The Untold Story of Burr Oak, Iowa

Many readers of the Little House books series are surprised to find a time jump in between On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake. Readers learn that Laura has a new baby sister, Grace, and Mary is now blind. We don’t know much about these details because Laura started her story after the fact. So what happened during the year of 1876-1877 and why did Laura leave it out of her books? Keep reading to find out the answer.

Masters Hotel late 1800s

Masters Hotel circa late 1800s

After grasshoppers came and destroyed Pa’s crops two years in a row, the family was ready to make a change. Laura’s little brother, Charles “Freddie” Ingalls was born November 1, 1875. Now, with four children to feed, Pa wanted to continue west and  try his luck once more at being a successful farmer. However, his wish wasn’t granted. While living in Walnut Grove, MN, the Ingalls’ met the Steadman family through church and were friends. The Steadmans had just purchased a hotel in the town of Burr Oak, Iowa and wanted Pa and his family to help run it, which was an offer they couldn’t refuse.  They packed up  their belongings and started making there way towards Iowa in the summer of 1876. They decided to stop in South Troy, MN to visit Uncle Peter and Aunt Eliza Ingalls. Mary and Laura were excited to see their cousins Peter, Alice, Ella, Edith, and Lansford. The cousins played together throughout the summer, while Pa worked in the harvest fields for wages. In August, Freddie became ill and died at the age of 9 months. The family was heartbroken. Laura never mentioned Freddie in her books. Losing her brother was very tragic and emotionally difficult for her to deal with. Because Laura’s books were for children, she left out the tragic death of her baby brother all together. The family, now sad over losing Freddie, left for Burr Oak that fall.

The Ingalls arrived at the Masters Hotel, which was called the Burr Oak House at the time, and found out it was right next to a saloon. Ma wasn’t happy. She didn’t believe it was a good environment for her girls to grow up in. The Steadmans had three sons, Johnny, Ruben, and Tommy. Both families lived in the hotel and ran the day to day operations together. Pa and Ma were constantly tired.  Pa was busy working around the hotel, while Ma would help with the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. Laura and Mary also helped with duties when they weren’t watching the youngest of the brothers, Tommy. Mrs. Steadman had promised the sisters a gift for Christmas in exchange for their help, but Christmas came and went without a gift for either Mary or Laura. The sisters also dealt with the constant teasing and torment from Johnny. When the sisters became ill with the measles, Johnny would taunt them in their beds until he became sick with it as well.

Burr Oak School

Burr Oak School that the sisters attended

Ma and Pa were growing tired of the noisy hotel. Ma was now pregnant with her fifth child and was done with the grueling and exhausting work. The events taking place next door in the saloon only became worse. One incident with a drunk man and a gun was the last straw for Ma and Pa. They decided it was time to leave the hotel and find a new place to live. They moved into rooms above Kimball’s Grocery. The family enjoyed their quiet and comfortable living quarters for the rest of the winter. Pa, who left the hotel, started a feed mill in order to make money. He used his team of horses to turn the mill-stone in order to grind the corn and wheat. Mary, Laura, and Carrie started attending the red brick schoolhouse in town. The sisters enjoyed their time learning and making friends. The family abruptly moved again after an incident in the grocery store below them. The grocer and his wife woke the family one night screaming and fighting. Pa went downstairs, found the grocer drunk and holding a kerosene lamp upside down. Kerosene was running down his arm and was dangerously close to lighting the entire building on fire. Pa stopped him before that could happen. A short time after that the Ingalls rented a small red brick house on the outskirts of town and moved for the third time since living in Burr Oak.

Masters Hotel Today

The Masters Hotel today

Grace Pearl Ingalls was born on May 23, 1877. Mary and Laura helped Ma with household chores and watching the new baby. One of Laura’s favorite chores was leading the cow out to the pasture in the morning and bringing her home at the end of the day. Laura described the time the family spent in the brick house as happy. They were finally away from the noisy and dangerous events that happened in town and enjoying the peace and quiet of the countryside. Not everything was going well, however. The family was very poor and Pa struggled to pay rent and others bills that were accumulating. The family did not see Burr Oak as their final home and started making plans to return to Walnut Grove. Pa offered to send Mr. Bisbee, the landlord, money for rent once the family was settled back in Walnut Grove. Mr. Bisbee threatened to take Pa’s horses if he was not paid the money he was owed. One night, Laura was awakened to find the house empty and their belongings loaded into the wagon. The family left in the middle of the night, leaving behind unhappy memories and hoping for a fresh start ahead of them.

The family returned to Walnut Grove in the fall of 1877. Here, Mary became ill with Brain Fever and went blind at the age of 14. In her books, Laura talks about her sister going blind from scarlet fever. She chose to change the source of Mary’s blindness because scarlet fever was more relatable and well known to her readers. The fifth book, By the Shores of Silver Lake, starts here and readers are no longer in the dark. Later in life Laura said she didn’t include Burr Oak in her stories because it would interrupt the theme of the family moving west. She also wanted her books to be light hearted since they were for children. While the family did experience some happiness in Iowa, it was overshadowed by the unhappy times. Laura chose to leave Burr Oak out of her stories and move forward, much like the Ingalls family did when they left Iowa behind.

Sources:

Anderson, William. The Iowa Story: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life in Burr Oak, Iowa. Laura Ingalls Wilder Park & Museum, 1990.

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One comment on “The Untold Story of Burr Oak, Iowa

  1. John A. Bass says:

    Awesome!

    I have often always wondered?? Did Pa ever send that money to Benjamin Lee Bisbee, that he owed him??

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