Wearing pigtails, a blue sunbonnet and pinafore, Grace Evans, 9, stands quietly amid a crowd in downtown Mansfield, Mo. (pop. 1,349), looking like she just stepped from a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel.
"I've read all her books," says Grace, of Ozark, Mo., about the author who penned all nine of her popular "Little House" books in Mansfield. "I liked the Banks of Plum Creek best."
The Wilder familyLaura, husband Almanzo, and daughter Rosearrived in Mansfield in 1894 after their South Dakota home burned. They settled on the 40-acre Rocky Ridge Farm a mile east of town, raised cattle, fruit and poultry, and Almanzo built a two-story, white frame house with kitchen cabinets custom-designed for his wife's 4-foot-11 stature.
In 1930, Laura, then 63, wrote down her memories about growing up on the Midwestern frontier. Rose, by then an established journalist, helped her mother revise the manuscript into Little House in the Big Woods, which recalled the Ingalls family homestead near Pepin, Wis. With the book's success, Farmer Boy and Little House on the Prairie followed until the beloved author had published the entire "Little House" series by 1943.
"There's such a love for this family," says Jean Coday, president of the Wilder Home Association that maintains the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum in Mansfield. "Children don't understand that time has passed. They write to Laura, asking about her sisters. We answer all of them."
The Wilder home, with its rock fireplace, is preserved as it was when Laura died in 1957. The museum displays book manuscripts, family photographs, Laura's stitchery, her blind sister Mary's Braille books and writing slate, and her father Charles "Pa" Ingall's cherished fiddle, which once a year is removed from its glass case and played.
"There's so much memorabilia-like the desk she wrote on and the 'Give Us Our Daily Bread' bread plate," says Jerry Deroesseler, 32, of Platteville, Wis., referring to a Wilder wedding gift. "Other places reference these heirlooms, but everything here is original."
Deroesseler and his wife previously visited the Ingalls and Wilder family home sites in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas and South Dakota, all depicted in the "Little House" books. Their Missouri trip last year coincided with Wilder Days, a September celebration since 1973 honoring Mansfield's most famous family.
"It's really a small-town country festival with Laura Ingalls Wilder's theme of family and friends," says Laura Deroesseler, 31.
During the festival, dozens of little girls in sunbonnets and barefoot boys in overalls participate in the Laura and Little Farmer Boy Look-a-Like contests. Turtle and frog races, jump rope and marble competitions attract children. Booths with homemade rolls, handmade quilts and leather goods draw the adults. Old-fashioned floats, portraying the Wilders' journey to Mansfield, parade past the Bank of Mansfield where they purchased their farm.
Laura's Memories, a two-act musical written by local music and drama teachers, dramatizes scenes from "Little House" books. The pageant includes toddlers, teens and seniors in its 70-member cast.
"The youth come to perform," says Brenda Quick, 40, who has portrayed Caroline "Ma" Ingalls for five years. "The adults understand how special Laura's stories are."
Other Wilder landmarks in Mansfield include a bronze sculpture of the author in the town square; the Laura Ingalls Wilder Library, which the author helped found and included in her will; and Almanzo and Laura's pink granite headstone in the town cemetery. Mostly, however, "Little House" fans flock to Rocky Ridge Farm.
"The center of our universe is the Wilder home," says Paul Delfino, 56, a Mansfield resident.
During Wilder Days, volunteers dressed in pioneer attire perform songs mentioned in the "Little House" books, spin wool, and make yarn dolls. Meanwhile, Grace Evans, cute as a button in pigtails and pinafore, tours the Wilder home with her family. Rather than the second-place trophy she won in the Laura Look-a-Like Contest, Grace cradles a yarn doll.
"The ladies gave it to me. It's just like the one in the books," she says. "I'm going to name it Laura."