With my kids’ school experiences being entirely in Mexico, I wanted some painless way to teach them some US history and civics. What was our first stab at homeschool US history?
We read through the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Now, I have a couple of posts that could be written about reading these books as an adult and using them to teach US history to children. But those are other posts for other days. However, after reading all of these, it is now part of my bucket list to visit all the places where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived.
To spur us on our goal, my extended family had a family reunion a mere four hours from the Little House in the Big Woods in Pepin, Wisconsin. Now, four hours out of the way may sound a little nutso for most families . . . but we had just made a four-day drive to get to this family reunion.
So what’s four more hours?
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birthplace lies just outside of Pepin, Wisconsin, and is the setting for Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in the series.
Pepin is located right on the Mississippi River. There’s a terrifying narrative of Laura’s family crossing it in their covered wagon. For us modern people, we can also take advantage of Wisconsin’s Great River Road and take the scenic route to get to Pepin.
Pepin is also just over an hour from the Twin Cities, so it makes a great daytrip from Minneapolis or St. Paul!
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum
We began our trip to Pepin at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, smack in the middle of Pepin. It seems like the perfect place to begin our tour, educating us and warming us up, so we were better prepared to enjoy the actual cabin once we were finished.
The museum consists of four rooms: one is a welcome center/gift shop. The two rooms to the right of the gift shop house furniture, books, clothing and memorabilia from the era. Most of Laura Ingalls Wilders personal artifacts are housed in Mansfield, MO, where she and her husband spent most of their lives. But donors around the Pepin area came through to pack this museum with all kinds of things the Ingallses could have worn or had in their house! The far back room even has a replica kitchen, although it looks like it’s more from the era when Laura was a young woman in South Dakota, not living in a log cabin in Wisconsin. At any rate, there is plenty of information and scope for the imagination!
(OK, I’m stealing that line from another childhood book heroine!)
The first room off the left side of the gift shop houses artifacts from Wisconsin’s native population, information about life on the Mississippi River 200 years ago, and a gorgeous mural of the Mississippi River.
The next room has a replica covered wagon, a kid-sized steamboat, bonnets for children to try on, and a dollhouse and farm for younger visitors to amuse themselves. (That farm was a lifesaver for us!) The covered wagon is great for photo opportunities, but they do not want visitors climbing up into the wagon. In contrast, kids are welcome to enter the steamboat and play with it.
The last room is a replica classroom from the end of the 19th century. TVs with videos explain how school was like for Laura and her sisters, and kids can do their work on slates.
Given the long drive we had to get there, we squeezed everything we could get out of this museum, and I bet we were there for at least two hours. I did have two boys with me, who were not so interested in Laura Ingalls Wilder, but they did enjoy the steamboat, the toy farm, and the dollhouse. My mother, daughter, and I took turns reading everything we could in the rest of the museum.
On the August day we visited, there were four or five other visitor groups who strolled in, all with at least one tween girl in tow! Every year, Pepin celebrates Laura Wilder Days one weekend in September–be warned, if you plan your trip then!
Then again, it could also be a great time to plan a trip to Pepin!
The Little House
A replica of the Little House in the Big Woods was reconstructed on some of the very land that Laura’s Ma and Pa owned. It is open to the public every day for self-guided tours. Go ahead and poke your head in and out of the rooms and get a very real sense of what life was like in a log cabin in the 1870s!
The Big Woods around the house have been converted into farmland, but a drive further into the heart of Wisconsin will give visitors a better idea of the Big Woods that Laura wrote about.
Our visit to the cabin lasted probably 20 minutes.
When trying to find the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, we drove past a mediterranian-style villa, which turned out to be a vineyard and winery. With time left over after our Little House Tour, we strolled into their tasting room.
Living in wine country in Mexico, I’m usually not a fan of midwestern wine–it’s generally too sweet and/or flavorless from what I’m used to. However, I was in for a wonderful surprise at Villa Bellezza. Apparently, enologists and biologists at the University of Minnesota have been developing wine grape varieties for the Great Lakes region–and the results are astounding! I recommend the Pepin Blanc.
Like most midwestern wineries, they did have better white wines than red ones. But their red wines were better than most midwestern red wines, and the white wine was truly excellent–regardless of the region!
If We Had More Time
The tiny town of Stockholm is just north of Pepin. If we had more time (or my children were more agreeable) I would have loved to stop there! I believe the highway sign said that Stockholm has a population of 600 people, and from what we saw, it looks like it’s populated entirely by artists. If I find myself in that area in the future, I’ll be spending a little time in Stockholm, too!
Between Laura Ingalls Wilder, wineries, river views, there’s a little something for everyone in Pepin, Wisconsin!
OK, my little boys weren’t over the moon about it.
But my mom, my daughter, and I–we could happily come back!