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Road Trip Through History: Little House in the Big Woods

I grew up in the Missouri Ozarks, not far from Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House books, lived from 1897 to her death in 1957. I remember being thrilled when my family took a day trip to visit her home, probably in the late 1960s soon after it was made into a museum. *

From my perspective, the Mansfield house is the Laura Ingalls Wilder home. (And there is some justification for that perspective. It’s where Wilder wrote the books that made her famous.** ) So I was surprised to discover as we moved north into Wisconsin that we were in the neighborhood of another Wilder site: the Laura Ingalls Wilder Wayside, located near Pepin, Wisconsin.***

The Wayside is a replica of the cabin where Wilder was born, built on the original site of the Wilder farm. The cabin is open everyday, dawn to dusk. There is little interpretive material: a historical marker outside and a small display of letters and other material inside. The audience seems to be people who know and love the books—and their patient companions. I found the experience unexpectedly moving.

There is a Laura Ingalls Wilder museum (and gift shop) in Pepin itself for those who want more information, or souvenirs. I didn’t feel the need.

* The thrill is pretty much all I remember about that visit. I haven’t been back since. Though I’m adding it to the list of things the next time I’m home when it’s open.

**I use the verb “wrote” with caution. There is a reason why the museum in Mansfield is now called the Laura Ingalls Wilder – Rose Wilder Lane Museum. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that Wilder’s daughter was deeply involved in the creation of the books. And yet, for me, as for many of my contemporaries, the Little House books are fundamentally Laura’s. Sometimes the fan wins out over the historian.

***I was further surprised to learn after we got home that driving the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites is a popular road trip for hard-core fans.

Travel Tips:

  • The signs leading you to the wayside are small and have an improvised feel, so keep a close watch and be prepared to use your odometer.
  • Pepin celebrates Laura Ingalls Wilder Days on the second full weekend in September. We missed it, but it looks like a lot of fun if you like small town festivals and traditional crafts demonstrations. Which we do.

From the Archives: Florence Nightingale Does the Math


I just finished writing a review of a book that uses infographics, and only infographics, to tell a historical story.  It’s a fascinating and beautiful work–and I’ll tell you all about it after the initial review comes out in Shelf Awareness for Readers.  (I’d say that I’m sorry to be a tease, but that would be a lie.  Think of it as a blog post trailer.)

As far as I’m concerned, thinking about infographics means thinking about Florence Nightingale.  No, really.

Florence Nightingale


Florence Nightingale is best known for her heroic efforts in the Crimean War(1), where she threw open windows, scrubbed filthy floors and equally filthy men(2),  bullied doctors and officers on the spot, fought with the British Army’s military director, and saved lives.

She returned home a heroine. Victorian Britain loved to celebrate a celebrity. Nightingale was the recipient of hundreds of poems extolling the Lady with a Lamp. Opportunists printed her picture on souvenirs of every kind: including pottery figurines, lace mats, prints, and paper bags. If Bobblehead dolls had existed at the time, she’d have been Bobbled for sure.

At first Nightingale tried to keep a low-profile. She even traveled home under the unimaginative pseudonym of Miss Smith. She soon came to realize that she could use her celebrity to effect change. With the help of Queen Victoria, who was one of her biggest fans, she convinced the government to set up a Royal Commission to study the health of the army.

One of the lesser known facts about Nightingale is that she was a STEM girl. As a child she loved organizing data. She catalogued her shell collection with precisely drawn tables and lists. When her parents took her and her sisters on a tour of Europe, she collected population statistics . Later she studied mathematics with a personal tutor–not a normal choice for a young woman at the time. She once claimed that she found the sight of a long column of numbers “perfectly reviving.”

Rather than leaving the question of the army’s health to the Royal Commission, Nightingale analyzed the army data herself, working with leading statistician William Farr and sanitation expert John Sutherland of the Sanitary Commission. She reached the conclusion that 16,000 of the 18,000 deaths in the Crimean War were the result of preventable diseases.

Nightingale knew that her love for the clarity of numerical tables is not shared by all. She decided to present her data in a revolutionary way: statistical graphics. (3) Her “rose diagram”, a variation on the modern pie chart, presented her figures in a dramatic and easily understood form.


She went on to spearhead other reform campaigns, using a combination of statistical analysis and expert advice. She prepared by reading the best information available, collecting her own information if good studies didn’t exist, interviewing experts, and testing her recommended changes before releasing her results. The “Lady with the Lamp” gained a new nickname, “the passionate statistician”.

Florence Nightingale: founder of modern nursing, social reformer, grandmother of the info-graphic.

(1) Publicized by the indefatigable William Howard Russell as part of his outraged news reports on the condition under which British soldiers fought and died in that war.

(2)Or more accurately, caused others to scrub.

(3)  Farr thought it was a bad idea: “You complain that your report would be dry. The dryer the better. Statistics should be the dryest of all reading.”

From The Archives: Lincoln’s Greatest Case–Sort of

One of the recurring themes this fall as we worked our way along the Great River Road, crossing the Mississippi back and forth between Iowa and Wisconsin was, in fact, the question of crossing the river.  We think of “bridge-building” as a metaphor for bringing communities together, but the construction of real-life bridges was often a contentious matter, whether it was a question of paying tolls or protecting the value of river front businesses that would be cut off by the installation of a bridge.*

The hardest fought battles were over bridges that limited the ability of steamboats to travel freely up and down the river.  The lumber industry and the steamboat companies that served it were anti-bridge.  But there was a new steam-driven technology that needed to cross the river in order to expand, the railroads.  The competition between steamboats and railroads led to tragedy, change, and an interesting step in the career of a small-time attorney named Abraham Lincoln.

Mississippi steamboat race

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Brian McGinty  uses his skills as both attorney and historian in Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, The Bridge and The Making of America.

In May, 1856, the steamboat Effie Afton hit a pillar of the Rock Island Bridge–the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi. Both steamboat and bridge caught fire. The Effie Acton sank, with all its cargo. The Illinois side of the bridge collapsed onto the wreck of the steamboat the next day. In the trial that followed, the powerful steamboat interest fought the developing railroad industry for control of the Mississippi, and the nation’s shipping business.

McGinty sets out the complicated story with the clarity of a legal brief. He places the trial and its issues solidly in a historical context that includes the role of the Mississippi in American economic life, the Dred Scott case, Abraham Lincoln’s career, and westward expansion. He leads readers through the intricacies of legal principles governing interstate commerce and judicial jurisdiction, steamboat operation, bridge construction and river currents with a sure hand. He reports the day-to-day unfolding of the trial with an eye to both the personalities and the issues involved.

Lincoln’s Greatest Case tells an intriguing story that will appeal to anyone interested in the commercial and industrial history of the United States, but the title is misleading. Anyone expecting a courtroom drama with Lincoln at its center will be disappointed. There’s a reason the Effie Afton trial is little more than a footnote in most Lincoln biographies: Lincoln was not the lead attorney in the team defending the Rock Island Bridge. He is simply the best-known character in a colorful cast.


* A phenomenon familiar to anyone who has seen a small town that withered after the installation of the interstate routed all traffic away from its downtown.

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

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