Burr Oak during the Little House years
Village in Winneshiek County, Iowa, platted in 1855. It was known for its sparkling Silver Creek and the groves that surrounded it on every side.
My family did live in Burr Oak for nearly two years, but I fear my memories of that time will not be very interesting as they are more of the place than the people. –Laura Ingalls Wilder, June 1947
While Laura Ingalls Wilder chose not to write a Little House book about the period of time the Ingalls family spent in Burr Oak, Iowa, she devoted twenty pages of her handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript to the story – an interlude between the two periods of time the Ingalls family lived in Walnut Grove, Minnesota.
In the summer of 1876, Walnut Grove resident William Steadman decided to move to Burr Oak to run the Masters Hotel (also known as the Burr Oak House), which he purchased from William J. Masters. Steadman asked Charles Ingalls to move to Burr Oak and help him run the hotel, and Pa agreed. The Ingalls family left Walnut Grove in late summer 1876, and they stopped for a lengthly visit with Peter and Eliza Ingalls in Zumbro Falls, Minnesota. It was here that Laura’s brother Freddy became ill; he died on August 27, 1876, and was buried in South Troy.
Burr Oak was an old town compared to Walnut Grove, and Laura Ingalls thought it small and dirty. The Masters Hotel was built into the side of a hill, and it was next door to a saloon. Pa and Ma didn’t like the saloon next door and the girls were afraid of the men who were always hanging around.
The Ingallses didn’t like working in the hotel, so after one winter Pa moved the family to rented rooms over the grocery store close by. Laura and Mary attended school in Burr Oak, and Pa began working at the feed mill. Later, they moved to a rented house in a wooded area of town; here, Ma gave birth to a fourth daughter – Grace – on May 23, 1877. Soon after, the family left Burr Oak and moved back to Walnut Grove.
Winneshiek County, Iowa. Winneshiek County lies in northeast Iowa, on the Minnesota-Iowa border. The county was organized by an act of the Iowa Legislature on January 15, 1851, with Decorah named as the polling place. The first elections were held in April of that year.
The railroad came to Winneshiek County in the early 1860s with a line cutting across the southwest part of the county. A branch line was completed to Decorah in 1869. A stagecoach line ran from Burr Oak to Decorah in the 1870s. It stopped at the American House, a hotel across the road from the Masters Hotel. The stagecoach horses were boarded at the Burr Oak House Livery.
Burr Oak Township. The first white settlers arrived in Burr Oak Township in 1851, when Samuel Belding and his half-brother built a log hotel and a blacksmith shop there. At that time, the county wasn’t completely divided into townships. March 11, 1855, Burr Oak Precinct was created, with the entire tier in Township 100 on the north line of the county (see map above) being known as Burr Oak. In the 1850s, many settlers arrived in Winneshiek County, including large numbers of foreign-born residents, mostly Norwegian, Irish, English, and German. Most of the land was broken to large and prosperous farms. There was ample timber and an abundance of springs and creeks.
The first post office in Burr Oak began operations in 1853, the same year the Minnesota / Iowa line was surveyed and the Burr Oak Cemetery recorded its first burial. By 1876, there were a number of schoolhouses in Burr Oak Township (shown in red on the partial township map above left), including the one Laura and Mary Ingalls attended east of town.
The Village of Burr Oak. The original village of Burr Oak (Blocks 1-10 on the map at right) was platted in 1855. Manning’s Addition to the north was platted the following year. Willsie’s Addition was soon added; William H. Willsie had donated land for use as the cemetery. In Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of walking through the Burr Oak Cemetery (photo of entrance gates, below left) and reading the inscriptions on the headstones there. She described it as “a beautiful place.”
Charles and Caroline Ingalls joined the Burr Oak Congregational Church (photo, below center) in January 1877. Both the Steadmans and the new minister, George Sterling, joined at the same time. Rev. Sterling left at the end of his contract in September. The congregation was active until 1905, and the church building was later town down.
Laura and Mary attended the Burr Oak School (photo, below right) located a short distance from the Hotel. Construction of the brick schoolhouse began the year Laura Ingalls was born; it replaced a stone schoolhouse located north of town. Sarah Donlan taught the younger students on the main floor, and William H. Reed taught the older students upstairs. In Pioneer Girl, Wilder wrote that she and Mary went upstairs to Mr. Reed’s room for reading lessons, but remained downstairs for the rest of their studies. One schoolbook used by Laura and Mary was J. Madison Watson’s Independent Fifth Reader, published in 1876. Wilder mentioned this reader many times in the De Smet Little House books. Mary, Laura, and Carrie memorized a number of poems from this reader.
When the Ingallses lived in Burr Oak, the main business blocks were located north of the Masters Hotel (marked with an X on the map at right). There were at least four stores, another hotel, and a billiard hall. There was a blacksmith, shoemaker, doctor, furniture-maker, tinsmith, postmaster, Justice of the Peace, and a constable in town. Wilder also remembered the large white house (only torn down in recent years) across the road from the Hotel. Here, Peter Pfeiffer lived with his wife and daughters, in the home of his father-in-law, John May. The Pfeiffers owned over 160 acres of land adjacent to Burr Oak.
The Steadmans and the Ingallses and the Masters Hotel. William J. Masters, brother of Walnut Grove resident Samuel O. Masters, purchased the Burr Oak House in 1873. In October 1876, Masters sold it to William Steadman, who kept it for only seven months. Steadman sold the hotel to William McLaughlin in May 1877; McLaughlin sold groceries and drygoods in the building. After selling the hotel, the Steadmans then moved to a farm purchased in a neighboring township. In Pioneer Girl, Wilder wrote that after the Ingalls family left the hotel, she didn’t remember seeing the Steadmans ever again.
Although not remembered by Laura Ingalls Wilder in Pioneer Girl, William and Mary Steadman had four children: Johnny, Reuben, Thomas, and Mary, a daughter born in Walnut Grove four months before Freddy Ingalls was born. William Steadman was a blacksmith by trade, and he had homesteaded southeast of Walnut Grove. In connection with the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, there was a livery barn where horses were boarded. The livery advertised oats for boarding horses were one cent per gallon. It is not known if Mr. Steadman also worked in some capacity as a blacksmith while living in Burr Oak.
The months spent in Burr Oak were difficult for the Ingalls family. Wilder wrote that Mr. Steadman somehow cheated Pa out of his share of the hotel profits. Mary and Laura were sick with scarlet fever while living at the hotel; lingering effects from this illness were a factor in Mary’s blindness. The Ingalls family returned to Walnut Grove during the summer of 1877.
The Hotel Block. William Steadman’s purchase from William J. Masters included not only the hotel building, but (in Block 8) Lots 1, 2, 3, and the east half of Lot 4. Block 8 originally continued for 10 blocks to the west, including what became Dundas Street (see map above and map at right). The original village of Burr Oak ended at the south line of Section 24, Township 100 N., Range 9 W. The hotel building straddles the section line!
When Willsie’s Addition to Burr Oak was platted to the south, lots were drawn at 15 degrees west of north, leaving a “pie-wedge” shaped piece of property between the town and its southern addition. These were designated as Outlots 7 and 7 in the portion of Block 8 east of Dundas Street. Property transactions involving portions of these Outlots were designated using the method of “metes and bounds,” which referred to locations of trees, fences, buildings, or other obvious physical features of the land for location of property boundaries. In the 1870s, a large polar tree stood in Outlot 6, and its location, the corner of the grocery store building, and distances from the street were used to pinpoint the boundaries of the nearby property.
In addition to the hotel property, William Steadman purchased the lower residence level of the billard hall next door. The lower level of this building was sold a number of times separately from the rest of the building. It is possible that the Steadman family lived here, not in the hotel proper. The billard hall property (Laura Ingalls Wilder called it a saloon) was 23 feet from the grocery store, on a lot that ran deep into Outlot 6. The size and configuration of the saloon building is not known, but a newspaper article at the time of the fire said that the hotel and billiard hall joined in some way.
Wilder described this fire in the saloon, which prompted Charles Ingalls to move his family out of the hotel and into rented rooms over George Kimball’s store. This store, interestingly enough, was on the other side of the saloon from the hotel, so not too far removed from it. On some early maps, a separate spring is shown in Outlot 7, west of the hotel. Water from this spring apparently spilled into Silver Creek in the early years. In Pioneer Girl, Wilder wrote that there was a spring house built over the creek, where butter and milk were kept cold. Since the spring is now shown on later maps, it either dried up or the course of the creek changed over the years to include it.
In earlier years, onetime hotel owner John Waggoner had a house on the southwest portion of Outlot 6. His barn originally stood south of where the grocery store was built. The barn site is where J.E. Briggs built a general store in 1909 (see outline of building on southwest corner of Outlot 6 in the map above). This building is still standing and was operated as the Burr Oak Mercantile in early Little House tourism years.
Burr Oak, Iowa (PG)