LauraPalooza 2010: Putting the "Oh!" in Mankato

We went to LauraPalooza last week. Yes, it was really called “LauraPalooza”: the first-ever combined academic conference/fan fair/geekcon devoted to Laura Ingalls Wilder, and YES, it was all that and a bag of cracklings.

Last Wednesday Chris and I drove up to Minnesota State University in Mankato, MN, a town that has no real historical significance to the Little House books, though I understand that on the TV Little House on the Prairie, Mankato was where various characters went whenever they had a tragic illness. But what was our sickness? LOVING LAURA INGALLS WILDER. And we were not there to be cured, nor were the other 150+ folks who showed up for this thing.

Yes, that is the brown poplin with the poke bonnet!!!!!

The night before the official conference kick-off we attended an ice-cream social, where we met a great many of the Laurarati (I like that term better than “bonnetheads”), including a few folks in costume. I had a great time talking to Melanie (above), and somewhere on Facebook there’s a photo of her downing a beer on Friday night in her poke bonnet, and I am very very  sad not to have seen that in person.

My friend Shae, who I’d met about fifty-seven internet years ago at something called “JournalCon” in 2001 (and hadn’t seen since) had decided to attend, and she in turn had just met Eleanor, and from that first night on it was clear that they were going to be our conference buddies.

I also got to see my friend Sandra again (who runs The Homesteader and Beyond Little House) and FINALLY meet Erin Blakemore, whose book, The Heroine’s Bookshelf, is coming out in October. The three of us were doing a panel on Saturday called “Loving Laura in a Lindsay Lohan World,” and I’m proud to say we thought that up months before the whole Lindsay prison thing.

As early as the very first night, people were willing to give Chris the Boyfriend of the Year Award just for attending LauraPalooza with me, but he shrugged it off, because that’s just the kind of guy he is. (Although it’s true that in exchange, I’ve agreed to watch The Cremaster Cycle in its entirety with him.)

That night we ALSO got to see Dean Butler, who played ALMANZO on the TV show, and who is now making documentaries about the real-life Wilders, and he was at LauraPalooza to show his new Laura video, and… and okay, let me just get this photo out of the way, because OMG ALMANZO:


(Did you know that he was also the guy in the movie adapation of Judy Blume’s Forever? I just found this out from Sandra! If it turns out he also had a part in a movie based on a VC Andrews novel my head will explode.)

On Thursday morning the conference began in earnest, with presentations ranging from academic papers to creative writing (Kelly Kathleen Ferguson’s amazing book chapter!) to a lecture by a high school physics teacher about how he figured out that Almanzo and Cap Garland could only have traveled about eight miles during the seed wheat trip in The Long Winter, based on calculations of average sled speed and load weight and snow friction and angle of drag, and how he used this data to find the homestead of the guy who sold them the wheat. NO, REALLY.  Jim Hicks, who gave that talk, needs to have his own Discovery Channel show about solving literary and historical mysteries with science.

But the more scholarly stuff was great, too. I was really impressed with Jenna Hunnef’s paper on homestead claims and Michelle McClellan’s talk on the meaning of place in the Little House homesites. I also met Pamela Smith Hill and John Miller, two of my favorite Laura biographers, and loved the talks that they gave. I learned about the political strategies behind the Homestead Act, the weather anomalies of the Hard Winter of 1880-81, and the theory that Almanzo Wilder may have had polio instead of diphtheria!  There was so much information that by the end of the first day we were exhausted.

The conference ballroom

On the second day,  LauraPalooza attendees had the option of visiting the Betsy-Tacy houses in Mankato and seeing where the Betsy-Tacy books took place. (Note: Betsy-Tacy fans are HARDCORE. There are tons of casual Little House fans in the world, but the moment you pick up a Betsy-Tacy book for the first time, a secret alert goes out to Betsy-Tacy fans everywhere and they send a representative to fly out to your house on a pink feather to recruit you. I’ve only read three books so far but they are great.) When we got to the houses there was a Maud Hart Lovelace impersonator ready to show us around.

Maud Hart Lovelace impersonator

She had the best handbag ever.

Mrs. Lovelace's lovely bag

It was actually a little surreal walking around with her as she showed us Tib’s house and the bench on the hill and all the other spots from the books, because she wasn’t projecting her voice the way a tour guide would, but instead spoke softly and gently as she recounted the storylines of various Betsy-Tacy books as if they were her own Maud Hart Lovelace memories. The thing about the younger Betsy-Tacy books, though (and this is why I love them so far), is that the plots sound really bizarre when you try to describe them, and after awhile I found myself thinking that maybe we weren’t on the tour at all but were just coincidentally following a woman who truly believed she was Maud Hart Lovelace and was deep in the throes of a lovely delusion. Anyway, we enjoyed that.

Back at the conference, there was more awesomeness, including Kay Weisman’s presentation on the artwork in Little House in the Big Woods and a great feminist paper by Emily Woster about Little House on the Prairie. We also saw a video interview with an Osage man who posits that the Osage in LHOP wore fresh skunk pelts as a joke on the white settlers, sort of like a 19th-century Punk’d stunt. Gives you something to think about!

Garth Williams FTW!

On Friday night, Dean Butler screened Little House on the Prairie: The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I will tell you all to buy as soon as he gets a distributor.  Until then, you will just have to be jealous of me for getting to see Little House on the Prairie: The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which stars a real sixteen-year-old as Laura and was filmed in part in De Smet, SD.

Dean Butler at documentary screening

My panel was the last one of the conference, and I’m glad, because while Sandra and Erin and I talked about our own experiences as fans of the Little House books, we wanted people to share their stories, too, and people started to stand up and talk about how they came to love the books.  One woman had had to leave for a few minutes to compose herself when we’d started talking about our families, then she came back in and stood up and spoke so movingly about how the Ingalls family helped her survive her own childhood that I looked for her afterwards but couldn’t find her (and if she’s reading, I hope she writes me).

And then it was over! Or almost: the conference ended with a lunch, a spelling bee (SPELLING BEE!) and an optional field trip to Walnut Grove (where On the Banks of Plum Creek was set). Chris and I needed to make it to Iowa City that night, and since the weather reports were warning of storms and tornado conditions in the late afternoon, we decided it was best to skip lunch and head out to to Walnut Grove early.  We wound up eating hot dogs and Hmong sesame balls at the Walnut Grove family festival.

We’d been at this very same festival last year, but back then we’d had to drive out to South Dakota and missed the judging of the Laura-Nellie lookalike contest.  This year, though, we managed to come back almost where we left off and catch the judging of the Nellie contest. There were only 10 Nellies to 34 Lauras, which I’ve learned is the typical ratio every year. Alas, ringlets are hard to pull off, especially in summer humidity. But you have to love these girls:

The few, the proud, the Nellies

Over at the Walnut Grove museum, more LauraPalooza attendees had started to show up, and from my friend Sue I found out that Erin Blakemore had won the spelling bee, which is so befitting a heroine! We got to finally talk to Amy Lauters, the MSU professor who organized LauraPalooza in the first place and who was signing copies of her book about Rose at the museum store. She was at a table with John Miller and also William Anderson, who was the only Laura biographer that I hadn’t met yet. If the Laura Ingalls Wilder community has a rock star, it’s Anderson, who has written more than a dozen books and probably knows more  about the Ingalls and the Wilders and the home sites than any other living human being. And he was very nice and funny and gracious and took one of my Wilder Life postcards.

By now the heat index was well over 100 degrees, and the air conditioning could barely keep up in the busy museum store (where Nicole from the museum was kind enough to let me leave a batch of postcards). We had only the dugout site at Plum Creek left to visit before we hit the road, and I worried that it would be as hot and crowded as everything else in town. But we went anyway, and somehow the place it was even more gorgeous than it had been the year before. It was quiet and breezy: it was the same Laura World that I remembered.

Crossing Plum Creek

I got my feet wet once again, wandered the prairie a little, and then we got back in the car and headed back east on 14.

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Thanks so much to everyone we met at LauraPalooza for being so kind and friendly (and if I didn’t get a chance to meet you, feel free to drop me a line). I have to confess that sometimes the thought of coming to this terrified me—I didn’t know what to expect, showing up with my blue postcards for this book of mine that I hope will be good enough, meeting over a hundred people who all have a stake in this world I’ve come to know and love. But it was everything I hoped it would be.

(cross-posted on

Watch this space…

for more about the book, which is now beginning its journey to publication in April 2011.

(I no longer need for you to email me and share your Laura memories, per the blog post below from a year ago. I mean I don’t need them to go in the book, but of course if you want to share, I will not mind one bit if you write me.)

In the meantime, I am heading out west yet again tomorrow for the first-ever LauraPalooza festival/conference/geekout. See you in a bit!