“an early example of someone taking @tampon_club needs into account!”
Lord Nuffield is the Nuffield of Nuffield Hospitals and the William Morris of Morris Minors. Nuffield Place is his old home, which is now preserved by the National Trust for people to visit and find out about the things he did, including his contributions to the war effort during World War II.
Many people have responded to this explanation with “Who?”. So I ask if they remember Little House on the Prairie on TV. If you do, well, not that, but the books that the TV series was based on. Despite being a bit obsessed with the ‘Laura books‘ when I was a pre-teen, I saw the odd episode of the TV series but never got into it. It was the books all the way, for me.
Laura Ingalls Wilder and Mansfield, Missouri
Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in 1867 in Wisconsin just after the American Civil War (1861-1865) ended. As a result of the US Government’s Homestead Acts around that time, her family became American pioneers, moving around the middle states to lay claim to free land and farm it. Her childhood took place in log cabins, covered wagon trains, and wild prairies. As a teenager, settled in North Dakota, she saw the immensely rapid growth of new towns around her family and other settlers.
In 1894, she and her husband and daughter travelled again, this time to the new town of Mansfield in Missouri. They bought some land and built a house and farm where she and her husband lived for the rest of their lives. She lived through the inventions of cars, flying, radio, cinema, and TV. She died in 1957; it’s quite amazing how different the world must have been by then.
In the 1920s, already an experienced writer, she started to write about her early life. With collaboration by her daughter, Rose (a successful journalist and, later, a war correspondent), she wrote the ‘Little House‘ (or ‘Laura’) books. Although fictional, they were based heavily on the real experiences of her life. The books were successful from the start and provided her with a comfortable income, as well as fans who would come to visit her at her home when she was old. When she died, the farm became (with Rose’s financial assistance) an early incarnation of the not-for-profit museum that’s still there today.
I learnt about the existence of the Laura Ingalls Wilder House & Museum in the Introduction of my copy of The First Four Years, the final book in the series. Obviously I wanted to go. It wasn’t until the dawn of Google Maps that it occurred to me to actually look up where Mansfield, Missouri (MO) was. I’m still not sure I really appreciated just where it was until I started trying to plan a trip there early this year.
As I was coming from the UK, it was quite a long and expensive trip to make just to go to a museum for a day. So I managed to build it out into a bigger trip, My Big American Adventure. The upshot was that I flew from Boston, MA, to St Louis on the Eastern border of MO (the main alternative would be Kansas City on the Western border of MO).
I picked St Louis mainly for its Gateway Arch. I didn’t want to be travelling at weird times or hauling my luggage around with me, so I spent a couple of nights in St Louis at the awesome, if odd, Missouri Athletic Club. As it turned out, when I was in St Louis planning my drive to Springfield (where I stayed two nights in a motel), I discovered that I would be travelling in the direction of the historic Route 66, which was a nice serendipity that I wrote about separately.
At the Laura Ingalls Wilder House
I rocked up at Rocky Ridge Farm at about 10.30am and was in time to join the 11am tour of the houses. For the $10 admission, I watched a brief introductory video, and saw the main Rocky Ridge Farmhouse, which Laura and her husband, Manly, built, and The Rock House, a bungalow that Rose built for Laura and Manly when they were older. The latter house is important because, although Laura lived there for less than a decade, it’s where she started writing the Little House books. Sadly, you can’t take any photos of the inside of the houses or museum (which is also included in the admission). There are postcards you can buy of the farmhouse’s interior (and I did) but none of The Rock House. Which is rather frustrating as it’s not like I can pop back any time to remind myself what it all looked like.
The inside of the farmhouse is really interesting. Because it was built, room-by-room, over 17 years as they could afford it, the styles changed so that the later rooms were more modernly styled. The kitchen (the first room) was pretty cool for its time, though, in that the units were all fitted. Laura designed it so that it would be easy to clean and so that it could cope with both family cooking and the messy chores of a farmer’s wife, like gutting and plucking birds. She later wrote about the design of the kitchen for a magazine. It even had a ‘hatch’ so that dishes could be passed through to the dining-room table without having to keep walking back and forth between the rooms.
Manly, her husband, was very handy and had made a lot of the furniture himself, including a three-legged desk-lamp that wouldn’t now look out-of-place in Habitat. There were also cushion covers he’d ‘hooked’ (like rugs) on the settee in the living-room.
The Rock House is round the other side of the land. Until recently, there was a footpath you could take to get there from the main farmhouse. That was out of action when I was there, though (maybe something to do with the on-going building works for the new museum building elsewhere on the land), so we had to drive ourselves round to another entrance to get to The Rock House.
The Rock House was built in the early 20th Century, by contractors, and paid for by Rose. I think it was meant to be a sort of retirement bungalow for her parents. It had all mod-cons like central heating, modern plumbing and electrics, and lots of light. It even had a fully fitted bathroom – which is still there in its original form! The evidence suggests that Laura wasn’t that happy about being shunted off into a new house by her daughter, despite its benefits. Rose had moved into the farmhouse but when she moved away again, Laura and Manly sold The Rock House and its land and moved back into their own farmhouse again.
Still, whilst living at The Rock House, Laura started writing the Little House books and I saw the actual desk she wrote at!
Back at the museum
The museum is currently just a large, single room with display cases all around and the main desk where you buy your admission ticket. Some of the Wilders’ belongings were displayed in the houses but a lot were kept here. That included things like Pa’s fiddle, Mary’s Braille slate, a collection of ‘name cards’ (think Moo cards of the 1880s), patchwork quilts, letters, books, magazine articles, manuscripts, household goods and crockery (including Laura and Manly’s English Wedgewood wedding crockery!) and a load of Rose’s possessions too.
Although the museum is very proud of having Pa’s fiddle, the glass dish that was rescued from a house fire, and many other things, I was somehow most moved by seeing the actual piece of lace that Laura’s friend Ida Brown made for her and presented to her as a wedding gift in These Happy Golden Years. It just seemed the most personal thing that had survived through more than a century.
Somewhere along my travels to Mansfield, I’d picked up a nasty cough and cold and spent much of the day in a slightly glazed, snotty, spluttering mess. That didn’t stop me spending about 3 hours in the museum itself looking at the exhibits and reading the articles and boards on display. I must’ve left so many germs in there…
Other sights in Mansfield, Missouri
After that, I browsed the onsite bookshop for a while and bought some souvenirs. Eventually, I accepted there was nothing else I could see there, so I headed off up to the Mansfield Cemetery where Laura, Manly, and Rose are all buried.
In Mansfield is still the Bank of Mansfield, where Laura and Manly got the mortgage for the land at Rocky Ridge Farm. You can’t see at this resolution but over the door it says it was established in 1892, just two years before Laura and Manly moved there. That’s how new Mansfield was when they arrived.
I also stopped off in the centre of Mansfield itself to get some food. There, I saw the bust of Laura as an old woman:
A note to 9-year-old Me
Dear Laura (not that one),
It’ll take you about 25 years to get to Rocky Ridge Farm. I know that seems like an unimaginable amount of time but, I promise, you will get there. And it’ll be worth it. It’ll be as brilliant as you expect it to be.
Until about 72 hours before I drove on it, I didn’t really know what Route 66 was. I’d obviously heard its name and I knew it was a road that people with Harley Davidsons ride but I’d no idea where it was or its history. That changed when I was looking on Google Maps to work out how best to get from St Louis MO to Springfield MO by car without spending 3+ hours driving along a motorway. A part of the road I looked at was labelled Historic US 66. My interest piqued, I investigated further…
A bit of searching revealed the US National Park Service’s website listing the main sites still visible on Historic US 66. Furthermore, I discovered that if I told Google Navigation to ‘avoid motorways’, it would automatically (or so I thought at this stage) find the Historic US 66 roads. Whoopee! An interesting route to take down to Springfield. Moreover, I decided to visit the Route 66 State Park Museum (divorced from the actual park now because the Meramec River US 66 Bridge has been deemed unsafe and dismantled)…
…and the Meramec Caverns (actual real caves you can go in; apparently there are a few in Missouri). A few years ago, Billy Connelly did some filming there on his roadtrip down Route 66 and Lee, our guide, was one of the guys who showed him round. The caves are also where an episode of Lassie was filmed and, more historically (possibly), there’s evidence that Jesse James hid out there, and ammunition was stored there during the Civil War.
I also noted a few other places (like the Waynesville courthouse) but I ran out of time and didn’t get there.
Historic Route 66
So, what is Historic US 66? Well, back in the days of yore (1920s-1930s), the US government decided to build a road 2,484 miles long. Incredibly, the land for the road was bought and the road built in just 5 years. That was back in the days of the Ford Model A car, before bulldozers and they were mostly reliant on horses and carts. The road was designated the number US 66 and the first of the road’s iconic roadsigns was officially planted in Springfield, MO. I saw (and sneakily touched) that actual roadsign at the Route 66 State Park Museum:
As the American love of the motorcar grew, so did the popularity of US 66. Up until the Second World War, there were all kinds of businesses and towns that built up around the road. After the war, the growth of interstate highways (motorways) gradually eroded the use of US 66.
In 1985 US 66 was officially decommissioned but within a couple of years, preservation groups were springing up. Sections of the original US 66 roads are now designated Sites of National Interest and are officially signposted as Historic US 66.
Finding Historic US 66 and Rte 66 on Google Maps
If you browse (zoom in and scroll) the approximate route on Google Maps, sooner or later you’ll find the road marked Historic US 66 or Rte 66 or Old US Hwy 66 (I know, it doesn’t help that they use different labels sometimes). There are plenty of hardcopy guides and fold-out maps available to purchase (such as this one, which looks pretty good, though I haven’t tried it). It’s fine if there’s someone else there and one of you can navigate while the other drives. I was driving alone, though, so it was really GPS or nothing because I hate navigating by map when I’m driving too.
The problem with GPS is that its aim in life is usually to find the shortest route. At first, I thought just selected ‘avoid motorways’ worked and I was able to drive from just out St Louis to at least Sullivan (probably further) by doing this. Further South, though, Google would just offer me alternative highways, which wasn’t really playing the game. I ended up taking a scenic route over the hills which was lovely but a long drive with no phone signal.
Before the journey back to St Louis a couple of days later, I spent a bit of time learning how to trick Google Maps into sticking to Route 66 by typing the name of a town I knew I’d be passing through and seeing what route it came back with. If it wasn’t the route I wanted, I entered the name of a town slightly closer. And repeated. This is my eventual list of waypoints:
Springfield to Marshfield (Rte 66)
Marshfield to Waynesville (Rte 66)
Waynesville to Devil’s Elbow (Rte 66)
Devil’s Elbow to Cuba (Historic US 66)
Cuba to Sullivan (Historic US 66E & N Service)
Sullivan to St Clair (Historic US 66E)
St Clair to Eureka (Historic US 66E)
Eureka to the airport (interstate I-44; there is some more Historic US 66 at this point but I knew I’d be short of time by this point for catching my plane)
As it turned out, I didn’t quite use so many of these waypoints. I got better at spotting the official Historic Route 66 signposts (which tend to confirm you’re on the right road rather than point out which way to go) and recognising the types of road at junctions which were likely to be the right direction. Also, some community groups and just private landowners have created their own painted signs to help you along:
One obstacle that caused me a rather long diversion was where a bridge had been damaged (I think) and the road closed somewhere south of Rolla. I think that was quite a recent thing and it was only when I came to the Road Closed sign that I found out about it. I should really have just gone on the I-44 at that point but I was determined to take the 2-lane highways instead but didn’t re-find Historic US 66 for quite a way. In hindsight, it might have been this point where Historic US 66 and I-44 were one and the same road… :-/
Historic US 66 and Rte 66 are basically (in UK-speak) A- and B-roads (though at one point, at least, it is the I-44). They’re usually 2-lane roads of varying quality. Often the road runs along parallel to the main I-44 interstate, which sounds dull but it has more hills and bends than the interstate and there’s often no one else on it but you.
If you do ever find yourself stuck behind some slow vehicle (I met a tractor at one point), just be patient if you can’t safely overtake; the vehicle will soon turn off. My impression was that no one except tourists would use US 66 now unless they were going somewhere that you can’t get to from the interstate. If you’re just trying to get from place to place, you’d use the interstate as it’s a lot faster.
The speed limit on US 66 varies a lot depending on where it is. If it’s alongside the interstate, it’s often 55mph or even 65mph. If it’s through countryside, it might vary between 40mph and 55mph, while going through towns and residential areas (which were more frequent than you might expect, and some with signs of shocking poverty) it could be as low as 30mph or even 20mph.
The main tourist places along the route are signposted from both the interstate and the Historic Route 66 roads, though often better from the interstate, I found. This is Tim who grew up in Totem Pole Trading, the oldest ‘mom and pop’ business on the Missouri Route 66 (founded by his parents in the 1930s):
Basically, plan ahead!
If you’re thinking of driving Historic US 66, I recommend you do your reading and planning first, unlike me. Well, I did what I could but I didn’t really have much time and there’s lots I’d have done differently if I were doing it again. If I’d known about US 66 before I went, I’d have done much more web searching from my laptop (rather than the tablet I had with me).
That said, I had a brilliant time hunting it down, seeing varied scenery, visiting fun places, and meeting interesting people along the way.