A trip back in time to a farm for the holidays
MALONE, NY — Christmas cookies, mulled cider, and stories by the wood stove make a holiday special. Visitors to the boyhood home of Almanzo Wilder, who married Little House on the Prairie writer Laura Ingalls Wilder, will be able to sit in Almanzo's parlor — the same parlor in which Almanzo threw a blacking brush at his sister, Eliza Jane — for Christmas stories for two Sundays in December.
My family, all Little House fans, is eager to make the four-hour trek to the Canadian border to visit with Almanzo's history, again.
Almanzo Wilder was a historical New Yorker who was born in the Civil War era: He helped his father on their farm harvesting potatoes and corn, and milking the family cows. He fished in the creek, he walked miles to school in the snow, and he worked hard from dawn to dusk. His wife wrote the book Farmer Boy about the year he was 9.
In Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder recreated Almanzo's family Christmas in a way that has resonated with millions of readers for generations. Volunteers at the Wilder Homestead will offer Christmas carols, children's activities, and the treat of sitting in Mother's formal parlor with horsehair chairs and a wood stove while listening to the Christmas chapter from Farmer Boy.
The Almanzo & Laura Ingalls Wilder Association hopes to develop the Wilder Homestead into an interactive educational center, museum, and working farm as in the time of Almanzo Wilder's childhood, according the homestead's website. The site provides education about the history of rural life in New York.
A summer visit proved the association has accomplished its goals. The search for the home was exciting; we looked wondrously at fields that Almanzo had worked by hand and at creeks in which he had played.
We found the gift shop and museum alongside the barns that were reconstructed according to Almanzo's drawings and the foundations discovered in burned remains of the originals. On the property, a reproduction of a schoolhouse was set to open in September, as mystery, conjecture, and legalities surround the original school house nearby.
Christmas with Almanzo
Mary Craig, a volunteer with the Homestead, said that local fifth-grade children compete in an essay contest to win the chance to be an honorary Almanzo and Laura. The two winners dress up and attend events at the home throughout the year, she said.
At the Christmas with Almanzo event this year, Jack Gero will play Almanzo.
As the chapters are read on Dec. 1, “Almanzo will act out part of it,” Craig said. An alternate honorary Almanzo will act out the chapters during the events on Dec. 7, she said.
The honorary Laura sometimes portrays Almanzo's sisters Eliza Jane or Alice at events, Craig said, but not for this event: “Laura” will be away playing modern-day hockey.
Dorothy Howe, the volunteer who donated a beautiful era-appropriate pump organ to the Wilder parlor, will play Christmas songs for sing-alongs on both days, Craig said.
The event has grown from an adult's shopping day into a two-weekend event for all ages, she said. Last year, she said, two chapter readings were scheduled but a third was added to accommodate all the visitors.
“There were so many children! The parlor was too crowded,” Craig said.
The visitors for Christmas used to be only local people, she said, but recent years have seen travelers from Watertown (Jefferson Co.); Ottawa, Canada; and Vermont, she said.
“Everybody has a good time. It is more child-oriented than it was for adults,” Craig said. The gift shop will be stocked with more books, old-fashioned toys, and educational videos than usual, she said, including copies of a 1953 interview with Laura Ingalls Wilder in which fans can hear Laura’s voice.
The homestead’s events coincide with those at other local venues, like the House of History in Malone that offers a formal tea; and the Market Barn, a large antique center, flea market, and restaurant in which the homestead holds a booth with books and souvenirs, Craig said.
During our summer trip, my daughter picked out from the gift shop and wore a Little House bonnet, and our guide, Jim, called her Laura the entire visit. He christened our elder daughter Mary.
My son was enchanted with Jim, a volunteer who summers in upstate New York to offer tours in costume. As my son has read Farmer Boy nine times, he connected with Jim's love of Almanzo's history. Our old farmhouse and Almanzo's were similar, and we were all enchanted with each room.
We walked on the floors his father built, and saw a portion of a quilt his mother had made. Best of all, we saw, thanks to Jim, the area of the wall in the parlor most likely to have been hit when Almanzo threw the now-famous wood stove-blacking brush at his sister.
Jim let the children pump water at the well dug by Almanzo's father, and the kids romped in the barnyard where Almanzo trained his oxen. We saw the stall where Almanzo milked the cows, and the stall where Father's horses were kept.
Jim invited us to pick blueberries beyond the house, as Almanzo would have done. When we walked to the creek, we found wild blackberries to share, too.
We wandered through the museum and saw maps of suggested routes Almanzo took to school — and we later followed them in our car as far as we could. We had so much fun, we went back for another tour the next day, and the kids had just as much fun.
They were not, however, allowed to do anything but stand in the parlor. Next week, they're going to listen to stories in the parlor the way Almanzo used to listen to Mother and Father converse with company. And, they'll eat cookies and drink cider, savoring the Farmer Boy Christmas chapter, again. With Jim gone for the season, we might have to provide our own costumes, or buy another bonnet.
The Wilder Homestead will be open for “Christmas with Almanzo” on Dec. 1 and Dec. 7 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Readings will be held in the parlor on the half-hours, beginning at 11:30 a.m. Admission is free. Directions can be found at www.almanzowilderfarm.com.