"Little House" fans trace the Ingalls family's meandering path, looking for echoes from the past.
© Beth Gauper
A Laura contest is part of Laura Ingalls Wilder Days in Pepin, Wis.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, who once said, "At the time, I had no idea I was writing history,'' would be very surprised to find that the eight books she wrote about the Midwestern frontier of the 1870s and 1880s have become the basis of a well-beaten tourist path.
To a log cabin in Wisconsin they come, and to Laura's farmhouse in Missouri. They track down a depression above the banks of a Minnesota creek, and a shanty on the Kansas prairie.
These starry-eyed fans are the Deadheads of the preteen set, traveling with their equally avid mothers and sometimes grandmothers, who pass on a love for the "Little House'' books like a cherished heirloom.
Sadie DeJong of Arizona City, Ariz., brought the books home from the one-room schoolhouse she attended on the North Dakota prairie; her Dutch-born mother, read them, too, learning English by deciphering Laura's tales of sleigh rides and fiddle music by the fire — and of grasshopper plagues and deadly blizzards.
"My mother loved all those pioneer books; she said they were things she could relate to,'' DeJong said. "I was really interested in them, too. It was the same for us growing up: We didn't have much, but we still seemed very happy.''
DeJong passed on a love for the simple life and the "Little House'' books to her daughter, Mary Kirkpatrick, whom I met in Burr Oak, Iowa.
The Ingallses spent a year in that hamlet, just south of the Minnesota border, where Pa Ingalls managed a hotel after his crops failed in Walnut Grove, Minn.
It was a sad year that Laura never mentioned in her books: an infant brother, Freddie, died on the journey there, and the family lived next to a saloon.
They were so poor a doctor's wife tried to adopt Laura, and they left in the middle of the night, their debts unpaid.
Now the restored hotel is the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum, where tour guides talk about "the missing link'' while leading visitors through rooms filled with period furnishings.
Kirkpatrick and her son, Tyler, were there on a Laura tour. They already had visited the "Little House on the Prairie'' site in Kansas, where Pa built a cabin on land the Indians still owned, and Rocky Ridge Farm in Missouri, where Laura wrote her books.
After Burr Oak, they headed for Pepin, Wis., Laura's birthplace and setting for "Little House in the Big Woods''; and Spring Valley, Minn., where Laura and her husband, Almanzo, spent 1½ years resting before moving, briefly, to Florida.
© Beth Gauper
In the bluffs above Pepin, Wis., a cabin re-creates Laura's birthplace.
Then, they visited Walnut Grove, setting for "On the Banks of Plum Creek'' and the 1974-83 "Little House on the Prairie'' TV series; De Smet, S.D., the end of the line for Ma and Pa and the setting for five books; and Keystone, S.D., where Carrie Ingalls ran a newspaper.
The peregrinations of Laura and her family are complex; they moved seven times in 10 years, often doubling back on their tracks. But it is the plainness of pioneer life that led Kirkpatrick to trace the family's route.
"I like the simplicity of the life, the traditional values and the family unity,'' she says. "Of all the sites, Kansas struck me the most; it was the least touristy and most intact. Standing out there, looking across the prairie, you get a sense of what it really was like.''
Kirkpatrick's son is the fourth generation to become enthralled by the Ingallses and their adventures.
"Tyler has a real passion for it,'' she says. "He identifies so much with them as a family. When we got to the part in the books where Jack dies, his eyes filled with tears, and he kept asking, 'Why did Jack have to die?' It was almost like it was his own dog.''
The homes of Laura and her family are easily visited. They're listed below in the order in which the family lived there.
A re-created log house, representing Laura's 1867 birthplace, stands seven miles up County Road CC from the Mississippi River town.
The Little House Wayside, which is not furnished, can be visited any time; in Pepin, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historical Museum is open May 15 through Oct. 15.
The town also puts on Laura Days the weekend after Labor Day. The festival includes a parade, traditional crafts, pioneer games, music, guided bus tours to the birth site and Laura look-alike, trivia and old-time fiddle contests.
Thirteen miles southwest of town off U.S. 75, a furnished log-cabin replica of the Little House on the Prairie sits next to the foundation of the Ingalls house and the well Pa dug.
There's also an 1871 schoolhouse and 1885 post office, both relocated. It's open from April through October.
This farm town of 625 has only a church bell, a quilt and the site of a dugout to show for the 3½ years the Ingallses lived there at two separate times.
© Beth Gauper
In 1876, Laura's family lived at Master's Hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa.
But the museum is interesting, and visitors can drive to see the site of the family's creekside dugout.
The annual pageant, which has many fun technical effects, is performed the three weekends after the Fourth of July, with a Family Festival held each Saturday.
There's reserved seating in chairs and on the hillside, where admission for children 5 and younger is free.
For more, see Little pageants on the prairie.
Burr Oak, Iowa
In tiny Burr Oak, 12 miles north of Decorah along U.S. 52, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum is open weekends in May and daily through September; other months by appointment only.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Days are held the fourth weekend of June, with Little Miss Laura and Young Almanzo contests, a greased-pig contest, pioneer games and demonstrations, a 5K run/walk, music and a parade.
De Smet, South Dakota
This town is the setting for most of Laura's books, and visitors can tour the Surveyor's House and Ma and Pa's 1887 home, which contains many family possessions, as well as the new Discover Laura Center.
The Wilder Memorial Society, founded in 1957, gives tours year-round.
De Smet's pageant is performed the three weekends after the Fourth of July. No advance tickets are sold, but no one is turned away.
For more, see Little pageants on the prairie.
This town of 1,400 was Laura's home from 1894, when she arrived with her husband, Almanzo, and their daughter, Rose, until 1957, when she died at age 90.
All nine books ("Farmer Boy,'' about Almanzo's childhood, is set in New York) were written in the house they built room by room between 1896 and 1913; it's preserved as it was in the 1940s and '50s.
There's a trove of family heirlooms and memorabilia in the adjoining museum, including Pa's fiddle. For more, see The last Little House.
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home is open from March through Nov. 15.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Days in mid-September includes pony rides, storytelling, old-time music, various contests and a parade with covered wagons. Reserve accommodations early.
In Mansfield's city park, the Ozark Mountain Players present "Laura's Memories,'' set in 1951, from late August through September. There are no reserved seats but no shortage of places.
© Beth Gauper
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote all her books at her house in Mansfield, Mo.
Keystone, South Dakota
Carrie Ingalls moved to Keystone in 1911 to be a newspaper reporter. She married a widower and lived there until her death in 1946. The Keystone Historical Museum celebrates her birthday every Aug. 3.
Spring Valley, Minnesota
The Methodist Church Museum in this southeast Minnesota town contains some Wilder information and is open daily in summer and on weekends in May, September and October, 507-346-7659.
Planning a tour
William Anderson's "The Little House Guidebook,'' which includes photos of all the home sites, is very useful to Laura tourists.
Laura events elsewhere
Old World Wisconsin near Milwaukee holds Laura Ingalls Wilder Days in late July. Visitors can dress like Laura, try her games and chores and help do Ma's kitchen jobs or Pa's threshing.
On Saturday, the day ends with a farmhand buffet and a barn dance in the historic Clausing Barn.
Also in July, Heritage Hill State Historical Park in Green Bay holds an annual Laura Ingalls Wilder Day, with games and crafts of the era, Almanzo and Laura look-alike contests and celebrity appearances.
Last updated on January 22, 2016
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter
Get our weekly stories, tips and updates delivered a day early directly to your Inbox. Wondering what you'll get? Take a look at our newsletter archive.