I’ll be the first to admit I was a strange kid. During my entire second grade year, I pretended I lived in a cave and had to survive off nuts and berries rather than the pot roast my mother regularly served. God help my mother.
Approximately one hour outside of Springfield, on the outskirts of Mansfield, you find what I personally consider the Holy Grail of childhood memory: the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum. My pot roast-making mother encouraged me to read by giving me a copy of the first book in the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House Books” series, and after reading me the first chapter, told me to figure the rest of it out. Needless to say, that “sink or swim” tactic worked and, prior to my fixation on cave dwelling, I imagined vast wagon trains and families making the western push through Independence.
Even if you never thought about selling your worldly possessions at a Missouri trading post and setting out for the plains, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum offers an intimate look at the true grit of the American spirit. It is a place that makes you believe that the childhood dreams of a pioneer really can come true.
Must-see points of interest at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum:
- Don’t miss the patchwork quilts, which were made by the family and now are in the museum, and definitely give yourself enough time to look at Pa’s fiddle, the family photos and the calling cards Laura collected over the years.
- Tour the original homestead Laura and Almanzo built, as well as the home their daughter Rose Wilder Lane built for them, also on the property.
- Spend some time in Laura’s kitchen in the original house and think about how much time she must have spent there, using a cook stove and kneading bread on the kitchen countertop.
- Peer outside the windows of the homes and think about how the landscape might have changed since Laura lived there.
- Complete your visit with a shopping spree in the bookstore. (I bought The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories by Barbara M. Walker and read it cover to cover.)
The tour of Laura’s home and museum was (I’ll admit it) emotional. Watching the kids who were touring alongside me was touching. I realized that even if they weren’t fans of the “Little House” books they were enjoying this opportunity to connect with history as much as I was. It’s an extraordinary experience to visit a place that is as meaningful to adults as it is to children—a place that exists in the imagination as much as it does in real life—and that doesn’t require a cartoon or a mascot.
If you make the pilgrimage to Laura’s house, don’t leave childhood memories behind, when a walk in the woods was magical and a cave even more fantastic. Just an hour drive from Mansfield, you’ll find Fantastic Caverns in Springfield. And, if you’ve never been to “America’s only Ride Thru Cave,” let me convince you to plan a visit by tempting you with what I know to be true.
Fun facts about Fantastic Caverns that you should know:
- The cave was discovered in 1862 but wasn’t explored until 1867 when 12 women from a local athletic club squeezed through the small opening and made their way to discover the cave’s inner beauty. They used candles to light their way and left their names inscribed on a cave wall. Visitors can still see their names today.
- Fantastic Caverns is America’s only ride-through cave and offers tours on trams led by guides. The guides give visitors an in-depth education on the cave formations and the history of the cave.
- Tour guides will tell you that visitors will get a “cave kiss” by the end of the tour. These “cave kisses” are small drops of water that fall from the stalactites overhead.
- In the past, Fantastic Caverns was used as a speakeasy as well as a night club offering performances on a special stage.
During my visit to Fantastic Caverns, I contemplated the fact that Missouri is known as the cave state and I felt an awesome sense of wonder at the vast network of worlds—still yet to be discovered—underneath our feet. When we exited the cave, I leaned over and told our guide Wayne (who is absolutely one of the best tour guides on the planet) that I used to fantasize about living in a cave. He chuckled and told me, “I practically live in this one.” I have to admit, the 7-year-old inside of me felt a wee bit jealous.
Springfield and Southwest Missouri offer undiscovered gems every time I visit and remind me of those early years of wonder and exploration. If you haven’t experienced Fantastic Caverns or the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum, plan a trip. You’ll have to let me know if that trip reminds you of your own childhood—especially if you dreamed of exploring the great unknown.