Mansfield, Mo., has never been a particularly prosperous town. Lying in the heart of the Ozarks, its landscape is bucolic but barely fertile.
In 1894, however, a stream of people seeking better lives was flowing through this Gem City of the Ozarks, and among them was 27-year-old Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had traveled in a horse-drawn hack from De Smet, S.D., with her husband, Almanzo, and their daughter, Rose.
As a child, Laura had zigzagged across the Midwest with her family, dogged by failure. Her life with Almanzo seemed similarly
destined: Two years after they married, their barn barned.
In April 1861, the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
The most famous battles that followed — Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Shiloh — were in the East.
But after Virginia and Tennessee, the most fought-over state was Missouri, which suffered 45 percent of all casualties.
Aside from its barbecue and jazz, most people know little about Kansas City.
But when I went there one April, I found much more than saxophones and spare ribs. Around every corner there are beautiful
fountains, sculptures and tiers of flowers.
There are blues and swing and folk in clubs open till 3 a.m. There are microbreweries and boiled crawfish by the pound and Cinderella carriages clopping through streets lined by Spanish haciendas.
After a long, hard winter, the sight of blooming forsythia can be intoxicating. And a butterfly? That must be just a fleeting dream.
My daughter spotted those things plus a robin soon after we arrived in Missouri for spring break, and they were enough to make her giddy with excitement.
"Oh, I like this place,'' she cried. "I like the way it looks, the warm spring air, the way it smells. And oh, look, some nice spring grass!''
Only a day’s drive to the south lies a world as old as the glacier-cut north woods are new.
Here, in the foothills of a worn-down mountain range, elephantine boulders stand in herds. In riverbeds, billion-year-old slabs are as slippery smooth as clay just pressed by a toddler’s thumb. Springs pop out of the Earth’s depths, shimmering as blue-green as the Caribbean.
This is what a volcanic landscape looks like after 1.5 billion years of continual erosion: very rocky and very rolling.
There’s rarely enough topsoil to till, and locals eke out a simple living.