On the Road: Burr Oak and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “missing book”

Just over the southern Minnesota border, there’s a small town with a link to a big-name celebrity.

Millions of kids around the world grew up reading and watching on television the popular Laura Ingalls Wilder series. But there’s a missing book in Laura’s life. One that never was written. And it took place here, at the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak. 

Laura Ingalls was 9 years old when she lived in Burr Oak.

The town, and Hotel, were quite young too, having just been settled in 1851 with about 200 residents.. 

It was a difficult time for the Ingalls family. They’d suffered through two long years of a grasshopper plague in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. 

Burr Oak, nestled in northeast Iowa, would be a brief refuge. A time for the family to get back onto its feet. 

The Masters Hotel is the only original childhood home of Laura Ingalls. Built on the side of a hill, downtown, it used to be a thriving establishment. 

Laura’s father, Charles, helped manage the hotel, while her mother, Caroline, cooked and cleaned for the guests. 

"They lived in this single room, just off the basement kitchen, where there was a space for dining, and other utilitarian work. Laura, and her older sister, Mary, helped with the chores," said Annastacia Cowles of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum.

In the 1870’s, an average of two hundred immigrant wagons passed through Burr Oak every day. 

So work at the hotel never stopped. 

There was little privacy and no time for fun. 

It’s probably why much of Laura’s experience of Burr Oak was omitted from her books. 

"Even Pa’s lively fiddle took a dark tune. Pa played sad songs. And so Laura didn’t write about it." 

The Ingalls family moved from Burr Oak after just one year, their lives– decades later–transformed after Laura published the ‘Little House’ books.

The old Masters Hotel transformed over time, too. 

Changing ownership before becoming a private residence, and then saved from destruction in the early 70’s to become the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. It’s kept the old pioneer stories alive. 

More than 6,000 people come from around the world each year to Burr Oak. 

The stories here never made it into the wildly popular Laura Ingalls Books. 

But the stories are still very much alive. 

And they can be found right here at the Masters Hotel. 

If you want to check out the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum this summer in Burr Oak, you’ll see what an 1800’s bug catcher looked like, where the phrase ‘sleep tight’ came from, and the work it took to make a simple meal.  There is a small admission fee, but children five and under are free.

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