Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota and South Dakota, places that are well documented in her "Little House" series of books. But she spent the last 60 years of her life -- and wrote her historic fiction -- in Mansfield, an out-of-the-way town (population 1,349) in southern Missouri that bills itself as the home of the "Rocky Ridge Farm, the site of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum."

For those who feel the need to gaze upon Pa's fiddle and Laura's butter mold, Mansfield beckons.

My journey, which starts in Springfield, takes about 50 minutes on U.S. 60, heading east and passing through (or skirting) towns such as Rogersville and Diggins. A few miles after Seymour, I head south on Missouri 5 and turn onto Commercial Street, gateway to Mansfield, where a drive down the main drag takes two minutes at most.

After I meet up with my tour guide, she chauffeurs me the brief distance from the middle of town to Rocky Ridge Farm and selects the first stop, a modest building that sits between a gift store and the farmhouse that Laura and her husband, Almanzo Wilder, started to build in 1896.

The anecdotes in Wilder's books do not always match the record of her life, but the mingling of fiction and fact does not seem to trouble the sightseers (40,000 annually), many of them women and girls. Husbands and sons accompany them, but it is the female of the species who cannot get enough of Laura's jewelry box, Mary's nine-patch quilt and the foreign language translations of the "Little House" books.

Those artifacts are displayed in a 2,100-square-foot building that is divided into two spaces, one devoted to Wilder, the other to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a writer who achieved fame long before her mother.

My guide, who happens to be the director of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum, takes me from glass case to glass case, gently directing my attention to a handkerchief that Laura embroidered as a child, her teaching certificate and the slates the Ingalls girls used when they attended school.

Almost everyone who enters the building reacts with pleasure when they see Pa's fiddle, which played an important role in the "Little House" books.

We stroll to the nearby farmhouse, which started life as a cabin and gradually grew to nine rooms. The layout -- low ceilings throughout (Wilder was 4 feet 11 inches), sloping floors, a sleeping porch on the second floor, a pass-through window from the kitchen to the dining room, a parlor and bedroom that appear to wrap one side of the structure.

The farmhouse, finished in 1913, has been well cared for and, according to my guide, almost every piece of furniture, every wallpaper pattern, every object has a story. The Montgomery Ward stove in the kitchen dates to 1905, the walls in Wilder's bedroom are adorned with Currier & Ives prints from an early 20th century calendar, the fireplace in the living room was built, at Laura's insistence, from huge rocks on the farm.

Laura and Almanzo Wilder lived in the farmhouse during most of their time in Mansfield, but in 1928, Rose built them a new home on the property, and they moved the quarter-mile to the stone cottage now known as the Rock House. It's a handsome structure (and open for touring), with a fieldstone exterior and French doors, and it was here that Laura started writing the "Little House" books. But most Wilder experts agree that the couple yearned for their farmhouse, returning there in 1935 and remaining until their deaths, Almanzo in 1949, Laura in 1957.

John E. Miller, who wrote "Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend," notes that "many gaps remain in our knowledge of her and in our understanding of her motives and aspirations."

But those gaps probably don't matter to those who make their way to Mansfield. As Miller, a former college professor, historian and the author of several other books, including "Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little Town: Where History and Literature Meet," explains: "In the end, what stands out most strikingly about Wilder is her perseverance. Her readers know how her family withstood the challenges of poverty, crop failures, blizzards, grasshoppers, prairie fires and other setbacks."

And that is why we come.


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