Until this year, the “museum” portion of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri was housed inadequately. Adjacent to the farmhouse lovingly built by Almanzo Wilder (with help from local carpenters, particularly in the final phase of construction) and designed by his wife, Laura, the museum was constructed in 1971 and looked it. Beyond that lay the combination bookstore/gift shop in a smaller, separate structure. Everything was, in a word, crowded.
Rocky Ridge Farm was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home for over sixty years. It’s where she raised her daughter, Rose, from the age of seven. It’s where she found her footing as a writer and ultimately—in her sixties—penned what would become the Little House series of books. Over the past few years under the leadership of longtime museum director Jean Coday, the board of the museum has worked to raise funds to improve the museum. This year, finally, the fruits of their labor were finalized and the musem opened its doors to the public, complete with an official ribbon-cutting ceremony. Members of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association were on hand to witness this monumental event.
(For TV news footage from the dedication, click here.)
The new museum sits just down the hill towards the center of Mansfield from the farmhouse. Inside is ample space for the bookstore, gift shop, and restrooms, plus a generous seating area. A video of Laura’s life greets visitors on their way into the museum. And the museum itself—it’s breathtaking. The new temperature-controlled space is divided chronologically by book, with the displays surrounding each book germane to the book’s content. The artifacts in the exhibit are all authentic, bringing Laura and her family to life. Pa’s fiddle. Mary’s gloves. A bed jacket worn by Mary when she was living with Carrie Ingalls Swanzey later in life. Mary’s beadwork. Laura’s beautiful handmade lawn dress from her thirties. The family’s bread plate as referenced in The First Four Years. Mary’s diploma from the school of the blind. Laura’s lap desk as described in On the Way Home.
After the ribbon-cutting in front of the museum, the crowd migrated to the farmhouse where, accompanied by the springtime Missouri breeze, they took seats under a tent and Laura biographers William Anderson and Pamela Smith Hill addressed the crowd with prepared remarks.
Bill Anderson shared with the crowd the history of the Rocky Ridge and how much love and pride Laura had for the Ozark land and the farmhouse she and Almanzo designed and built together from materials off their own land. He spoke of the emergence of the museum, even before Laura’s passing, and how she herself was its first tour guide, showing the house off to visitors who had read her books. When appproached about preserving it, he said, Laura was “quietly pleased.” In May of 1957, just after her death, the first open house at Rocky Ridge served 500 people. From there the organization dedicated to preserving the house, led by Irene Lichty, became a nonprofit with help from then-president Dwight Eisenhower.
Anderson then talked about the building dated from the 1960s that served as, in total, the museum curator’s house, the bookstore, and office space as well as the 1971 building that housed the museum until this year. Both buildings will be razed to make the property look more like how it was when the Wilders lived here.
Pamela Smith Hill, editor and annotator of 2014’s unexpected runaway bestseller Pioneer Girl, stepped to the microphone next. (A Missouri native, Pamela was supported in the audience by members of her family.) She talked of Laura’s writing, how it had “power, grace, and emotional depth,” and how she was an “instinctive storyteller who understood the power of language and how it could pull readers directly into a scene.” Among other passages, she shared one from Pioneer Girl that had been pulled directly from Laura’s unedited rough draft, written in pencil, which readers might have recognized from By the Shores of Silver Lake. “She understood how language itself could create a character, a scene, or bring a setting to life.”
In an emotional moment, Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum board member Dr. John Moore (a recent board member who joined during the recent capital campaign) stood to announce that the museum was going to be dedicated to the tireless Jean Coday.
Bill Anderson took the stage once again to thank the audience, concluding, “This is one of the monumental days of the Wilder Home Association.”
It was truly a magical day.
Edited to add that Bill Anderson contacted us for clarifications:
L.D. Lichty was the mover and shaker and first president of the group determined to preserve the Wilder Home. He and his wife Irene were co-curators when the house was opened regularly,sharing the duties. When L.D.died in 1974, Irene continued, with help from family members. The curators’ home was built by Rose. It was a residence for the Lichtys. In more recent years it was the bookstore and office space.