by Linda R. Wommack
with Stephanie Wommack White
This is Part Two of a special three-part series appearing here.
Photo: Laura Ingalls
Laura is in the middle,
her hand on Pa's shoulder.
Minnesota, the family stayed awhile at the local hotel on the west
side of Lake City. When Spring arrived, Pa pushed on west. Along the
way, Pa played his fiddle by the campfire, lively songs of happy
times and upbeat melodies. In time, the Ingalls family arrived at a
small, growing town in Minnesota, called Walnut Grove. With a
railroad depot, a few stores and houses, Pa saw promise, and asked
around. Pa decided Walnut Grove would be their home. Their first
home was a dugout in the hill of the prairie. This part of Laura’s
life is depicted in On The Banks of Plum Creek. The Ingalls
family quickly became a part of the community. The three young
Ingalls girls attended school, met new friends and attended church
on Sundays with the family. Ma and Pa helped organize the Union
Congregational Church, with Reverend Edward Alden, a traveling
Pa’s goal was to become a successful wheat farmer.
However, during the winter of 1874, the blizzards were especially
hard, causing normal life to come to a stand-still. Trains were
stalled as snow fell for days, and Laura and her sisters could not
attend school. Laura later commented, “No one measured the speed of
wind in those days, but it was surely as fast as hurricane speed.”
Spring finally arrived and Pa built a frame house for his family and
planted his wheat crop. By summer, the grasshoppers invaded and
devoured every living crop in their path. Laura remembered the
grasshopper invasion darkening the sky, and the buzzing sound as
they descended on the prairie. “I saw their bodies choke Plum
Creek,” she would later write. While many left Walnut Grove that
year, Charles Ingalls would not abandon his farm. Instead, he left
the family in their prairie home and walked miles and miles, gaining
work here and there. Pa returned to Walnut Grove and his family in
the fall of 1875. He moved his family to town, where the girls could
attend school and the family would be safe for the winter. It was at
this time another child was born to the Ingalls family, Charles
Frederick, on November 1, 1875.
again crunched the economy of Walnut Grove in the spring of 1875.
The Ingalls family was forced to move on. They sold their property
and agreed to help friends manage a hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa.
Reluctantly, Charles Ingalls loaded his family and belongings in the
covered wagon and headed East, not West. Laura wrote in her diary,
on display at the Mansfield Museum, “This was called back-trailing.
How I wish we were going west! Pa did not like to turn his back on
the West either.”
Along the eastward trail to Burr Oak, the
Ingalls family stopped for a visit at the home of Pa’s brother,
Peter and his family. Laura was happy to be with her cousins, yet
worried because baby “Freddie” was often sick. Peter and his wife,
Eliza, insisted the Ingalls stay with them through the summer,
before going on to Burr Oak. Baby Freddie became seriously ill as
A doctor was called in, but could do nothing for
little Freddie. Laura recounted the “awful” day of August 27, 1876,
when Freddie “straightened out his little body and was dead.” Little
Freddie was laid to rest not far from Peter Ingalls’ homestead.
Forty years later, Ma said she still mourned Freddie and “how
different things would be if Freddie had lived.” Sad days followed,
made even sadder as the day approached when the Ingalls family
packed their wagon once again, this time heading south for the
journey over the prairie to Burr Oak, Iowa. (The death of baby
Freddie, and the Burr Oak episode in Laura’s journeys are not
mentioned in her Little House series.)
The Ingalls girls attended school in Burr Oak that fall, and
the family attended the Congregational Church.
During the winter
months, Pa and Ma chose to remove their family from the ever-present
activity and noise of the hotel. Their new home, located across the
street and over the grocery store, was small but comfortable, and
most importantly, quiet and peaceful.
Burr Oak was not the home
Charles Ingalls wanted for his growing family. Grace Pearl had been
born in May of 1877.
By the summer of that year, Pa longed to be
on the road west. However, he was heavily in dept with doctor bills,
grocery bills, and the rent on the home in town.
The Ingalls family were forced to
stay in Burr Oak until the debts were satisfied.
the fall of 1877, Pa sold the last of his meager holdings and left
Burr Oak in the middle of the night. The covered wagon crossed the
Minnesota state line and eventually the Ingalls returned to Walnut
Walnut Grove had changed very little since the Ingalls
family had left. Pa built a little house in town and the family
lived as townsfolk there from 1878 to 1879. Pa worked as a carpenter
to keep the family going, while Ma cared for the household and sent
the girls to school with old friends and new. Walnut Grove was
incorporated in the spring of 1879, with Pa being elected Justice of
the Peace. Yet Pa was not happy in Walnut Grove, for he wanted
desperately to continue west. After ten years of wanderlust
traveling, Ma made a final compromise; one more journey west. The
Ingalls family would journey west to De Smet, South Dakota.
episode of the return to Walnut Grove is the second deletion in the
Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The return
represented a turning back and therefore did not flow with her story
of westward movement. It was during this period that Laura’s older
sister went blind due to an illness the doctors described as “brain
fever.” Laura became the caretaker for her sister and described in
detail the sights that Mary could no longer see. Laura saw
everything with renewed beauty and keen awareness. As her perception
sharpened, so did her vocabulary and ability to relate the sights in
vivid prose, so that blind Mary could experience as much as
possible. This self-taught ability would be used years later when
she would write the Little House series.
In 1879, the
Chicago & Northwestern Railroad expanded its line from western
Minnesota to Dakota Territory. The Dakota land was opened to
homesteaders, and Pa found an opportunity. Charles’ brother-in-law
worked for the railroad and offered Charles a job as storekeeper and
bookkeeper for the railroad. The job paid fifty dollars a month and
allowed Charles an income while “proving up” his homestead. Pa sold
his meager holdings in Walnut Grove and left for the Dakota
Territory. The family traveled by train (Laura’s first train ride),
which went as far west as Tracy, where Pa met them for the trip into
Dakota Territory. As the Ingalls family packed the covered wagon for
their last journey, Laura Ingalls, the pioneer girl, became a
Part 3 - Mary is
enrolled in the Iowa College for the Blind. Meanwhile, as Laura
Ingalls begins teaching, Almanzo Wilder comes calling. Some
forty-four years later, with encouragement by their daughter Rose,
Laura Ingalls Wilder would finally offer her personal remembrances
of pioneer life to the world.