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Mother and daughter painting an environmental mural together
Rachael Walker
Book Life
Rachael Walker

Little House in the Formerly Big Woods

When readers first meet Laura in Little House in the Big Woods, she’s a little girl living with her Pa, Ma, older sister Mary and baby sister Carrie. The real Laura Ingalls was born in a little house deep in the forests surrounding Pepin, Wisconsin, on February 7, 1867. Since Pepin is Laura’s birthplace and the setting of her first book, this village along the Mississippi River seemed like the place to visit first.

The original little house and the big woods are no more, replaced by large farms. But we were all fairly delighted with The Little House Wayside, a three-acre rest area with a replica of the house. It’s located about 7 miles northwest of Pepin, built on land the Ingalls owned at the time of Laura’s birth.

Our impressions:

Avery: When I wrote my book report last year, I had not seen the little house in the big woods. In the book report, I told what the book was about and why I enjoyed it, and then I made a model of the little house in the big woods. I used some little branches from our apple tree that we had recently trimmed, stacked them, and then used the hot glue gun to glue the branches on top of one another. I took apart a cardboard box and used it to make the attic and the roof. Also I cut out tiny pieces of the cardboard to make shingles. I printed images from the book and put them in the house. The picture I put in the attic was of Laura and Mary playing with dolls. Downstairs, I put the picture of them making the trundle bed. I put green paper on another piece of cardboard and put the whole house on that.

When I visited the little house in the big woods, it was a lot smaller than I imagined. Breece and I climbed into the loft. Laura and Mary probably had a ladder, but we had to stand on a picnic table and basically climb up the wall. Getting down was quite tricky. I kind of got stuck at the top for a while, and Aunt Rachael had to help me down.

Compared to my house, the little house was teeny-tiny. Workers built our house, but Pa had to build their house by hand. There wasn’t much space to run around and play in the little house. I’m very thankful that I have room and space to run and play.

Avery at The Little House Wayside

Breece: I know the name of the book is Little House in the Big Woods, but the house we saw was a lot littler than I thought it would be. I can see why Laura would want to play outside so she’d have more room. I like the design of this little house. The loft is nice, but in the book, she calls it an attic. So I don’t know if this is really like their little house or not. If the Ingalls really had this loft over the bedroom and pantry, I wonder if anyone ever fell out of the loft. Or if Laura or Mary ever jumped and had Pa catch them. Laura probably would have wanted to.

Avery and Breece in the loft at The Little House Wayside

Janet: Stepping inside the replica Little House in the Big Woods was a chance to set the imagined pictures in my head right next to reality and an opportunity to revisit the vivid descriptions Wilder provided of her first home. In Little House in the Big Woods, Wilder describes the little log house as “… warm and snug and cosy. Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie were comfortable and happy there.”

Let me say, I have always known this description belied the truth. I know about heating with fireplaces — stand close and you soon turn red while your backside freezes. A short roam through the house (that was all that was required or possible) validated my beliefs. No snug and cozy here, particularly in the small back rooms or the loft. My conclusion was simple: the warmth in the little house in the big woods that Wilder described came not from the burning logs but from the family’s interaction, always kind and loving and compassionate.

The Little House Wayside loghouse

Rachael: Even though there were no big woods to see, it was easy to conjure up the woods from my own childhood home in West Virginia and put them behind the little house in Wisconsin. I could still see Laura and Mary under the trees having tea parties for dolls wearing leaf hats. And I could see that even when cleared of trees, the land was hilly and uneven — not ideal for the kind of farming Pa had to do.

Inside the replica house, it was dark — and not just because of impending rain. I could see the extra appeal of making thimble prints on frosted windows just to be near the light, despite the cold. It’s always seemed to me that in Little House in the Big Woods, Pa wasn’t the only one feeling hemmed in by the forest. No matter how cozy Ma made the house, Laura seemed to be happier to be outside. Me too.

The Little House Wayside loghouse

We’ll see if we can beat the rain to Pepin, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and the lake, where we hope to fill our pockets with pebbles as Laura did on her first visit to town. While we’re headed to town, take a look through Little House in the Big Woods and help us decide if Laura’s attic was a true attic or loft and how the Ingalls accessed it — via ladder or stairs. If you’re feeling very ambitious, head outside for some slender branches to build your own cutaway version of Laura’s little house in the big woods, just like Avery did.

About the Author

Join children’s literacy consultant Rachael Walker and many of the authors, parents, and educators she’s met and worked with to talk about how books have changed their lives, how to bring books to life for young readers, and how to enrich kids’ lives with good books. 

Publication Date
August 13, 2014