Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway: Vinton, Iowa

Vinton, Iowa doesn’t have much to do with Laura Ingalls Wilder, but it is “related” to her. Laura’s sister, Mary, went blind in the spring of 1879 at the age of fourteen as the result of a serious illness. She no longer could attend any of the regular schools.

The Ingalls family had recently moved to DeSmet in Dakota Territory. Her father, Charles, was a resourceful man who found helpful colleagues such as attorney, Visscher V. Barnes, who began to work to find resources for Mary to attend a blind school in a neighboring state.

In a series of letters to the secretary of the Dakota Territory, Mr. Barnes described Mary as a young and intelligent lady who ought to be provided for in some way. He described Mary’s parents as unable to make much provision for either treatments or education. He also inquired about territorial laws that might apply and would assist the Ingalls in sending Mary to a school for the blind.

The Iowa College for the Blind in Vinton accepted the contract with the governor of the territory to educate its blind students between the ages of five and twenty-one. The paperwork was begun to certify that Mary was blind and unable to obtain an education in Dakota Territory and that she was entitled to the benefits of a school for the blind for the term of five years. Mary carried the signed documentation with her when she traveled to Vinton, Iowa, and entered the blind school in November, 1881.

Mary actually attended the blind school in Vinton until 1889 after the territorial council extended the number of years each blind student was entitled to schooling. Laura described the change in Mary’s behavior and contentment in her her book These Happy Golden Years. After Mary had been at the blind school for two years, she made a visit home on the train by herself and “moved easily around the house instead of sitting quiet in her chair.” She was “gay and confident.” Mary learned how to do many things at the blind school such as sewing, knitting, beadwork, read books in Braille, and play the organ. When Mary finally returned to DeSmet in 1889, she used her newfound skills to help earn money for the family. She played the organ at her church for many years.

We visited the town of Vinton, Iowa, yesterday. Over the years The Iowa College for the Blind (which opened in 1852) had become the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School then the Iowa Educational Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired. In the fall of 2011 the school no longer had a residential component after a violent storm with straight wind speeds of over 110 miles per hour damaged the building significantly. Shortly after that storm the blind school closed. Visually impaired school-aged children now received specialized instruction in their local school.

There are several buildings on the campus. Since 2008 the newer buildings are the North Central Region headquarters for the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).

Here are a few pictures of the main building. Although I couldn’t find any corner stone or date on the building, after doing some research online, I’ve come to the conclusion that this building was the original building where Mary attended (minus some of the “newer” additions which are obviously constructed of different materials). At any rate, Mary Ingalls definitely was in the blind school on this site.

This is the front. I couldn’t get the whole building in one picture, so the next two photos are also of the front.

These last two photos are of the back of the building. If you look closely, you can see the additions that were constructed with different building materials.

Here are some photos of the downtown area. Some of the buildings are quite old. One building even has the date 1875 on it, so that building would have been there when Mary Ingalls was attending the blind school.

Look closely at the top of this building for the date.

Vinton also had a square and a courthouse that was beautiful. There was a restored 1856 Vinton courthouse bell on display in front of the present courthouse that was built in 1905.

Front of the courthouse.

Side of the courthouse.

That’s about all for Vinton, the Iowa College for the Blind, and Mary Ingalls. We had a lovely afternoon visiting there.

There are three more places along the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway I still need to visit: DeSmet, South Dakota; Independence, Kansas ; and, Mansfield, Missouri. I visited Mansfield back in the 1980s, but after visiting all these other places this summer, I will definitely have to go back. DeSmet and Independence will probably have to wait until next summer as we are already working our way back south to Missouri. However, there are a couple more stops on our way there.

So, for now ….. “On the Road Again!”


Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway: The Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa

While the Ingalls were in Walnut Grove they suffered through two years of devastating grasshopper plagues. Therefore, they decided to travel to Burr Oak, Iowa, to help manage the Masters Hotel. The hotel was owned by their friend from Walnut Grove, William Steadman. The Ingalls lived in Burr Oak from 1876 – 1877 (there is some discrepancy: some sources say it was 1876-1878). Burr Oak is often referred to as the “missing link” in the Little House book series because Laura did not write a book about their time there.

The Masters Hotel is somewhat unique. It is the only childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder that is still standing, and it is on its original site. The Masters Hotel building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

There is a small museum/visitors center in the old Burr Oak Bank building located across the street from the hotel site. They offer guided tours only of the hotel for a very reasonable price. Don’t worry. The tour guides are VERY knowledgeable, answer all your questions, very kind, and somewhat “laid back” by not being in any rush (well, we were not there during their peak season, so that might make a difference).

Burr Oak is located along the banks of Silver Creek in the northeast corner of Iowa. It is only about 40 miles from Spring Valley, Minnesota, another place on the Ingalls Historic Highway. In fact, depending on where you’re coming from or where you’re staying, you could do both of these stops in one day if you got an early start. Just be sure to call ahead to make sure of the hours each museum is open.

The town of Burr Oak was founded in 1851 and was a major crossroads of the area. It was not unusual to have over 200 covered wagons pass through the town daily. It was exciting times in the town when the Ingalls arrived. The whole family lived in one room in the hotel and helped run it. Charles Ingalls even did carpentry work on the hotel.

When Charles thought he wasn’t being paid enough, he decided to move his family to a small house not far from the hotel. Charles found work doing odd jobs and farm work. In 1877 Grace Pearl Ingalls was born in Burr Oak.

Like I said, the tour guides had a wealth of knowledge about the Ingalls’ time here as well as the history of the town. I can’t even begin to remember half of the information they shared. I do remember one thing though. When we walked in the front door of the hotel where guests checked in, she told us that any of the square head nails in the floor boards were the original nails in original boards (some floor boards have been replaced). That means that Charles Ingalls could have driven some of those nails!

Here are some my pictures. Be sure to zoom in to read any information included in the picture.

This picture is of the room you first walk into where guests would register and pay. Following this photo is some photos of original floor boards in the room and the square nails that are original nails.

No, that is NOT a gun that belonged to Charles Ingalls.

All of the rooms in the hotel were very small. Even though guest rooms only had one bed, there was usually three adults to a room. All three would sleep in one bed by sleeping across the bed with their legs off the bed and their feet usually resting on their luggage or travel bag or the floor.

NOTE: None of the furniture, furnishings, etc., in the hotel is originally from the hotel (unless noted by a sign placed on the piece). Most has been donated and is representative of what would have been there in the late 1800s – early 1900s.

This old pump organ was in the parlor, and it actually worked.

Guests rooms were upstairs and even smaller than the owners rooms on the main level.

Here you can see a bed set up for three people. Notice where the pillows are so they sleep across the bed. There is one suitcase on the floor for the person in the middle to rest his feet.

The next several pictures are of the kitchen, dining room, and the room in which the Ingalls slept (ALL five of them!) in the basement of the building. There is also a “mud/tool room” through which travelers would enter to take off muddy boots, etc.


Did you know they made a special horse shoe for horses when there is ice? I didn’t.

I also did not know that oxen wore shoes.

This is the room where the Ingalls slept – ALL five of them! (Note: Furnishings are NOT original. Furnishings are representative of that time period.)

There is a door on the left side of the mud/tool room to go outside to the backyard. There is a small garden planted with plants Ma might have been growing, Silver Creek runs through the backyard (it’s hard to see), a covered wagon, and the actual bell from the Congregational Church that the Ingalls attended and would have heard ring every Sunday. I didn’t ring this one; I let a man in our group ring it.

We visited several sites around the town: the site where the school the Ingalls children attended, the church site, and the site where the house in which Grace Ingalls was born. Plus we crossed a bridge over Silver Creek while exploring the town and found a little park.

This house with the brown roof sits on the site where the Ingalls girls attended school.

The site where the church they attended once stood.

This house and surrounding area is the site on which the house Grace Ingalls was born in once stood.

Some photos of Silver Creek. Notice the building across the creek on the left. That is the back of the Masters Hotel. I can imagine Laura wading in the creek every chance she got.

The tour guide told us a lot of stories about the Ingalls during their time in Burr Oak; too many to remember. One of the stories that interested me was about Laura and her friend. They would frequently “hang out” together and play, however, they also like to go to the cemetery and walk around looking at the grave markers. I thought that was unusual, but they didn’t have television, radio, cell phones, or even very many board games to occupy their time after all their chores were finished. We went by the cemetery and looked at some of the headstones that would have been there when Laura and her friend were there. Who knows, maybe we stood in the exact spot where Laura once stood. The cemetery also has a famous, huge Burr Oak tree on the hill. It’s a beautiful tree and a lovely area to sit and ponder the things of life.

This is a very unusual headstone. It is a tree stump tombstone carved from Bedford limestone quarried in Indiana. Carving on limestone was easier than granite, and if the carver made a mistake, they could easily make it a part of the tree texture or something in nature. Carvers added ornamentation to represent the person’s life, personality, occupation, or hobbies. The cut-off stump represents the end of someone’s life.

The famous Burr Oak tree. It is so big and definitely a gorgeous tree in person.

Now I only have two more stops on my Laura Ingalls Wilder journey. One is Vinton, Iowa, which is where the blind school was that Mary Ingalls attended from 1877 to 1889. We are in Iowa and I hope to stop by Vinton soon.

The other place I want to go is DeSmet, South Dakota. That is the final place the Ingalls family lived while Laura was growing up. It is also where she met her husband, Almanzo, and where several members of the family are buried. Our trip to DeSmet will probably have to wait until next summer as we are working our way back to Missouri for some family time. 😢

The last place Laura and Almanzo lived was Mansfield, Missouri. She was living there when she wrote the Little House books. Both Laura and Almanzo are buried there also. I have visited there once in the 1980s with my own children. After all of these visits along the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, I will most definitely have to visit there again! I hear there has been a new museum built in Mansfield since I visited there in the 80s.

So, for now ….. “On the Road Again!”


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