wonderful house / frame house
frame construction. Any thing composed of parts fitted and united together; a structure. — Webster, 1882
wonderful house. The sawn lumber dwelling built by Charles Ingalls on his preemption claim north of Walnut Grove after living in the dugout on the claim.
I was only six and very busy about my affairs. What I remember is of course only a series of pictures. – Mama Bess to Rose Dearest, letter dated July 3, 1936
A frame house differs from a log house in that there is a skeleton structure of vertical and horizontal members that carry the weight of the building and to which wall, ceiling, and floor covering material is attached. Unlike the logs which Charles Ingalls harvested and shaped for the family’s Indian Territory log cabin, the lumber used for the Walnut Grove frame house was professionally cut and purchased from the lumberyard in town.
According to Charles Ingalls’ preemption claim final proof testimony dated June 29, 1876, he settled on the land on May 28, 1874, and he had “built a dwelling house on said land 20 x 24 feet and 10 feet high, with a good roof and containing 5 doors and 3 windows” and it was a “comfortable house for a family to live in and [he] has lived in the same house and made it his exclusive home from the 26th of June 1874” until the date of final proof. He had broken 40 acres and had 2 stables, one 12×20 feet and the other 12×16 feet, plus he had dug a well, the location of which has never been looked for, as far as I know. This statement seems to suggest that the Ingalls family lived in a dugout for a much, much shorter period of time than described in On the Banks of Plum Creek, perhaps for only a month while the frame house was under construction.
In letters to daughter Rose, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that the Ingallses built their wooden frame “wonderful house” on the other side of Plum Creek from where the dugout was located, meaning it was located west of Plum Creek. Wilder also made at least two sketches of the arrangement of landmarks as she remembered them; one is shown here. Although the dugout’s location was remembered by old-timers and rediscovered by Garth Williams – and Wilder did surprisingly well to sketch the path of Plum Creek and locate other features that she last saw as a child decades ago – it’s hard to pinpoint the wonderful house’s building site on the site from the map alone. Where exactly did it stand? It doesn’t sound like anybody knows for sure.
In a July 31, 1983 article published in the Minneapolis Tribune, pages 1E and 7E, staff writer Joe Kimbell writes that Charles Ingalls “built a wooden house where the Gordons’ barn now stands.”
In William Anderson’s The Walnut Grove Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder (1987), page 14, Anderson writes: “With high hopes for his wheat crop, Pa built the ‘wonderful house’ of sawn boards for his family after a year in the dugout. It was on the opposite side of the creek from the dugout, and closer to the road to Walnut Grove.” There is a photo of a building with the caption: “Wood from the frame house built by Pa along Plum Creek is contained in this farm building.”
In Evelyn Thurman’s The Ingalls-Wilder Homesites (1992), page 16, Thurman writes: “Mr. and Mrs. Gordon have a large country home near the location of Laura’s first real house with glass windows. In fact, the Gordons’ big red barn stands on the exact spot. The sloping location was an ideal site for a house. Mrs. Gordon said part of the wide planks from Laura’s house were used to build a chicken house.”
From signs on the former Ingalls land prior to 1994: “[The Ingallses] built a wooden house which probably stood across the creek on the level ground just beyond the knoll.”
William Anderson’s Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Walnut Grove (2013), page 63, includes an interview with Stan Gordon, which includes: “When we arrived in 1947, we started cleaning up the farmstead. Two small sheds, which had been used for housing sheep, were located west of the present barn. One was in poor condition, which we tore down. We salvaged the other by cutting off the bottom four feet, and making it into a 12×16 (same as one of the Ingalls stables) brooder house for chicks. We finally removed the brooder house in 1991. We found square nails, but no evidence that it had been part of a house.” When asked where he thought the Ingalls house was located, Gordon replied: “I believe one possible site is about halfway between the current 1900 farmhouse and the dugout site. I remember a fenced area containing a corn crib in that location. My theory is that when the current farmstead was built, lumber was salvaged from the old farmstead for new buildings. As we refurbished the present outbuildings we found used roof boards and square nails indicting an earlier use from other buildings.”
In the video, “Stan Gordon on The Ingalls Dugout Site Interview” posted in 2021 by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Minnesota on youtube (see beginning about five minutes in), Gordon says: “It was likely that their house was built across the creek…” but no further information is offered.
If you aren’t familiar with Charles Ingalls’ preemption claim, click HERE to open Google aerial with the quarter section centered in the image. County Road 5 is the western boundary and 140th Street is the north. The turnoff onto the Gordon property, east off County Road 5 is the southern boundary. The eastern boundary of the quarter section isn’t accessible by car, but note the clump of trees on the southeast corner where the 4 quarter sections of Section 18 converge.
Old atlases and aerial photographs are interesting; can they be used to pinpoint the location of the wonderful house? Atlases aren’t available for every year; the above shows a selection from 1898 (the earliest found) to 1965. The Ingallses’ claim (the NW 18-109-38) has been outlined in red on the 1898 map. A square or round dot, filled in, shows the location of a dwelling house. Atlas maps weren’t drafted and aren’t exact; note the location of the house and Plum Creek in the composite image at left. It is a current aerial image with the 1898 creek and dwelling location shown in black. In 1898, the owner of the NW 18 is “R. Walsh.” He was the third person to own the land after Charles Ingalls.
Abraham Keller. July 10, 1876, Charles Ingalls sold the NW 18 to Margaret and Abraham Keller for $400. The Kellers were enumerated on the 1875 Minnesota census in Eyota village (Olmsted County). Born in 1831 in Cayuga County, New York, Abraham Keller married Margaret Vine in 1859; they had a daughter who died young and for a while, the son of one of Mrs. Keller’s siblings lived with the couple. The Kellers knew Elias Bedal in Eyota and may have learned about Walnut Grove through the Bedals. The Kellers must have lived in the Ingallses’ frame house. Keller was delinquent in paying 1876, 1878, and 1879 taxes; the value of the farm was listed at $1093 on the 1877 tax list. In November 1878, the Kellers separated, and Margaret moved back to Olmstead County.
James Keller. Abraham suffered from heart disease, and after his wife left him, he moved to Dover Center (Olmstead County) to live with his brother James. In August 1880, Abraham sold the NW 18 to his brother James for $500. Abraham Keller died on September 1, 1880, and was buried in Viola, Minnesota. In November of that year, Margaret Keller remarried. James Keller never lived in Redwood County.
Richard Walsh. Walsh and his wife Ann, along with some of their children, came to North Hero Township from Le Sueur County in 1879, renting the NW 18 from James Keller. Richard Walsh had sold his farm in Le Sueur County in 1875 and had been running the poor farm in Le Sueur County for a number of years. The Walshes and two of their children (their son Joseph purchased a quarter section northwest of his father’s farm, and daughter Augusta married Alfred Swoffer; their son remembered playing in the dugout on the NW 18 as a child) were enumerated just after Eleck Nelson’s family on the 1880 census. In November 1885, James Keller (from Olmstead County) sold the NW 18 to Richard Walsh for $1500.
The 1898 atlas indicates that there was a house (the wonderful house?) on the west side of Plum Creek, just west of a large bend in the creek. It’s impossible to know how “off” the atlas is in locating homes, but it supports the Gordons’ idea that the original house was farther north and closer to the creek than the current farmhouse.
Richard Walsh was mentioned a number of times in local papers. The New Ulm Weekly Review (August 16, 1882) reported: “Richard Walsh had one acre threshed for wheat and got ninety bushels; has forty acres as good.” The Redwood Gazette (June 8, 1893) reported: “Richard Walsh is one of our most successful farmers, he has a large herd of cattle and about 150 hogs, some of which he is taking to market each week.” The Redwood Gazette (April 18, 1894) reported: “Richard Walsh, of Redwood County, has been getting out of wheat, and last year he put in but 10 acres, with 100 acres in barley, oats, and corn. He fed hogs and cattle and wonders what people mean by talking of hard times.” Remember that wheat was the crop that Charles Ingalls places all his hopes and dreams upon.
The Walshes built a new house on the NW 18 the year after the 1898 atlas was published; this is the house currently standing in the southwest corner of the quarter section. The Redwood Gazette (June 14, 1899) reported: “If not the prettiest, it is one of the prettiest homes in Redwood county that of Richard Walsh down in Section 18, North Hero. In the first place it is a big house, the rooms are all large and it is well lighted. The interior is an oil finish throughout, and the culinary arrangements are exceptionally fine and convenient. The entire residence is heated by furnace, the exterior is neatly painted, and the surroundings are being made to compare with the residence. Mr. Walsh was one of the earliest settlers down in that section, has experienced early hardships and is now enjoying life to the fullest extent. Mr. Walsh enjoys a good political discussion better than any body, and clings to his point with a firmness that is creditable to his race.”
In 1903, Richard and Ann Walsh moved to Tracy to live with a daughter. He died there in December 1904 at the “ripe old age of 79,” according to his obituary.
Joseph Walsh. The NW 18 was left to Joseph Walsh, who moved from his own farm, the SE 12-109-39, in Springdale Township, to the NW 18 with his wife, Alvilda (Hanson) Walsh. In 1919, Joseph mortgaged the Springdale farm for $9000, defaulting on the loan in 1926. He also owed back taxes on both farms. By then, the Joseph Walsh family had moved to Mankato, and both farms were sold at auction in October 1926. The former Ingalls preemption claim is described as “172 acres, 1 1/2 mile north of Walnut Grove, well improved.”
The farm changed hands a few more times until Walnut Grove store owner, Otto Dahlgren, sold it to Harold and Della Gordon for $14,624 in February 1947, the same year that Garth Williams – while working on illustrations for a uniform edition of Little House books – visited the farm in search of the Plum Creek dugout. In 1980, the Gordons sold the farm to their son Stanley, the current owner.
A selection of aerial photographs of the NW 18 are shown above. The 1938 and 1955 images are online. Other historic aerials – from 1991 to 2019 can be viewed on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Landview website. Can you find the Ingalls preemption claim images on your own?
While they may not help with locating the wonderful house former location, old aerial are fascinating to study. There are visible paths in the 1938 photo (taken ten years before the Gordons purchased the farm and Garth Williams visited) that show what must have been a bridge in the vicinity of the current bridge to the dugout, but in the 1938 photo, there is also another creek crossing that runs along the southern property line and heads north about midway across the farm. Note how few large trees there are on the photos from the thirties through the fifties. In the 1955 photo, you can see the corncrib that Stan Gordon remembered being just north of the creek, but it’s not on the 1935 or 1938 photo. Do you see the ditch that was added on the north half of the claim, diverting water from Plum Creek across the farm and across the road to the west? In 1961, when a sign was placed on County Road 5 about the Ingalls dugout site, it was originally just north of this ditch, but so many tourists thought that the ditch was Plum Creek that it was moved farther south. If you compare photos carefully, you can even see a couple of places where the course of Plum Creek has changed over the years. It’s hard to make out the house, barn, and other farm buildings in the southwest corner unless you’re familiar with the site, but do you see any in the earliest photos that are missing after the Gordons purchased the farm?
So. Where was the Ingallses’ “wonderful house” located on the claim? Nobody knows for sure, but all signs point to it having been in this vicinity, meaning if this was a photo from 1875, it would have been visible.
frame house (SSL 1; PG) – Navigation button image of frame house under construction from Minnesota Digital Library.
wonderful house (BPC 16)