Do you have a bookish place you’d like to visit? My list is ever-growing, and includes someday-journeys to Prince Edward Island, The Hundred Acre Wood, and Klickitat Street. The dream book trip, however, was one that was just realized for me: a visit to Almanzo Wilder’s farm in upstate New York.
I love the Little House books so much that I re-read them practically every year. My favorite book has always been Farmer Boy, in which Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her husband Almanzo’s boyhood, so when one of my best friends conveniently had his wedding in the Finger Lakes, I gleefully plotted out the 5-hour day trip to Malone, New York. Which is out in the middle of nowhere, but that’s part of the charm! As my husband and I set off on our journey, it seemed Little House-appropriate that we would have to travel so far to get to it. I felt both giddy and scared; part of me couldn’t believe I was actually going to see this place that was so familiar to me, and so very dear.
“How could you not want to go to a place that you remember but have never been?”
~ Wendy McClure,
The Wilder Life
When the little red farmhouse finally came into view at the end of a long country road, I was nearly beside myself with excitement and practically bounced up to the visitor’s center. The Wilder homestead is the only “Laura site” in its original location, and is preserved thanks to an enterprising woman named Dorothy Belle Smith who tracked down the land and helped to reclaim 84 out of the family’s original 88 acres. The house is the very same house that Almanzo and his family lived in. (I think just about everyone was overwhelmed by a sense of awe–visitors spoke in hushed, reverential tones as if they didn’t want to break the spell.)
As we followed the tour guide I kept superimposing my memories of the book on top of what I was seeing. The front porch was where Almanzo dangled soft candy into his little pig’s mouth. The reconstructed barns were where Star and Bright were housed, and the snug courtyard was where Father would briskly urge the animals into a running circle so they wouldn’t freeze during the cold winter. The sheep barn also had stairs where Almanzo hauled a sheep up into the loft to hide it. The tiny living room–everything in the house was so tiny!–was where the family gathered for popcorn and milk after dinner. Mother’s kitchen was where insane amounts of food were produced. The dining room was where Almanzo ate enormous breakfasts finished off with two slices of pie.
Photos weren’t allowed on the inside of the house, but I confess I snapped this one when the tour guide wasn’t looking. I mean, it’s the parlor! From my favorite chapter in the book, when the parents go away and the kids eat all the sugar in the house! The tour guide pointed out the exact spot behind the stove where Almanzo had thrown the blacking brush and made a mark upon the beautiful wallpaper. (I’m sorry, ALIWA, I couldn’t resist. I swear I didn’t use a flash and won’t do anything evil with the photograph.)
After the tour, we wandered around for awhile just taking it all in. It was astonishing and humbling to be in the very place where this family lived, and to walk through the small orchard and beautiful fields as far as the eye could see down the path to Trout River, where Almanzo swam and fished. Everything was utterly still, with nothing but the sound of the wind in the trees, the water moving over rocks, and the pleasant distant hum of unseen insects.
After we reluctantly left, we also pulled over a few miles away to take a photo of the fairgrounds where Almanzo won a prize for his milk-fed pumpkin, and where Mother and the girls won ribbons for their pies and preserves. They would have ridden in a coach much like the one below, which somehow fit all the children and the parents.
– Remember Mother’s fresh butter, which fetched such a handsome sum? Apparently it was so good that her butter costs the same amount that butter costs now, 150+ years later.
– The entrance to the root cellar where all the vegetables were stored is on the porch! It’s on the floor to the left of the front door.
– Mother’s loom was located, strangely enough, in the middle of Eliza Jane and Alice’s room in the attic. Father’s workroom was in the attic too, next to the boys’ room.
– The parent’s room is literally the size of a small walk-in closet. I know that people were smaller back then, but it is still amazing to me to see that the scale was almost like a playhouse in some places. In contrast, the barns were enormous, and were rebuilt in accordance to James Wilders’ original building plans.
– The Wilders kept a small bed in the living room, where weary travelers such as the Shoemaker or the Tin Peddler could rest overnight. But the bed was just uncomfortable enough so as not to encourage longer visits.
– The Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder Foundation has built a replica one-room schoolhouse, which will open in August. (I’m so jealous of my friends in the New York or Toronto areas, because the farm isn’t far from where you are.) There are also plans to build an ice house, which I’d love to see.
This trip meant so much to me. It wasn’t until after I left that I understood why I got so teary as I looked around at all the places that I knew so well, and why every small discovery felt like such a treasure. I’ve read about Almanzo’s farm so many times that the rooms and the land is even more familiar to me than the houses where I grew up. So in many ways, it felt like I was coming home to a place I’d never been.
A few days before the trip, I started rereading Farmer Boy with my very patient husband (who took many of the photographs here and did all the driving), and we have about 100 pages left. I can’t wait to finish–and I know that the stories will be even more vivid now because of the life-changing experience of touching the land where Almanzo spent such a joyful youth. As an adult, he and Laura went through many years of hardship before they finally settled upon a happy end–and it’s thrilling that his family’s farm still stands as tribute to the golden experience of his childhood.
P.S. Thank You!
Thank you for your kind comments from my last post. I hesitated to share that, because I don’t want to focus on negative things here in this happy place. But I wanted to acknowledge that I have an ongoing struggle with blogging that I’m trying to get over, or at least to manage better. It’s strange to be in this position since there was a time a couple of years ago that I was posting a review almost every day. My love of reading and talking about books hasn’t changed, but the frustrations with this whole process definitely wears me down from time to time. But bookish experience like this one definitely help to lift my spirits.
I’ve been talking things over with Tonya and K about what we can do to address the occasional blogger ennui, however, and I am hopeful that we’ll bounce back within the coming weeks. To that end–we’re looking to add a (non-reviewing) intern to The Midnight Garden who would handle some regular features and housekeeping responsibilities, as well as possibly another contributing writer. More details to come!