Laura Ingalls Wilder did all of her writing on Rocky Ridge Farm. This article tells the story of how the farm came to be, and what life was like there.
Let's start with a brief primer, however: Laura and Almanzo married in 1885 in De Smet, South Dakota, where she was working as a school teacher. There they had their first daughter, Rose, in 1886. Tragedy struck the family after a life-threatening bout of diphtheria left Almanzo partially paralyzed and they suffered the loss of their second child, a son, in 1889. They took two years to recover and rest before taking a trip down to Florida seeking out a new life...
This photo of the young couple in Florida around 1892 says so much: they were uncomfortable and out of sorts. They had hoped the warmer climate would be better for Almanzo's health, but ultimately they couldn't deal with the humidity, nor did they find it easy to fit in with the others living in the area. This was when they decided they needed to "go home"; they were tired of all the struggle.
After a short time back in De Smet, the family made way to Mansfield, Missouri by covered wagon in 1894. Almanzo put a $100 down payment to buy 40 acres of hilly, rocky land that Laura would ultimately name "Rocky Ridge Farm". As part of the deal for the land, Almanzo negotiated the inclusion of 400 small apple trees that would come ready-to-plant. This one deal would set the path for their next sixty years -- and what an adventure it would be. Hit "Next Page" to see the rest...
Getting to Work: Clearing and Planting the Farm
Almanzo thought through everything. He knew he was getting a deal for the land, but knew it would be difficult to clear and plant. This photo shows Almanzo and Perley Wilder surveying the terrain above the Spring Gulch on the farm. In the early days of the farm, they used mules for almost everything.
Though the young couple had certainly bought the land at a great price, they had MUCH work to do to prepare it for farming. It was covered with high brush, trees, and scattered with rocks. As such, during the winter of 1894/1895, Laura and Almanzo spent nearly every day working to clear brush, cut down trees, and remove rocks. Just think of it: Laura on one end of a big cross-cut saw, Almanzo on the other, pulling back and forth in the dead of winter.
Thankfully, by the spring of 1895, they had cleared enough land to plant the 400 apple trees and even a plot of corn. They made ends meet day-to-day as Almanzo sold firewood in town and Laura set up a business of selling eggs from the farm chickens.
Almanzo's parents also chipped in by renting a home in Mansfield and then buying and ultimately giving their son the deed. They would live in this small house until 1910, when they would move to Rocky Ridge farm full time.
Laura outside their rented home in Mansfield in 1898. You can almost see the excitement on her face as things started to "come together".
In 1896, Almanzo chose a site on the farm for their future home. Using wood from the trees they had cleared, he got to work and built an initial cabin room and then a side room and loft for their daughter, Rose. Though this initial build of the home was meager, they were able to rent it to local workers. In town, the couple picked up a variety of odd jobs to bring in a little money: Almanzo would haul merchandise to stores and Laura would cook meals for the local railroad workers and families heading west. Their day-to-day life thus involved long days in town with occasional trips out to the farm to keep an eye on the growing orchard, gather eggs, and pull together more firewood for sale.
This view from around 1900 shows the expanse of Rocky Ridge farm, most of it now cleared, with various areas cordoned off for future orchards and gardens.
The First Fruit: Happy Times in 1900
Laura Ingalls Wilder in the ravine at Rocky Ridge Farm in 1900 at the age of 33. This was the year before the apple trees started bearing fruit. The land was blessed with a spring and a small stream that ran out from it, seen here in this photo. This photo shows how young she looked, even at 33, despite everything she had already been through.
This photo says so much. In 1901, those seedlings they had planted in 1895 began to bear fruit. Here we see Almanzo showing off one of his trees, filled with fruit. You can almost feel the "hallelujah" element they must have felt!
Those years were good to the Wilders, and Laura and Almanzo ultimately designed a ten-room house for the farm, as they knew they would live no where else for the remainder of their years. It would have a large stone fireplace, library, an open stairway, and enough space for guests and hosting small gatherings. It would also be set up so they could always keep an eye on the land they loved so much.
Building a Forever Home on Rocky Ridge
This is the earliest-known photo of the farmhouse. We estimate it was taken around 1915-1919.
And here's a closer look. They would make some add-ons and expansions over the years, but the house itself would stay nearly true-to-plan for the next 100 years. Here are a few photos from inside...
The first iteration of the house was very meager, as can be seen here by the two kitchen photos. As their fortunes grew, however, they improved the house inside and out, but they always kept the kitchen simple as they pledged to stay self-sufficient.
Another view of the kitchen. One of the things we love most about this photo is you can tell that they did basically everything for themselves.
In this photo, we can let Laura's words on the back of the photo speak for themselves:
Here is a view inside the living room of the home. You can see how beautiful it was. It is a big change from the kitchen, but you can see how much time they must have spent here and enjoyed as a family.
Establishing an Active Farm Life
The Wilders weren't 'play farmers' like many you see today. This is how they made their living, even after the fortunes from LIW's writing started rolling in. The following photos give a sense of what day to day life was like on the farm.
Almanzo had built a basic barn to manage all the hay and serve as a stable for the mules and horses. This 1908 photo shows how 'active' it was. You can imagine Almanzo going up and down that ladder multiple times a day!
This photo probably didn't need to be included, but we never like doing a story about a farm without including a photo of the farm goats, if there is one. And so here they are: the Rocky Ridge Goats!
Laura and Almanzo continued to expand the farm in these years, adding a peach and pear orchard as well as a poultry business. They both also raised and enjoyed spending time with Morgan Horses. Here is Laura with her favorite Morgan Horse, Governor of Orleans.
Word of their success spread around the area and Laura was invited to write for the Missouri Ruralist in 1911, and her early success as a writer ultimately led to her becoming a permanent columnist and editor. She built up a loyal audience and her writing combined with the income from the farm afforded their family a stable living.
One of Almanzo's many Morgan Horses. You can tell from this photo how cared-for they were!
Making Friends and Creating Community on the Farm
After they moved to the farm full-time in 1910, both Laura and Almanzo missed the relationships they had with the travelers, the railroad workers, and the townspeople. As such, they made great effort to invite people over and make their farm a place where people could gather.
This rare photo, likely from the late 1910's or early 1920's shows Laura and Almanzo on the left with their favorite dog, Nero. They are hanging out on the farm with some friends.
Laura herself took great care in her garden throughout her life. The back of this photo speaks of "Bessie" picking in her garden, and some astute readers pointed out to us that this is actually what Almanzo called Laura during their time together - either "Beth" or "Bessie".
This is perhaps our favorite photo of the collection. This Hoover Library photo shows Laura, Almanzo, and their neighbors enjoying a quiet day on the back porch of the Rocky Ridge house in 1929. This is undoubtedly a bit before the big stock market crash that would change all of their lives.
The Crash, the First Book, and the Start of True Prosperity
The Stock Market Crash of 1929 wiped the Wilder's out, however, and this event prompted Laura to explore writing a series of memoirs to save the family from ruin. She had the basics of Pioneer Girl already written, and on advice of her publisher and successful daughter, Rose, Laura sat down and wrote Little House in the Big Woods.
The book was a success, and so Wilder continued with her Little House series. From 1935 on, the Wilders thus lived on Rocky Ridge Farm independently and without financial worries. Though they didn't need to continue to farm the land, they did so without question. They also came to welcome a good number of guests as her fame increased.
Happy couple in 1933, on their 47th wedding anniversary. This is two years before the most successful Little House book would be published, but you can already see the happiness of prosperity and stability setting in for the couple.
Laura sitting on her front steps. We think this is her daughter Rose in the front yard, but haven't been able to confirm. Likely in the late 1930's or early 1940s.
Though they continued to do most of the farm work through the years, they brought in friends and neighbors as both technology improved and their energy lowered. We don't know the full story behind this photo, but the back of it reads: "Bruce cutting hay with his tractor. See the mowing machine behind."
Getting Used to Fame and the Last Years Together
Once Laura's books gained attention in the late 1930's and 1940's, many made pilgrimages to Rocky Ridge. While most writers were recluses and anti-social, Laura really didn't start writing until later in her life, so she thought 'fame' was simply a great way to make new friends. As such, they welcomed thousands of visitors through the years and she and Almanzo would come live out some beautiful last years together.
Almanzo and Laura spending some time with visitors who had stopped by to say hello.
Almanzo at age 81 with his nephew, Walter Theyer (Eliza Jane's son), teaching him a thing or two on the farm! We sure do wish we could have been there to hear what they talked about!
Laura and Almanzo posing together in the 1940's. Almanzo would ultimately pass away in 1949 at the dignified age of 92. This is one of those photos that brings a tear to our eyes. They had been through so much together over the years, but you can see both in and on their faces a gratefulness and beauty that is so, so rare.
Life After Almanzo and Building a Legacy
We don't know much about what Laura's life was really like after Almanzo passed. We can expect it was filled with more grief than she let on, but thankfully for her and for us, her fame only grew during this time, and she was never without a visitor, nor a request for advice or attention.
Laura at a book signing in the 1950's
Laura relaxing in the kitchen rocking chair in 1953. Laura would pass on in in 1957, just three days after her 90th birthday
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