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Mansfield history

Mansfield, Missouri. Town in Wright County, named for Hartville attorney, Francis M. Mansfield. The town was platted in 1881 and incorporated in 1886. Rose, Laura, and Almanzo Wilder settled on farmland just east of Mansfield in 1894 and lived in town or on their farm until their deaths.

“My mother often said that she wished the house could be kept as a memorial; somebody had suggested it and she wished it could be done but it did not seem probable. It seemed to me that the house was rather far from town, but I guess that does not matter in these days of cars, and really it is no farther from the school than the present library is. There seems to be an idea there now, of making a memorial-museum of the house. Ruth [Freeman] wrote that it seems to be the logical place, and that there will be Open House there on May 19th, and they will try to have the furnishings arranged as nearly as possible as my mother had them.” – Portion of a letter from Rose Wilder Lane to Neta Seal, written shortly after Laura’s death.

There are no specific Indian tribes associated with the early days of what became Wright County in southwest Missouri, although the Shawnees, Delawares, and Piankashaws are known to have been in the area. The first permanent white settlers arrived in the 1830s, although men from neighboring Texas County hunted on the land that became Wright County and they set up temporary camps while there.

When Wright County was opened for settlement in 1840, pioneers flocked to the area, yet the first claims weren’t filed until 1849, and no legal preemption claims were filed near what became Mansfield until 1851, with many parcels given under the Scrip Warrant Act of 1855.

During the Civil War, skirmishes were fought at Fox Creek and in Mountain Grove during the year 1862, and wounded soldiers were transported along Wolf Creek and through the area which became Mansfield.

Mansfield, “The Gem City of the Ozarks,” lies in the middle of Pleasant Valley Township, in the old zinc mining district of southern Wright County. The original town site was purchased in 1881, with the plat filed in 1884. The town lies in Section 21, Township 28 North, Range 15 West. The town was named for Francis M. Mansfield, a Hartville attorney, and founded by Francis Mansfield and George Nettleton, a Kansas City railroad executive. The town was incorporated in 1886. Mansfield originally consisted of ten commercial blocks with the depot grounds and railroad running through the middle. The depot – with warehouse lots adjacent to it – was located on one side of the town square, with commercial lots on the other three sides. Several additions to the town were made by George Nettleton and others prior to the Wilders’ arrival in 1894.

The first business in town was a general store, followed by a livery stable in 1882. Several stores were opened around the town square. The Kansas City, Springfield, and Memphis Railroad came through Mansfield in 1882, and the town became the distribution point for mail and freight going north to Grovespring and south to the Arkansas line. The railroad line south to Ava was begun in 1907. With the coming of the automobile, railroad traffic naturally decreased, but with better roads, Mansfield soon became a dairy center.

After 1900 – when the Wilders were living in town – there was rapid development as new businesses were started. There was a local newspaper, opera house, multiple drug stores, confectionery shops, bakery, flour mills, a saloon, bank, and two hotels. Soon Mansfield boasted a bottling works, creamery, and canning factory. The town was affected – as many were – by the Great Depression. While Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing her Little House books in the ’30s and ’40s, the town continued to thrive, with clubs, businesses, churches, and a public lending library being opened, but the library was discontinued for a time due to lack of funds.

The photo below was taken in 1895, a year after the Wilders first drove through Mansfield in search of a farm to purchase. It was taken from the top of Ball Diamond Hill looking southwest across town. The Presbyterian church is easily spotted south of the town square.

The Almanzo Wilder Family in the Town of Mansfield. In June 1898, Almanzo Wilder purchased Lot 1, Block 8 in Nettleton’s Addition to the town of Mansfield for $450 from George and Mary Miller, Mansfield residents. Two years earlier, Frank and Emma Cooley had purchased Lot 3, and the lot between was the residence of Dr. Robert Rogers and his wife Carrie and family. Almanzo purchased the town property shortly after a lengthy visit by his father, and it is believed that the purchase price was a monetary gift from James Wilder. Almanzo, Laura, and Rose were living in the house as rental property at the time of purchase.

The Wilders continued to live in town while working on Rocky Ridge Farm whenever possible. Laura boarded and cooked for travelers, Rose attended school, and Almanzo worked odd jobs in town. Shortly after the Wilders purchased the home in town, Mr. Cooley died, and Almanzo took over his dray line. In 1899, Almanzo took out a $100 mortgage on the property, with Emma Cooley as lender. While living in town, Almanzo and Laura purchased several other lots in town as investments, plus they continued to add acreage to Rocky Ridge Farm whenever possible.

In 1910, Laura and Almanzo sold Lot 1, Block 8 in Nettleton’s Addition to banker Noah J. Craig for $500, and the Wilders moved permanently back to Rocky Ridge Farm.

The first Mansfield Public School was held in a building on Commercial Street and is a private home today. In 1891, a large four-room two-story brick schoolhouse was built (it was destroyed by fire in 1909); it was located a mile east of the center of town on the north side of Commercial Street just before you get to today’s water tower (which will be on your right; the schoolhouse would have been on your left) as you drive east out of town to Rocky Ridge Farm. This is the school attended by Rose Wilder. Rose didn’t remember her lessons or the Mansfield school fondly, and she left in 1903 to attend high school in Crowley, Louisiana, living with Almanzo’s sister, Eliza Jane Thayer. Although Rose wrote that there was no high school in Mansfield, a ninth grade had been added in 1900, followed by a tenth grade the next year. George Cooley, Blanche Coday, and Ethel Burney were all students in the school. Although Rose graduated from high school in Crowley, Mansfield also had a graduating class of 1904; Rose’s friend Ethel Burney was one of the graduates. Teachers were Professors Bennett, Marr, Platt, and Brand. One of the failures of the Mansfield school was its lack of Latin in the curriculum; George Cooley left Mansfield to attend school in Springfield, where Latin was offered.

The first church in Mansfield was a Congregational Church, located on the site where the Presbyterian Church was built in 1884. At the time, the Methodists and Baptists held services in the Grand Army of the Republic Hall. Mansfield Methodist Church first held services in their “almost finished” sanctuary for Christmas 1899. The church was located a half block north of the town square on the Hartville Road. Soon an annex and Sunday school wing were added.

Although the Wilders never joined as members, they were active in the Methodist Church. Laura Ingalls Wilder is listed among the first members of the Ladies Aid Society, which became the W.S.C.S. An early poem about the church ladies included these lines: “The Ladies Aid members / Which consisted of these / Mrs. Rogers, Mrs. Patterson / And then if you please / Mrs. Hoover, Mrs. Wilder / Mrs. Taylor, Mrs. Cooley / They were really good workers / Honest and truly.”

By the 1940s, the church had both outgrown and worn out its original building, yet it wasn’t until the 1960s that a new church was built on property west of town. Paul and George Cooley (friends of Rose’s and the Wilders from On the Way Home) donated a pew in memory of their parents, Frank and Emma Cooley; it is still in use today. The original sanctuary was torn down in 1966.

“…Mansfield is a town of about 750 people. It has a very picturesque location on the wooded hills, and is on the main line of the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Memphis R.R. As this is the only road in this part of the state, an immense amount of business is transacted here. Nearly all kinds of businesses are represented here. Stock farming, and fruit culture the principle industry. There are good church and school privileges. The new school building, a fine brick structure stands on a mountain side and commands a fine view of the town and surrounding country. Three teachers are now employed and another department will be put in next year.

“The lead and zinc mines a mile from town employ about fifty men.

“Land can be bought near the railroad for from five to twenty dollars per acre, according to improvement and location. Most farms have on them living springs where water flows out of solid rock, and afford water for both stock and house use. There is one spring about six miles from here running a good sized grist mill.

“There are people here whose ‘ways are not our ways,’ but they seem to be courteous and kind, and there are a great many northern people, among them a lot of Dakotans who have come to stay…”

This sounds like it could have been written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, but it wasn’t. It was written by Mary Sias, also from Kingsbury County, South Dakota, and also someone who settled in Mansfield, Missouri in 1894.

— From my old blog: post dated May 18, 2005.

The Wilders in Pleasant Valley Township / Rocky Ridge Farm. September 21, 1894, Laura E. Wilder purchased forty acres in the SE Section 22, Township 28 North, Range 15 West. Between 1894 and 1929, Laura and Almanzo Wilder purchased what amounted to nearly a quarter section of land located in various parts of Sections 22 and 23.

Many young apple trees had come with the land, and the Wilders planted these and others in an orchard near the house. When the trees were full-bearing, apples were shipped to market in Missouri and other states. Land was cleared for pastures, garden crops were planted, and farm animals were raised. Laura was especially known for her hens; Almanzo for his goats, cows, and horses. Almanzo purchased a Morgan horse, Governor of Orleans, which he intended to breed with Missouri stock in order to improve the bloodline. It may have been “hard work and short rations” at first, but Rocky Ridge Farm became well-known in the area, not only for the progressive farm, but the modern and well-planned farmhouse at which many parties and gatherings were hosted by the Wilders.

In the photo at right, most likely taken by Laura, Almanzo can be seen driving the wagon on the old road approaching Rocky Ridge.

Rocky Ridge Farmhouse and the Rock House. When the Wilders purchased their first parcel of land, a road ran in front of it and paralleled the creek. The Wilders planned and built Rocky Ridge farmhouse so that the front door faced this early road. As described by Rose Wilder Lane in On the Way Home, the Wilders’ first home on Rocky Ridge Farm was a log cabin that came with the property. A frame room was added to the cabin, and this room was later detached and moved to the chosen building site at the top of a gentle rise near a giant oak tree; this room became the kitchen, with the original log cabin used as a barn. The next room added was a bedroom / sitting room, with a loft above for Rose. This room (with its steep ladder-stair backed by cupboards) later became the dining room. The bathroom was the last room added; in the 1920s, Rose Wilder Lane renovated the storage shed as the bathroom and added access to it from the bedroom. In later years, Laura added an electric range in the kitchen to use during the hot summer months; otherwise, she preferred her wood-burning stove for cooking, saying that the food just tasted better when cooked on it!

In the plan shown above, the upstairs (in red) is superimposed on the lower level (in black) with the original two rooms highlighted in pink. Rose’s original loft bedroom is over the dining room below; the sleeping porch is over Laura and Almanzo’s bedroom; and the guest bedroom is over the parlor.

Building material came from the farm itself: oak for beams and flooring, rock for the chimney, and massive stones for the fireplace sides and mantle. Porches provided shady spots during hot summer days, and doors could be left open for cross-ventilation. An arbor was located outside the kitchen door, with the well and pump only a step away. Water was piped into the kitchen from a spring-fed cistern up the hill. A pipe ran through the stove, so Laura had both hot and cold running water. The cistern is still in place but is no longer in use. Its cover and sloping sides were visible when walking the old path between the farmhouse and rock house; a sign on the trail pointed out its location. The path was closed for a number of years and was reconfigured around 2020 and it may not go by the cistern any longer (if you’ve walked the trail in recent years, please let me know; I haven’t been to Mansfield since 2017). For over twenty years, the Wilders farmed at Rocky Ridge and lived in the white farmhouse.

In the late 1920s, Rose Wilder Lane returned to Mansfield after living abroad. She decided that her parents needed a modern “English country cottage,” so she purchased a set of plans from Sears, Roebuck, and Company, then hired an architect to make certain modifications to “The Mitchell,” advertised as “English architecture with a touch of the popular California style.” The Rock House was built on forty acres of land just over the ridge to the east of the white farmhouse. Even accessories and furniture were purchased by Rose. She presented Laura and Almanzo with the key to their new home for Christmas 1928, and she moved into “the other place” and started making improvements there. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her Pioneer Girl manuscript and the Little House books through On the Banks of Plum Creek while living in the Rock House.

To see a copy of the Sears advertisement for “The Mitchell,” click HERE. Between 1906 and 1940, thousands of American homes were built using kits or plans purchased from mail-order sources such as Sears or Montgomery Ward. Often, all building materials – from floor joists to roof rafters (all carefully identified) – were delivered by rail, with detailed construction plans. Sometimes local builders were hired to build a home from a purchased set of plans. Rose Wilder Lane made a number of modifications to the plans she purchased, both in materials and design, also having two rooms added to the upstairs, so the Wilder home ended up costing considerably more than the advertised price. In the plan shown here, the upstairs is not included, nor is the basement, which was accessed via stairs in the kitchen near a back door. When the Wilders lived in the Rock House, the upstairs was unfinished and was used mainly for clothes storage; the stairs go up towards the back of the house between kitchen and bedroom, with a wide room behind you at the top of the stairs and an open area (over the living room French doors) containing a bow window. The walls upstairs have only in recent years been finished and painted; the ceiling isn’t flat but slants beneath the roof.

In 1936, Rose settled permanently in Connecticut, so Laura and Almanzo packed up and moved back into the white farmhouse they designed and loved, renting out the Rock House and eventually selling it and the surrounding property.

As the Wilders grew older, they began selling off parcels of land. In the early 1940s, they made arrangements to sell the remaining acreage and farmhouse to farming friends, with the Wilders retaining possession of the house, barn, and outbuildings during their lifetimes. Almanzo Wilder died at Rocky Ridge Farm on October 23, 1949. Laura remained on the farm until her death in 1957, with a museum to Laura in the works almost immediately.

Mansfield, Missouri, see also Rocky Ridge Farm