The Almanzo Wilder Homestead in Malone, New York is a great place for book lovers to travel back in time to see a childhood classic come to life before their eyes. The Wilder Homestead was the setting for Farmer Boy, the second book in the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Almanzo Wilder was Laura Ingalls’ husband. The Wilder Homestead is the only original house featured in the series that is still standing. While the original barns were destroyed by lightning, they have been reconstructed based on the findings of SUNY Potsdam archaeology students and original sketches done by Almanzo himself.
Although the Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder Association (ALIWA), the non-profit organization responsible for the restoration of the site, could not determine the location where Almanzo went to school, they added a school house replica to the site. The site also has a pavilion for events and a visitor center, which includes a museum and gift shop. In the future, the ALIWA hopes to add an outhouse and ice-house. These additions would make the site and tours more historically accurate (they were present when Almanzo lived there). There are also walking trails on the property, including one behind the schoolhouse and one across the street that leads down to the Trout River, where the Wilders sheared sheep and harvested ice.
The facility offers tours from Memorial Day weekend through September 30th and the ALIWA has annual special events in July, August, September and December. Tours typically take around two hours and admission is $8.50 for adults and $5.00 for children. Mary Craig, a tour guide since 1990, recalls a United Nations bus trip that was comprised of visitors from six different countries. “Sometimes people that come here in the fall have never seen fallen leaves,” she says. Actor Dean Butler, who starred in the TV series based on the books, has even made appearances. Many visitors are homeschooled children or 4th graders from schools that plan special trips with ALIWA. One objective of school trips is to teach children about the importance of restoration. This year their guest book is pushing 5,000 entries.
Throughout the tour, there are constant references to the books. Pages and illustrations are printed out and displayed to give you the most authentic experience possible. Craig even pointed out additional references such as the hole Almanzo accidentally put in the parlor wall. There are many hands-on activities throughout the tour. Children may lie on a bed with a tick mattress on ropes, the same type of bed Almanzo would have slept on. Visitors can actually use the water pump in the pump house. They can crank a fanning mill used when harvesting grains. They can also try on two different types of yokes, one used by humans for carrying water and one used for oxen when driving them. Craig even demonstrated how the loom can be used to make rugs and other textiles.
The gift shop features items such as coffee mugs decorated by local artists such as Sandra Young, Meg Youmans and Pat Ullrich. The scarves are even made on-site! It also offers locally produced jams and maple syrup. There are also many rare books that you would not find elsewhere, such as Little House on the Prairie children’s books, cook books and various editions in both hardcover and paperback. All the money from the gift shop (and admission) goes right back into the organization so more improvements can be made. The schoolhouse is the most recent addition, added on August 24, 2013. They hope to have mock school lessons in the future.
The Wilders took most of their belongings with them and thus, many items in the house are donated antiques, but there are a few exceptions. In the house, original items include a pillow made by the Dorothy Smith, the founder of the ALIWA and a relative of the Wilders, a coverlet made in the traditional two-piece fashion with a seam down the middle, a chest with the initials of one of the relatives on it and family photos hanging in the parlor. The original items featured in the museum are a teapot, a Latin book and Almanzo’s sketches. The museum also includes many rare antique versions of Laura’s books in foreign languages.
The July event, which took place on the 11th this year, entails a children’s art show and essay contest. There are art activities, 19th century games, vendors, food, guest speakers and entertainment by local singer songwriter Roy Hurd. In the past, there have been horse demonstrations with Morgan horses from Miner Institute, some of which are descendants of the Wilder’s horses. In fact, the sale of two horses in particular helped fund the reconstruction and restoration process.
In August, they host their Cultural Festival, which focuses on cultures that occupied the North Country throughout history. This year it was Scottish themed. They had traditional Scottish food, dancers, music, demonstrations and games. Next year, they hope to focus on the Irish, as it will be the 150th anniversary of the Fenian Raids, when Irish immigrants fought against the British for their withdrawal from Ireland. In the future, the homestead hopes to also feature Native Americans and the English.
At the Harvest Festival in September, there is a Civil War reenactment. There are also crafts such as pumpkin painting, readings, music (including fiddling), games, shingle-making, a corn pit and food (including donuts). An adult art show contest is displayed in the school house.
The Christmas with Almanzo event in December, has live actors and readings. There is food such as cookies and cider. There is also music and caroling. Activities include stringing popcorn and making yarn dolls.
Linda Hastings, a regular speaker at the events, says the events bring in “quite a mix of people.” She usually attends the Culture Festival or tries to make it to the Harvest Festival, making an appearance at least once a year. Hastings has been doing wool spinning demonstrations in the sheep fold barn (located at the back of the main barn) for over 15 years. In addition to spinning and letting the kids help, Hastings talks about the items in the barn (many from Malone’s local Ballard Mill) and the sheep the Wilders had. You may even be lucky enough for your visit to land on a year when her husband sheers their sheep right in front of you!