"Before daylight we were in another county. Then Pa stopped and fed the horses. We had breakfast while they ate, and once more in the wagon we went on, driving toward the west.
Burr Oak seemed like a dream from which we had awakened."
Laura Ingalls Wilder, unpublished memoirs
September 2010--I had a chance to stop by Burr Oak, Iowa about a year before, but the problem with visiting this site is always the same--we're on our way home and home is only a few hours away at this point and we're tired out from traveling and don't want any more stops. Well, thanks to Husband's kind indulgence in my visits to all these Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, this time we did stop in Burr Oak, even though it came at about the 4300 mile mark into a two week trip, and home, bed, and cats awaited us. Next time I'll try to go to Burr Oak on the out-bound side of the trip (it's an easy side-track for us as we head to my mother-in-law's home in Pennsylvania). I say this, because on this visit we didn't take more than a few minutes to stop and snap some photos and visit briefly with the wonderful folks who run the visitor center museum (Steve and Barb, photo below). What I didn't do was take time to go on the guided tour of the Masters Hotel, where the Ingalls had lived and worked for part of their time in Burr Oak. As a result, and confusing myself from other scenes I'd seen of Burr Oak before, I didn't get a photograph of the hotel, itself! Ah, well. Next time...
Burr Oak is one of the more recently known homesites for most Laura fans because the year the Ingalls family spent here was not included in the Little House books, for which Laura had a number of reasons. It wasn't the best year for the family. They'd just lost their only son, they'd had to 'back trail' to the east rather than continuing on west. They were poor beyond poor. In one incident Laura, in her unpublished memoirs, writes about a woman in the town offering to adopt Laura and give her a good home and education. The tone of this, though it scared Laura immensely, was that of a woman seeing a promising child and wanting to offer her a better chance in life than her destitute family could give her.
Of the town town of Burr Oak, Laura says, somewhat unflatteringly, "Burr Oak was a small town, but it was not a sweet, clean little town like Walnut Grove. It was an old town, and always seemed to me old and dark and dirty. I liked a new town better." The saloons in the town also provided problems, with deaths, shootings, and fires among the events they spawned. In the town they lived in the hotel, then over the grocery store, and then in a red brick house... all in little more than a year. Still, Laura enjoyed the school, though not the measles all the girls had, and in the summer going after the cow. "...the happiest time of the day," she said. The birth of baby sister Grace was a high point in their time in Burr Oak, Iowa.
Laura also liked the cemetery, odd as that sounds, saying, "The graveyard was a beautiful place. The grass was soft and short, there was velvety green moss in little hollows and on some of the gravestones... The white stone standing amid all this beauty didn't look sad."
Getting to Burr Oak can provide a few fundamental challenges. First, if you run a Google Maps search on Burr Oak, Iowa, it will point you to the completely wrong side of the state over by the Nebraska border. The Burr Oak where Laura lived is in the northeast, a few miles from the Minnesota border. Then our GPS, a Garmin, flatly rejected Burr Oak as a town in Iowa. We had to enter Decorah, Iowa to get us into the general vicinity. If you enter this address into your GPS you'll end up at the visitor's center, in the right town: 3603 236th Avenue, Decorah, IA.
After leaving Burr Oak, if you're heading south you'll pass close to Vinton, Iowa, where Mary Ingalls attended a school for the blind. if you're going north toward Rochester, Minnesota you'll pass a turn off to Spring Valley, and cross the Zumbro River. Both of these locations are significant to the Ingalls and Wilders. Spring Valley, Minnesota is where Almanzo Wilder's family moved after leaving Malone, New York. And by the Zumbro River lived Peter and Eliza Ingalls, (Peter being Pa's brother, and Eliza being Ma's sister), where the Ingalls stayed before Burr Oak, and is where their son died and was buried. Two more sites for me to pick up on another trip.