The first official stop on our summer road trip didn’t have anything to do with our own family history, but it was one I looked forward to with such enthusiasm I could hardly contain myself. I was so excited that we arrived about 20 minutes before they opened for the day and we waited out front until ten o’clock. But it was kinda on purpose. Since we were the first ones there, and no one else showed up until about 10:30, we essentially had the entire place to ourselves for almost a whole hour. Perfection.
For anyone who doesn’t know this about me already, I’m a huge Little House on the Prairie fan. Like most children of the 70s, I was first introduced to the Ingalls family on TV. Even though it was already in syndication by the time I was old enough to watch it, I did so with great enthusiasm. In elementary school, I first read the books. This was when I met the “real” Ingalls family. Or so I thought, because in college, I ran across Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture, and Laura Ingalls Wilder by Ann Romines. It was only then that I found out there was yet another version of this family I thought I knew. Constructing was the first of many scholarly books I read about Laura. The first, but not the last.
Ever since then, I’ve held a waxing and waning fascination with all things Laura. I don’t really watch the TV series reruns anymore because I can’t get past the 1970s storylines set in the 1800s. I guess that once I learned that all those things I thought I knew were just made up, it just changed things for me. But I’m not going to lie. Sometimes when I’m channel surfing, I do stop and watch once in awhile.
I’ve come to the point in my life where reality seems so much more interesting than fiction, especially when it’s from the perspective of the people who actually experienced the stories and emotions on the page or on the screen. (This absolutely does NOT include “reality” TV. Just so we’re clear on that.) When Pioneer Girl was finally published in 2014, I did a series about my great great grandmother who also lived in Kansas at the same time. History is also much more exciting when you can relate it to your own life in some way. This was what I did in my series about Helen and Caroline.
Anyhow, as I began mapping out our Epic Roots Trip for the summer, I realized that we’d be going through Independence, Kansas on our way from Dallas to Topeka. Since my husband hasn’t been as jazzed about the idea of a Little House Trip as I’ve been, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to see the ACTUAL site where Ma and Pa and Laura and Mary lived and where Baby Carrie was born.
So on Day Three of our trip, we left our hotel in the far northern suburbs of Tulsa at the crack of dawn, because when you’re traveling with your three kids and you’re all in the same hotel room, everyone gets up at the same time, and it’s usually up to the first one awake to decide when that is. We packed the car and headed north across the state line and into the Sunflower State.
I’m not sure what this Texas girl expected Kansas weather to be like in mid-July, but I didn’t expect it to feel like a steam bath. It was about 9:40am when we pulled up to the gate and it was already muggy. We could see the staff busily moving about and preparing for the day ahead, but I wanted to wait until they opened so they wouldn’t feel rushed. I got out of the car and left the engine running for a few minutes, allowing the kids to enjoy their last fifteen minutes of precious screen time and luxurious air conditioning before forcing them into the grueling hardship of less than an hour of life on the prairie.
I stood quietly and just took it all in. There was no breeze, or I’d say that I listened to the breeze as it blew through the prairie grass. But the air was still, and except for the occasional noise from the Visitors Center, it was almost silent. Other than the road I was standing on, the car behind me, and the few phone poles in the distance, everything was just as I pictured it in my mind when I read the books for the first time almost thirty years ago. I thought about how Ma must’ve felt when Pa looked around and said, “OK Caroline! This is it!” and he dropped anchor on the wagon there in the middle of nowhere. I wondered how many times Ma secretly wanted to take Pa by the shoulders and shake him while screaming, “we’ve got two daughters under the age of five! Are you out of your mind?” I got goosebumps thinking about how she must’ve felt after dark when it was even quieter and the night sounds started up. I mean, I freak out when I’m home alone with the kids and the AC kicks on. I can’t begin to imagine how she must’ve felt when Pa went off hunting for days and she was out there alone with a baby and a couple of preschoolers. In a dress. (OMG…. all this in a dress. Gah!)
The Ingalls family ended up on this piece of Kansas prairie when, in 1867, Charles learned that Indian Territory in Kansas would soon be open to white settlement. Rather than deal with the tidal wave of immigration that was certain to follow, Pa decided to get there before the official opening. He wanted the pick of the best lands in the offering.
No, it wasn’t legal, and no, the Ingalls weren’t alone in this practice. By the time they arrived in the part of Kansas known as the Osage Diminished Reserve, there were already hundreds of settlers there. Whether this was an accident or not has been the subject of more than 50 years of debate by people who are much smarter than I am. Perhaps Pa knew. Or maybe he didn’t. Regardless, they settled on land they weren’t supposed to be on.
The spot Pa chose was about 13 miles south of Independence, in the far southeastern corner of Rutland Township. Walnut Creek was about a quarter of a mile to their north, and in the distance, some low bluffs broke up the horizon. Ten miles to their east was the Verdigris River. The lush prairie grass covered fertile soil, and wildlife was plentiful. Charles Ingalls felt that he’d found the perfect spot.
Every ten years, the US Government takes an official count of its citizens, and in 1870, the Ingalls family was counted in the census. Laura was three. Her older sister, Mary, was five, and Carrie, the baby, was just two months old.
The Ingalls family lived in their little house on the Kansas prairie for less than two years. During that time, Pa built the little house, a barn, and dug a well out back with the help of a neighbor. But before filing a claim that would make the land legally theirs, the family left Kansas and returned to their house in the big woods of Wisconsin.
Had Laura not written about their time in Kansas, and had the world not fallen in love with the Ingalls family, the little house on the prairie near Independence, Kansas would’ve just disappeared into the annals of American history. But she did. And we did. And it didn’t. Well, it didn’t disappear completely, that is.
Throughout the next century, Rutland Township and all of Montgomery County grew and prospered. Homesteads were filed, crops were planted and harvested, communities were forged, real estate changed hands, and the railroad came. Someone else settled on the land, and by 1881, new people built their own little house on the prairie.
Then oil and gas were discovered in the area, and things began to change. But not too much.
Just after the turn of the century, a young man with big ambitions arrived on the prairie from Pennsylvania. Bert Horton had worked on his father’s farm back east, and when he got to Kansas, worked the oil fields near Iola. Soon thereafter, he moved to Rutland Township and began drilling, subsequently becoming one of the area’s biggest oil and gas producers.
The second little house on the prairie had its share of owners before Bert bought the place in 1920. In fact, it became somewhat of a revolving door of owners, renters, farm hands, ranch hands, and oilfield hands. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before Bert bought it, he met and married Lillian Jones, the pretty young teacher at Sunnyside School. They expanded their family and their acreage in the area. One of the farms Bert bought was the Lucky Beck, a farm in the southeast corner of Rutland township. Before long, they had six children and at least as many farms.
By the 1930s, Laura’s books were published and America was falling in love with the Ingalls family and her little houses. Her books stirred something in the hearts of children and adults everywhere. Right off the bat, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books became best sellers, and this tiny little old lady found herself at the center of attention, all for doing nothing more than telling the epic story of her childhood in a way that kids liked.
While Laura’s books grew in popularity, life in Kansas continued as it always had. Bert and Lillian’s daughter Wilma Horton went off to college, fell in love with the cute quarterback of the football team, and after graduation, married him. William Kurtis joined the Marines and they lived the life of a military family, crisscrossing the country. After 20 years, General and Mrs Kurtis and their two kids retired to Independence, Kansas, to be close to Wilma’s family. When the Hortons died, they left their various farm properties to their children. The Kurtises inherited the Lucky Beck, that not so little farm in the southeastern corner of Rutland Township.
At about the time the Kurtises came back to Kansas, Laura Ingalls Wilder died in Mansfield, Missouri at the age of 90. Following her death, her books only became more popular, and her readers wanted to see where she’d lived. One by one, the location of each of the Ingalls’ little houses was idenitifed.
Except for the one in Kansas.
And that’s when things got really interesting. People started digging, and the publisher, Harper & Row, was considering omitting the word “Kansas” from their new editions since the location of the house couldn’t be confirmed. Well, that and the fact that Laura had written that they’d settled about forty miles outside of Independence, not about fourteen. Oops.
A bigger, “aw hail naw!” was probably never voiced so loudly by so many librarians from within the Sunflower State. Kansas was NOT going to let Laura go without a fight. A librarian with the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka blew the dust off the census books and started reading. Never underestimate a determined librarian because she found exactly what she was looking for—the Ingalls family on the 1870 US Census. IN KANSAS.
Now, before you go thinking that this was easy, I’m going to stop you right here. It’s not. It’s SO NOT easy. In college in the mid 1990s, I took a biographical writing course and we had to use the US Census in a research paper, and I’m going to be honest here—it was miserable. They’re confusing and there’s not much order to the families and schedules, and there are so many misspellings, and it’s just really, really frustrating. Now that they’re digitized, it’s a whole other ballgame.
Well, this fired up Independencians, because just KNOWING that the Ingallses had lived in Kansas wasn’t enough. They wanted to know where the Ingalls settled. Simply “near Independence” wasn’t enough. So another glutton for punishment picked up the baton and brought it all home. A former teacher and bookstore owner made charts and maps and graphs and stick figure drawings and through weeks and months and years of blood, sweat, tears, paper cuts, and dry eyes found the exact location of the Ingalls’ little house on the prairie.
And guess where it was. It was on that farm in the southeast corner of Rutland Township—the one Bert and Lillian Horton had left to their daughter Wilma and her family. After more than a century, the little house that Pa built on the Kansas prairie had been found, located by some determined women with great research skills. The smoking gun? Pa’s hand dug well. After 103 years, it was still there.
Luckily, the Kurtises are super cool people and when history came knocking, they not only answered the door, but they invited history to come on in, kick off its boots, and make itself at home.
By 1977, the Kurtises had so many visitors coming to the farm that they decided to build a replica of the cabin that Pa had built. Originally, they didn’t want to build anything at all on the property. They didn’t want to spoil it. They wanted people to see it the way the Ingallses had and to use their imagination to picture how it would’ve been back then. But people wanted to see something. So they decided on an exact copy, built using the detailed specifications Laura had given in Little House on the Prairie.
They didn’t want to make a cheesy tourist trap, and they succeeded. By building a replica of the cabin, they created a place that looked very much like what would’ve been there when the Ingalls family lived there—but they made it into something modern visitors wanted to see. They purchased Wilma’s mother’s old schoolhouse, the Sunnyside School, and moved it to the property. They did the same with the old Wayside Post Office. Both buildings are consistent with the time period, and although they weren’t there while the Ingalls were there, they represent the type of buildings that were in use at the time.
We spent about an hour at the Little House site, and I geeked out the whole time. Inside the farmhouse is the Visitors Center. They’ve got a little gift shop with a great selection of books and prairie-themed merchandise. Since the site is self-funded, I was determined to help support them. Admission is ridiculously inexpensive, so I made an additional donation. And in perusing the books, I located their special shelf of used books. If you’re like me and you get to visit, find this shelf! For years, I’ve looked for Rose Wilder Lane’s novel Young Pioneers, and they had it! They also had copies of the 2014 Pioneer Girl, The Annotated Autobiography and the newly published Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Yes, I know I paid the non-Amazon price and that I had to lug it around for three more weeks, but personally, I like to support for family run businesses and small non profits.) The ladies in the Visitors Center were super nice and very informative. They gave us tons of information and showed us some of the cool stuff they have inside and made sure that we went out back to see the well.
The Little House built in 1977—the replica of the one built in 1869—has fallen victim to the harshness of the elements. Usually, you can go inside, but while we were there, it was cordoned off because of safety issues. They were in the process of fundraising for repairs, and while researching for this blog post, I saw that ten days after our visit, a press release was issued that they met their goal for materials and repairs would begin once they finish raising the funds to pay the craftsmen.
Overall, it’s a great little place. It’s not fancy or glamorous, and there aren’t any giant Half Pint mascots wandering around selling balloons and posing for pictures (but if anyone is looking for a summer job, I might could hook you up. Or not). It’s a quaint spot that is exactly what it should be—a simple little place that illustrates how an American family lived on the frontier in 1870. Out back, there are some benches where you can sit and listen to the quiet. And across the driveway, there’s a barn with a couple of donkeys—one that had my kids rolling with laughter because he spent about five minutes rubbing his backside on the fence in front of them. Yes, there’s video, and yes, I’ve posted it, so keep reading.
The first official stop on our Epic Road Trip was awesome, and as we drove off and I looked across the Kansas prairie and the changing landscape and the impossibly beautiful color of the blue sky, I tried to imagine what it would’ve been like 147 years ago when the Ingallses drove off, leaving the same spot behind. I thanked God for the comfortable suspension of my car that gave us a gentle ride along the smoothly paved roadway. And I gave extra thanks for the air conditioning blasting in my face and the cold bottled water the sweet ladies in the Visitors Center made sure we had before we hit the road.
Our first day in Kansas was already amazing. Little did we know that it was about to get even better, and that by the time our heads hit the pillow that night in Topeka, our hearts would be so full that we’d be pinching ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming.
The Little House on the Prairie Historical Site in Kansas is still raising funds to repair the replica cabin. They’re also planning on building a replica barn and more great stuff. If you’re a Little House fan and want to visit the site in Kansas someday, and you actually want to see something, help keep the history alive and show your support!
- And one last thing…. In case this post seems a little light on the details, there just might be something more coming in the future. I’ll keep you posted.
All images are mine. Took ‘em all myself this summer. Except, of course, for the ones that I didn’t take. And those are the following: The screenshot of the map. That’s from iMaps. The census image is from Ancestry.com. The black and white postcard of the Independence, KS oil well is from pinterest.com (couldn’t find the original source). The picture of Mr and Mrs Kurtis is from the Independence Kansas edition of Images of America by Arcadia Publishing (photo courtesy to Arcadia Publishing by the Montgomery County Chronicle Archives, 1983). Video courtesy of my daughter.
© Julie Dirkes Phelps; Photographer, Author, Researcher, Archivist, designated “Keeper of Stuff,” and Storyteller. © Copyright 2017. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, reposting, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without prior written permission. Be cool, don’t plagiarize. If you want to use something, just ask me. I try to make sure to attribute all images to the appropriate sources, but sometimes I get mixed up or inadvertently leave something out. Please contact me with any corrections or concerns. Thanks.