stood four foot eleven; he barely topped five feet. The ceilings are low, the kitchen cabinets close to the ground. There's an indoor bathroom and an I Love Lucy-era fridge. (Despite the good old days she depicted in such loving detail, Wilder was no enemy of progress. One of the most ecstatic chapters in the Little House series appears in On the Shores of Silver Lake, when Pa takes Laura out to see the railroad getting built.) On the desk in the study, there's an orange-covered tablet and pencil like the ones Laura used for her first drafts. (Rose typed up the manuscripts.) Within stumbling distance is the short couch where Wilder would doze after pulling all-nighters, so as not to wake Almanzo.

And there's Pa's fiddle. Practically a Little House character in itself, it's always in the background, singing lullabies at bedtime or ballads to lighten the long winter nights or "Dixie" as the family prepares to roll defiantly out of Kansas.

The Saturday of Wilder Days is the one day of the year that the violin is allowed out of its glass case, and the only person who's allowed to play it is David Scrivener, a Mansfield boy who decamped to Branson. It was a disappointment to learn that Scrivener doesn't much like playing the fiddle. Violins need to be played, he explained. Because Pa's is so underused, it won't stay in tune. "It's not itself," Scrivener told me.

Nobody seemed to notice, though. Accompanied by Aovie Dooms on guitar, Scrivener dipped into The Little House Songbook. Audience members jostled for position, held up cameras. After the musicians exhausted the better-known tunes in the Ingalls canon, they invited requests. I considered asking for Stephen Foster's "Hard Times," but a man behind yelled out for the "Tennessee Waltz" before I could get the words out.

Just over Scrivener's shoulder I could see the door to the gift shop, which is filled with books and flimsy calico dresses and tomahawk-making kits and T-shirts and coffee mugs. None of it is especially useful; neither Laura nor Ma would have approved.

The fiddle launched into "Pop! Goes the Weasel," and I wondered what Laura would have made of this spectacle. Both Lauras actually: the fictionalized girl and the real woman who wrote about her, to keep the wolf from the door during the Depression and to document for posterity the pioneer spirit that had permeated her childhood, however imperfectly her family held to it. Did she dream her house would become a shrine? (It's a good bet she never dreamed that a Minnesotan named John Charles Wilson would create a religion called Lauraism based on the principle that she is God.) Did she dream that her stories would be considered a prime example of family values and the virtues of the simple life? Or that 75 years after conjuring nostalgia for bygone Great Depressions as a means to soften the hardships of a current one, her creations would perform that same function for a future one?

Did she dream that her Little House would be called upon to sustain the little town where it was born?