[The very special miniseries continues! See Part One for the official intro and context.]
Day 3: Monday, July 24th (continued)
Another few miles down the Great River Byway brought us through the town of Alma, home of a business calling itself the Beef Slough Store. I had a hard time imagining what they would sell or who would buy it. Several light-pole posters along the highway advertised an upcoming production of Urinetown: the Musical. I had to wonder if Alma was one of those Small Towns with a Deep, Dark Secret that ambush unsuspecting travelers in one too many movies or Twilight Zone episodes.
After a quick pause to refuel in the town of Nelson, our next scheduled sight a mere half-an-hour away from the Rock in the House was the Pepin Historical Society and Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. Both are located not far off the shores of Lake Pepin, which we never actually saw.
Laura herself only lived in Pepin for a few years, having left for good by the time she was six. Her memories of the place are chronicled in the first book in her series, Little House in the Big Woods. Pepin will not let that fact go unforgotten and makes every attempt to capitalize on birthplace pride. They don’t openly acknowledge that five other neighboring states also boast Wilder-centric historic attractions, in much the same way that Indiana and several other states each celebrate Abraham Lincoln via small-town landmarks as a beloved local hero. Oh, the potential synergy and profits to be had if all Laura’s hometowns were to unite and incorporate into a single interstate enterprise…with the right organizer and marketing approach, LauraIngallsWilderCo could make a name for itself as a far-reaching, less dynamic Six Flags for the TV Land fan base.
We’ve seen none of the other Wildervilles yet (a disparity Anne aims to rectify in future vacations), but Pepin’s own displays more Laura-related merchandise than authentic Laura artifacts. We were shown a sewing box that belonged to one of Laura’s cousins, some fabric scraps that belonged to Laura’s first schoolteacher, and letters written by Laura herself discussing a proposed eponymous library wing. As was done in the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas (cf. our 2005 road trip), many of the exhibits are simulacra — kitchen utensils like what Laura might’ve used, a fiddle like Charles’, Civil War uniforms like those that might’ve stormed Pepin if General Sherman had hooked up with the other side, random old dresses like what you might see at your local 4-H fair and may or may not be reminiscent of the Age of Laura. For extra credit, lying upon one typical school desk were copies of memos and literature from a Laura fan club based in Japan.
Tangential artifact most likely to amuse Star Wars Prequels fans:
Truth-in-advertising laws rightfully dictated the Pepin Historical Society’s top-billing status above the Wilder Museum on their shared road sign, as it’s more about them than their one-time resident, but that doesn’t stop them from carrying a full line of Wilder-lit. Judging by the gift-shop shelves, more historical analyses have been written about the Wilders and the Ingallses than about the Washingtons and the Roosevelts.
Four to ten miles up the road — depending on which road sign’s measurements you trust — is a replica of a log cabin marking the concept of Laura’s birthplace.
This is not the original vintage cabin or even the true archaeological site, more like a picnic shelter with firmer walls and desperate symbolism. Decorative bulletin boards show off copies of voters’ registration forms featuring the name of Charles Ingalls and family. You’d think such paperwork might be better showcased and preserved in a proper museum with docents and information desks and plumbing facilities.
More signs outside promise a Laura Ingalls Wilder Store even further up the road, but public notice on the faux-cabin’s boards warned that the Laura Ingalls Wilder Store is not affiliated with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. We were disinclined to hunt down the Store, reluctant to intervene in what threatened to be a Laura-mania turf war.
To be continued!
[Historical note: longtime MCC fans can read more about our experiences with Laura Ingalls Wilder when in 2012 we visited the site of the Ingalls’ one-time homestead in Independence, KS. If my wife has her way, we’ll see her other memorial sites someday, Lord willing.]
[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for previous and future chapters, and for our complete road trip history to date. Thanks for reading!]