A Trip to the Wilder House Lessons Learned by James McDermott
We moved to SW Missouri seven years ago and soon found out that one of the local attractions about an hour’s drive from our home was the Laura Ingalls Wilder house and museum near Mansfield, MO. This is the place where Laura and Almonzo Wilder lived most of their adult lives, where the Little House books were written, and where they eventually died. We were told by a handful of people that the house wasn’t worth the visit so we had never made the trip. After seven years, however, and despite the bad reviews, we decided to give the house a try. We all piled into the van and, without expecting too much, away we went.
I don’t know what those who dissuaded us from seeing the house and museum were expecting, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I love history and this was history with a personal touch. I found it all fascinating, indeed!
We were able to see interesting, but spiritually insignificant trivia about their lives. The house when first built was very small and compact. When we walked into the house we were immediately in the kitchen. It was tiny, by modern standards, but the space was used very efficiently. I imagine clutter wouldn’t have been the problem it is for many of us today because there was barely enough space for what was necessary. Originally there was only a wood burning stove for cooking. Imagine that on a hot Southern Missouri summer day with no air conditioning. When the house was first built there was no refrigerator, no electricity, and no bathroom. There was a small parlor that was barely big enough to fit our family. Their daughter climbed a ladder to the loft to sleep by herself, and Laura and Almonzo had their own small bedroom (with separate beds!). Eventually prosperity came to the Wilder family, but Laura was in her 50s and Almonzo was in his 60s when their daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, hit the big-time as a writer. Laura was in her 60s when the Little House books were written. The Wilders lived a very primitive life by modern standards for most of their lives and their house is a testimony to that.
After we left the house we went to the museum and saw pictures, memorabilia, and written information about the long gone but still famous people who had once inhabited the house. A couple of spiritual lessons were strongly impressed on me at the museum, and they were only reinforced when I read more on the Ingalls and the Wilders after I got home.
The first lesson is that we have been so spoiled by prosperity that we don’t appreciate our material blessings. Most of us live like kings compared with how the Wilders lived most of their lives. In fact, most of us live a more extravagant lifestyle than the Wilders did after they became world famous. We complain about how hard it is to make a living. But the Ingalls bought a farm in Minnesota and two years in a row locusts came and ate everything they planted. When Laura Ingalls and Almonzo Wilder were first married their barn and house in South Dakota burned down and they suffered years of drought, which ruined them financially. The Ingalls, the Wilders, and the Wilder’s daughter Rose all suffered the death of infant children. Laura’s sister Mary became blind and Laura’s husband became lame. When they finally moved to Missouri, Almonzo, partially paralyzed and needing a cane to walk, cleared trees from his property (without a chain saw) and sold wagon loads of wood in town for 50 cents. They lived without indoor plumbing, air conditioning, refrigeration, electricity, modern medical care, automobiles, mocha frappes, and a host of other conveniences available to almost everyone here. The truth is that we are, perhaps, the most affluent culture the world has ever seen. Throughout human history and throughout the world today there are hundreds of millions if not billions of people whose standard of living is far below the “poor” in our country. Yet somehow, most believers have convinced themselves that in this, the most prosperous time and place in the history of mankind, we can no longer afford to have children or support the work of the Kingdom. The truth is that in our prosperity we aren’t satisfied with what we have, we complain about what we don’t have, and we can’t live within our means. Why God would bless such an ungrateful and irresponsible people with prosperity can only be explained by His extraordinary love, graciousness, patience, and goodness towards undeserving people.
But there was for me a more profound lesson in the family history of the Ingalls and Wilders. Both Laura’s parents were descended from the early immigrants to New England. They were blessed to have received a strong Christian heritage. Laura went to church, read her Bible, and learned some of the basic principles of the Christian life, such as honesty and hard work.
But the faith is so very hard to pass on from one generation to the next. There were warning signs that things were not spiritually well in the Ingalls and Wilder homes. One has to wonder where Charles Ingalls was spiritually, since he was a member of the Masonic Lodge and at his death was buried according to the “solemn rituals of his organization.” Laura deleted the reference to submission from her marriage vows. Apparently, she was known to be headstrong – not the quiet and gentle spirit we hope our daughters to be. Why Almonzo would marry a girl who refused to promise to submit to him is another question.
The fruit of Almonzo and Laura’s marriage was their daughter Rose. At the museum it was written that she didn’t attend church and was a deist. Rose and her husband divorced after nine years. They had one child, who was either stillborn or who died shortly after he was born. Rose never remarried and never had another child. In the end,
Laura and Almonzo’s family line died with Rose. But this was merely physical death. That family line died spiritually with the passing of Rose’s parents. (Of course, I am assuming Laura and/or Almonzo were truly believers, but who am I to know.) It is interesting that as this spiritual tragedy was reaching its conclusion the family finally reached the pinnacle of worldly success. Laura and Rose became literary stars. They became world famous and made lots of money. Rose had a very attractive and modern home built for Laura and Almonzo. Laura and Almonzo’s small farm house was modernized and enlarged. Rose and her parents were able to travel as few in their generation were able to do. But the spiritual flame was extinguished.
Rose had gained the whole world but apparently lost her soul! Laura had achieved financial stability and fame, but her only child was an avowed unbeliever. How sad! But we see in the Scriptures and all around us a similar problem. Esau could claim godly Isaac as his father and Abraham as his grandfather, but the Scriptures say he was godless and immoral. Jacob’s children were guilty of incest, selling a sibling into slavery, and murder. David’s children were dreadful. In our day PKs (preacher’s kids) are associated with rebelliousness and wild living. There are many older believers among us lamenting the spiritual condition of their children and grandchildren. Our nation was once considered a nation whose God was the Lord. We were blessed with a spiritual heritage, but if you go anywhere young people congregate today and listen to the conversation you will be grieved if you are born again. The spirit is being extinguished because the light of that flame isn’t appreciated in a people who prefer the spiritual darkness necessary for sin to be enjoyed. There is a parallel in the Wilders story and the story of our society as a whole, in that material prosperity has masked the tragedy of spiritual death.
When I got home from the Laura Ingalls Wilder house and museum I just wanted to be with my children. I wanted to be a better parent. I wanted to have my priorities right. I wanted to be a better person. I don’t want my children to be thrown into the fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. I don’t want my children’s children to end up there either. If it were possible, I would have prayed all our descendants into heaven right then and there.
Being a good parent is more important than success, fame, or money. It is more than teaching our children the outward manifestations of the Christian life. It is more than bringing our children to church, giving them a Bible to read, and teaching Christian morality. It is more than home schooling. Many home schooled children are ungodly. It is more than modest dress, polite speech, and betrothal. Indeed, there are those who dress modestly whose hearts are immodest. There are those who say ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ who don’t respect their parents and elders. And there are those who marry by courtship or betrothal whose hearts are impure. Good parenting is being used by God to make our children’s hearts good soil where the Gospel can live, grow, and bear fruit. Good parenting nurtures the plant and carefully pulls up the weeds. I know I can never be a perfect parent, but I can always be a better parent. May God help me be a better parent so the faith doesn’t die with Cindy and I! May we never achieve fame or fortune or even financial stability at the cost of our children.
It turns out that in the end, I got more from the Laura Ingalls Wilder house than they were offering or I was expecting. The experience motivated me to be thankful and content with the abundant material blessings God has graciously given me and not to compare myself with so many around me whom God has blessed even more abundantly. And more important in my estimation is that the experience motivated me to rededicate myself to being a better husband and father for the sake of my children and my children’s children. I want a legacy far more important than my writing. I want a spiritual legacy in my children and my children’s children that will never die out. Trust me, this was worth far more than the price of admission.