Pilgrimage to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Burr Oak Home

Ten years ago, I took a solo road trip to a conference in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Along the way, I treated myself to several side trips, including one to a town I had always wanted to see: Burr Oak, Iowa. This was briefly the home of one of my favorite authors, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Though she never wrote about Burr Oak in her “Little House” books, Laura’s family moved there when she was nine years old. Their Minnesota farm had failed and they had lost almost everything. When Ma and Pa were offered the chance to operate a small hotel in Iowa, they didn’t see any other option but to go.

Laura was born near Pepin, in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, and moved repeatedly throughout her childhood. She was usually excited to see new places, but she and her father hated having to move to Iowa; traveling East instead of West felt to them like a retreat, an acknowledgement of failure.

Readers have wondered why Laura left Burr Oak out of her books. It probably hurt too much to revisit that dismal period.

As a writer, I also speculate that running a small hotel in Iowa was much like running a boarding house in South Dakota (as described in By the Shores of Silver Lake), and that recounting both experiences would have felt redundant. Besides, she simplified her family’s travels in other ways (leaving out, for instance, the second time she lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin). Maybe she thought narrating every move her family made would have complicated the narrative and distracted readers from the stories she wanted to tell.

In any case, here is what I wrote in October 2011 in my first blog post about my visit there. I’ve edited a bit for clarity.

Burr Oak, part 1

Driving to Iowa last month for the 2011 NFPW Conference, I detoured to the town of Burr Oak, in the northeast corner of the state, to see one of the homes of one of my favorite children’s book authors.

Laura Ingalls Wilder never wrote about Burr Oak in her “Little House” books, but her family lived there for a little over a year. One of my long-term goals is to visit all of the places where Laura lived. With this site and another I saw on the same trip, I’ve now been to five. (2021 update: I’ve now been to seven.)

The Ingalls family was forced to leave Walnut Grove after grasshoppers destroyed the wheat crop two years in a row, as described in On the Banks of Plum Creek. The museum in Burr Oak displays this notice that offers a bounty of 5 cents for every quart of dead grasshoppers collected.

Laura and her family moved to Burr Oak in 1876, when Laura was nine. They traveled there by covered wagon after two years in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where their farm failed because grasshoppers destroyed the crops. Before moving on to Iowa, the family stayed for a short time with relatives in Minnesota, where Laura’s baby brother Freddie (Charles Frederick, Jr.) died.

Burr Oak is the site of the only childhood home that Laura did not mention in her books, the Masters Hotel, which the family would help manage. It now serves as a Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum for fans of her nine-book “Little House” series.

The Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa, is the only one of Laura’s childhood homes that still exists as the original building in its original location.

The town was already on the decline in 1876 when Laura arrived, because the newly built railroad had passed it by. Laura and her family lived and worked at the hotel — one of two hotels in town at the time. But today, the building is a museum and there is no working hotel at all. I had to stay in nearby Decorah, Iowa. In fact, the town of Burr Oak is smaller now than it was in Laura’s time. The current population is about 100 residents.

I like the way the locals pronounce Burr Oak. They slur the words together so that it sounds like one: “baroque.” I found that amusing, since rural Iowa is about the least baroque place I can imagine.

These life-size dolls were crafted for the museum by a fan of the “Little House” books. The entire Ingalls family is there, but these are, from left, Mary, Pa, and Ma holding baby Grace.

The museum displays life-size dolls, above. They are a little goofy, but they amused me. The entire Ingalls family is represented in the room that used to be the parlor of the Masters Hotel. The ones I’ve pictured are, from left to right, eldest sister Mary (who had not yet lost her eyesight when the family lived here), Pa with his fiddle, and Ma holding baby Grace, who was born in Burr Oak.

Running the hotel was a family activity. Laura and her mother and sisters spent hours each day cooking and serving meals in the hotel’s dining room, top photo above, which was in the basement.

Today, the hotel kitchen displays spices grown and dried on the site, along with tools like those Laura’s family used (second photo, above). Among the items pictured are two reminders of the winter of 1880-81, which the Ingalls family spent in De Smet, South Dakota, as Laura described in The Long Winter. With all trains halted for months by ice and snow on the tracks, vital supplies such as firewood, fuel, and flour could not reach De Smet. Laura and other family members toiled in their freezing lean-to, twisting hay into sticks to burn in the stove as their only source of heat. The coffee grinder pictured is the same kind the Ingalls family used to grind wheat into a coarse flour for bread.

When she wasn’t working, Laura attended school, where she really appreciated her teacher, William Reed, who also lived at the Masters Hotel. His room has been restored with period details and clothing that actually belonged to him and members of his family.

When they weren’t working hard cooking and cleaning for hotel guests, Laura and her sisters Mary and Carrie attended school in Burr Oak. Laura’s teacher, a young man named William Reed, impressed her greatly. She later said she felt indebted to Reed in particular for teaching her elocution.

Lodgings were cramped. For 25 cents a night, a traveler could share a bed in one of the tiny, crowded upstairs rooms or could sleep solo in this very public spot on the stair landing, pictured below. This bed was often saved for the stagecoach driver who brought guests to the hotel. Notice the outrageous period wallpaper in this photo. It would have looked much less gaudy in an era without electric lights.

Above, the room at the top of the stairs, where one hotel guest would sleep, in full view of anyone coming up the staircase. Below, the room near the kitchen where the Ingalls family slept — all five of them.

When they first moved to Iowa, the Ingalls family didn’t only work at the Masters Hotel; they lived there, too. The parents and all three children shared this crowded bedroom, above, near the kitchen. Ma was pregnant at the time.

Before baby Grace was born, the family was still working at the hotel but had moved out in order to remove the children from the corrupting influence of the hotel tavern. They lived in an apartment above a grocery store down the street for a time, and later rented a small brick house near Silver Creek, which ran behind the hotel.

Tomorrow I’ll post more about Burr Oak.

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