ON THE WAY HOME
LAURA INGALLS WILDER
In 1894, Laura Ingalls Wilder traveled across the Midwest by wagon one last time, leaving DeSmet, South Dakota, with her husband, Almanzo, and their eight-year old daughter, Rose, to settle in Mansfield, Missouri. She would spend the rest of her life in the shady Ozarks town. A few weeks ago, I toured the frame house in Mansfield where the Little House books were written and picked up On the Way Home, a slim diary of Ingalls’ journey from DeSmet to Mansfield.
Poster girl for the prairie and the juvenile embodiment of the Midwest pioneer spirit, Laura didn’t like Nebraska. From July 23rd, when her party crossed the Missouri River from Yankton—maybe near the future site of the Meridian Bridge—until August 3rd, when they rolled into Kansas, the hot weather, hills and dust had her echoing the words of various immigrant settlers, …taken as a whole it is ‘nix good.
Even being from Nebraska, I couldn’t take offense as I was having too much fun with her descriptions of the world where I grew up—albeit seventy years before I got there.
Plums, grapes, black currants and sweet clover grow wild on the bottom land. Sweet clover 8 feet high. And the first oak trees we have seen.
We have been going over the bluffs, the most desolate bare hills I ever saw, without houses or fields or trees and hardly any grass. Manly said he would just as soon own the whole of Nebraska as not, if it were fenced. Judging from all he has ever seen of the state it might do for pasture if he did not keep much stock. So far Nebraska reminds me of Lydia Locket’s pocket, nothing in it, nothing on it, only the binding round it.
Went through Hartington at 8:30. It is a nice town, I like it much better than Yankton though it is smaller. Passed through Coleridge at 12:30, not much of a place. The wind is blowing and the dust flying till we can hardly see. Talk about hard roads in Dakota, I never saw hard roads till now.”
Today, Hartington is still a nice town, and Coleridge remains not much of a place.
The dance pavilion in Hartington, which was still active in my high school days, would become something of an area landmark. Within just a few decades of Laura’s journey, it was hosting cutting edge dance events led by another traveler from up Dakota-way—a youngster named Lawrence Welk.
And while I don’t think I’ve ever heard the city of Lincoln praised in quite this way, but it obviously made a fair impression on Laura—Good level road into Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska and a beautiful large city. It is two miles from the first hotel to the post office. The County Court House and the Capitol are grand buildings, and so is the penitentiary.
On the Way Home was a quick, enjoyable read, second only to spending a few minutes in Laura and Rose’s cramped writing study with its primitive desk and narrow divan. That such an expanse of books, stories, and articles by the two women originated there was momentarily bracing and ultimately, for a writer, uplifting.
CONTRIBUTOR: RICHARD PROSCH