I recently saw some vintage photographs that led me to reflect on the history of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Wisconsin birthplace near Pepin. As she edited Pioneer Girl, Rose Wilder Lane gradually moved her mother’s birthplace north, deeper and deeper into the pine forests of Wisconsin.1 Using land records, the librarian in Pepin and other local people pinpointed the location of the eighty-acre farm that Charles Ingalls purchased in the 1860s. It was farther south, in an area that Pepin historians Catherine Latané and Martha Kuhlman describe as “not big timber country.”2 And that is where the replica of the Ingalls cabin can be found today, next to a cornfield along County Road CC about seven miles north of Pepin.
No one knows how long the original Ingalls cabin stood on the site. We assume that Charles Ingalls, with the aid of his brother-in-law Henry Quiner and other relatives or neighbors in the area, built the cabin around 1863, and we know that Wilder was born there on February 7, 1867. After the Ingalls family sold the farm and moved away in 1872, the history of the dwelling is largely unknown. It may have served for a time as an outbuilding on the farm, possibly into the 1920s, but it disappeared many years ago.3 As late as the 1960s, when researchers and readers began to trickle into Pepin County, a log structure still stood on land owned by Thomas P. and Jane Huleatt.
In Little House in the Big Woods, Wilder wrote about playing with the Huleatt children, Eva and Clarence, while their parents visited the Ingalls home (pp. 170–80), but in Pioneer Girl, Wilder also described a dance held at the Huleatt residence. The place “was called Summer Hill,” Wilder recalled, “and everyone was proud to be invited there.”4 Whether or not this structure, dilapidated and deteriorating in this photograph, was Summer Hill or an earlier Huleatt dwelling or even an outbuilding is unclear, but it illustrates construction practices used in log houses of the pioneer period and employs the materials available at the time. For example, Wilder recalled that in the 1860s her grandfather, Lansford Whiting Ingalls, also “lived in a log house like ours.”5
By the 1970s, the traffic to the Wilder birthplace had become so steady that local residents, with permission from the landowner, put up a sign to mark the spot of Wilder’s birthplace (see photograph). The reconstruction of the Wilder cabin took place a few years later when, “through the generosity of the Pepin business community and the landowner,” the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society of Pepin was “able to acquire three acres of land at the original site of Laura’s birth.”6 In 1978, the society erected the “Little House Wayside” replica of the Ingalls cabin based largely on Wilder’s descriptions of the building in Little House in the Big Woods. The cabin and grounds are a focal point during Pepin’s annual Laura Ingalls Wilder Days in September. This coming summer, on the second weekend of each month from May through August, Pepin stalwarts will fully furnish the cabin and reenactors will “demonstrate the arts of daily living in the 1870s” to welcome visitors to Laura’s birthplace.7
―Nancy Tystad Koupal
- Nancy Tystad Koupal, ed., “Historical Musings: Researching the Life and Times of Laura Ingalls Wilder: Blog Posts from the Editors of Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts,” South Dakota History 53 (Spring 2023): 70–71.
- Catherine H. Latané and Martha Kuhlman, The Village of Pepin at the Time of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Pepin, Wis.: By the Authors, 2004), p. 17.
- William Anderson to Nancy Tystad Koupal, Apr. 6, 2023.
- Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2021), p. 58.
- Ibid., p. 57.
- “Visit Laura’s Little House,” Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, lauraingallspepin.com.
- Catherine H. (“Kitty”) Latané to Nancy Tystad Koupal, Apr. 13, 2023.