Laura Ingalls: The Missing Year

After touring Rocky Ridge in Missouri, where Laura and Almanzo Wilder lived for 40-plus years, we road tripped to Burr Oak, Iowa. This little town is never mentioned in the Little House series even though the Ingalls lived there for a year. Laura was about 10 years old.

If you watched the TV show, Iowa is where the Ingalls family adopted Albert, the fictional boy who burned down the school for the blind (killing Mary’s baby) and developed a morphine addiction. The Ingalls’ real lives were dramatic but not dramatic enough for actor/producer Michael Landon. He wanted a soap opera, and Laura’s books became Days of Our Lives on the Prairie.

Anyway, I speculate Laura left Iowa out of the books because her stories are about optimism and perseverance. Iowa was anything but optimism and perseverance. They moved there out of desperation. Grasshoppers had destroyed a promising crop in Minnesota, and Pa was offered a job helping run a hotel in Iowa. He had few options. Ma loved their home in Walnut Grove, but they couldn’t stay. On the way to Iowa, the Ingalls’ infant son died. The family rolled into town on a wagon filled with loss.

Their experience in Iowa was a nightmare. Money didn’t work out the way Pa planned. (It never did with that man!) Ma cooked for more than 20 people three meals a day. Then she had to do all the dishes without the aid of a dishwasher or even lavender-scented Dawn. Laura had to empty chamber pots. (Did Mary ever help with anything?!) The family of five lived together in one tiny room. The hotel drew mostly male travelers, and there was drinking. And card playing. And swearing. Eventually the saloon next door burned to the ground, and Pa was happy to see it go.

Pa moved the family out of the hotel because it was too rough for kids. They lived above a grocery store and then in a small rented house where Grace was born. Once again, Pa couldn’t pay the bills. The landlord threatened to take Pa’s horses. After that threat, Pa packed up his family in the middle of night (literally), and they scrambled out of town.

It’s hard to picture Michael Landon doing something like that, right?

Amazingly, the original Masters Hotel in Burr Oak still stands. So much in the Laura world has been recreated – the little cabins in Pepin and Kansas, the shanty outside of De Smet, the house in Walnut Grove – that this hotel is truly a treasure. It smells and creaks just like an old building should. If you close your eyes, you can picture Ma kneading bread dough and Laura sweeping while Mary drinks lemonade and drunk travelers demanding more salt pork.

Unlike the Rocky Ridge Farm, you can take photos. So I did:

I knew a 1800s hotel would be small, but the Masters Hotel is really, really small. It's about the size of a house.

I knew a 1800s hotel would be small, but the Masters Hotel is really, really small. It’s about the size of a house.

Don't complain about your uncomfortable hotel bed until you've slept on a straw mattress propped up by rope. Also, your 25 cents didn't buy you a room at the Masters Hotel; it bought you a space to sleep. You might have to share a small bed with two strangers, and chances are they didn't spring for the cost of a bath, which was extra.

Don’t complain about your uncomfortable hotel bed until you’ve slept on a straw mattress propped up by rope. Also, your 25 cents didn’t buy you a room at the Masters Hotel; it bought you a space to sleep. You might have to share a small bed with two strangers, and chances are they didn’t spring for the cost of a bath, which was extra.

An example of the famous twisted hay that fueled the Ingalls' stove during the long winter. Laura and Pa twisted hay day and night to keep the fire burning while Mary, I guess, was drinking cocoa.

An example of the famous twisted hay that fueled the Ingalls’ stove during the long winter. Laura and Pa twisted hay day and night to keep the fire burning while Mary, I guess, was drinking cocoa.

Laura emptied a lot of these while the family ran the hotel. Tell your kids that when they complain about bringing their cereal bowls to the sink.

Laura emptied a lot of these while the family ran the hotel. Tell your kids that when they complain about bringing their cereal bowls to the sink.

Ma's hanky - her REAL hanky, not a replica. If this excites you as much as it excites me, then you're a geek, too. It's pretty fancy as far as nose-blowing devices go, so maybe this was a Sunday hanky.

Ma’s hanky – her REAL hanky, not a replica. If this excites you as much as it excites me, then you’re a geek, too. It’s pretty fancy as far as nose-blowing devices go, so maybe this was a Sunday hanky.

Here's what Ma did every single day without the help of a bread maker or microwave or even a nonstick pan.

Here’s what Ma did every single day without the help of a bread maker or microwave or even a nonstick pan.

Finally, the requisite selfie.

Finally, the requisite selfie.

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