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Rocky Ridge Farm

Wright County, Missouri, farm of Laura and Almanzo Wilder which began with a 40-acre purchase in September 1894 and increased to 169 contiguous acres with additional land purchases of from 1 to 40 acres between 1897 and 1929.

To begin with it was not bottom land nor by any stretch of the imagination could it have been called second bottom. It was, and is, uncompromisingly ridge land, on the very tip top of the ridge at that, within a few miles of the highest point in the Ozarks. And rocky—it certainly was rocky when it was named… -“The Story of Rocky Ridge Farm,” Missouri Ruralist, July 22, 1911

     

Looking down at the curator’s house and original museum (both no longer standing) on Rocky Ridge Farm from the east side of the 40 acres purchased in 1894 by the Wilders. — Photo taken with permission of the landowner at the time, September 1996; this property is now owned by the Wilder Association.

Following a spring 1894 land-prospecting trip from De Smet to Missouri via railroad, Frank Cooley arranged for the late summer purchase of two 40-acre parcels between Mansfield and Norwood (one of which may have been intended for consideration by the Wilders). Upon arrival in Wright County, both purchases were abandoned when it was discovered that the seller didn’t have clear title to the land, so the Wilders and Cooleys camped west of Mansfield while each couple searched for a farm. The Cooleys rented the Ira Westbrook farm north of Mansfield; the Wilders kept looking.

Three weeks (and one lost & found $100 bill) after their arrival, the Wilders purchased forty acres located about a mile and a half east of Mansfield. There were apple trees heeled in and waiting to be planted, a log house on a wooded hill, and a year-round spring of cool, clear water in a nearby ravine. According to Rose Wilder Lane (see On the Way Home, Part III), some gullible man had purchased the apple trees from a smart salesman before he’d cleared the land on which to plant them. When the trees arrived, he had to mortgage his land in order to pay for the trees. The man managed to plant some trees and tucked the rest into nursery rows for planting later; then he just gave up and left. Rose wrote that the bank took the land and the Wilders purchased everything from the bank for a three hundred dollar mortgage at twelve percent interest. Was Rose’s memory accurate?

Refer to the map below for the location of parcels the Wilders bought over the years. The background 2021 aerial photo is from the Missouri Spatial Data Information Service with added (by me) red section numbers, yellow section lines, lime green property boundaries, and other labels for reference (street names, railroad tracks, landmarks, etc.). Note that Rocky Ridge Farmhouse was built on the Wilders’ 1894 purchase, the Rock House on their 1919 purchase, and the new museum is on the Wilders’ 1905 purchase.

Recent satellite image of Rocky Ridge Farm, marked to show parcels purchased by the Wilders as well as roads and other features. Can you spot the new walking path between the Farm House and Rock House?

BEFORE THE WILDERS. Originally from Indiana but having moved to the Ozarks with his family as a child, Andrew Jackson Stout (1839-1919) settled in Wright County in the 1870s. A veteran of the Civil War, Stout had twelve children born between 1859 and 1890. He first filed a homestead claim on 120 acres in Pleasant Valley Township on September 16, 1890, the N-SE & the SE-NE 22-28-15; his patent is dated November 23, 1891. Stout’s 120 acre homestead included all of the Wilders’ 1894, 1897, and 1929 purchases, as well as about 3 acres of their 1905 purchase.

In February 1893, Andrew Stout made arrangements with Stark Brothers to be shipped 714 unspecified fruit trees at a cost of around $100. Stark Bro’s, a plant nursery and orchards in Louisiana, Missouri, was pulling itself back from the brink of bankruptcy and were advertising heavily to promote apple and other fruit trees. Stout’s trees were to be planted on 40 acres of his farm, the SE-NE 22, the 40 acres just north of the Wilders’ 1929 purchase. That same month, Stout’s son-in-law, Ulysses Grant Morgan (1866-1920), arranged with Stark Bro’s for the fall 1893 delivery of 1000 apple trees at a cost of $140. The trees were to be planted on Grant’s farm, identified in the deed as the NW-SE 22, but was actually forty acres of his father-in-law’s homestead where Grant lived with his wife Malinda (she was a few years younger than Laura Ingalls Wilder) and their three small children (they went on to have five more). The Morgans most likely lived in the log cabin the Wilders moved into the following year. Grant Morgan arranged to pay Stark Bro’s for the apple trees in 10 years: $28 each year from 1899 to 1903 (inclusive), plus 6% annual interest.

How much planting the Morgans did on Stout’s 40 acres is unknown. Grant Morgan later purchased his own 40 acres, the NW-SW 23-28-15, located a quarter mile west. William Daniel “Patric” Newell (1858-1909) had purchased this land in 1891, and Newell had made his own arrangement with Stark Bro’s for the spring 1893 shipment of 1000 apple trees and 500 peach trees to be planted there. In payment, Stark Bro’s would receive any two crops of Newell’s apples and any two crops of Newell’s peaches within 15 years of planting. Stark Bro’s got to pick both the year(s) and crop(s) taken in payment. What the Wilders always referred to as “the Newell forty” is this 40 acres purchased by the Wilders from Grant Morgan in February 1919 for $1500, the land on which Rose Wilder Lane built the Rock House for her parents in 1928. Most people don’t realize that the acreage had once been covered in apple and peach trees.

Andrew Stout sold the Wilders an additional 6 acres of woodland in May 1897 (see map). A strip of land on the west side of the NW-SW 22 that had been sold to Thomas Patterson in 1891 was part of the 12-acre parcel purchased by the Wilders from George Miller in September 1905, the same George Miller who had sold the Wilders their house in town in 1898; the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum now stands on this land. Of interest to Little House fans is that in November 1894, Thomas Patterson sold 2 acres in the NW-SE 22 to Carrie Ingalls for $80. Although Carrie never lived on the land and most likely only bought the property as an investment (the deed indicates that Carrie was living in De Smet at the time of the purchase), she kept it until August 1916, when she sold it for $200. The parcel is outlined on the map and labeled “CCI 1894.” Driving east from Mansfield to Rocky Ridge Farm on State Highway A, you pass a water tower with “Mansfield Industrial Park” written on it, just at the turnoff to Highway U (the old road to Ava, Missouri). The base of the water tower is almost touching the south line of Carrie’s former land.

The Morgans attended the Methodist church with the Wilders, and Grant belonged to the Masonic lodge, as did Almanzo. The Morgans left Mansfield in 1905 and moved to Kansas, then to Sapulpa, Oklahoma, where Grant was foreman of tracks and buildings for the Oklahoma Union Railway. Andrew Stout continued to live on his farm just north of the Wilders, and at the time of his death in 1919 at age 79, he was considered one of Wright County’s oldest and finest citizens. Both Andrew Stout and Grant Morgan and other family members are buried in the Mansfield Cemetery, as are the Wilders. The Newells lived over 40 years in Wright County; Patric and Lillian Newell had 12 children (most of them born in Mansfield); in the early 1900s, they moved to Okfuskee County, Oklahoma. Patric Newell is buried in Okemah.


     

CHARLOTTE & THOMAS M. WHITE. Although Grant Morgan was shipped 1000 apple trees in the fall of 1893 to be planted on his father-in-law’s 40 acres, they were clearly not planted in a timely fashion, and his father-in-law sold the land out from under him. On March 19, 1894, Andrew Stout sold 40 acres to Thomas M. White for $375. This was a different configuration of 40 acres than the square forty referenced in Morgan’s deed. Still part of the SE 22, it didn’t include a 4-acre strip of land on the west, but had a 4-acre rectangle of land attached to the east. The deed of sale included nothing about the mortgage Grant Morgan had taken out in order to pay for the apple trees, nor did it mention that there was a lien on the property until that mortgage had been paid off. When Laura and Almanzo made their 1894 purchase from the Whites for $400 just six months later, Laura — in whose name the deed was registered — acknowledged and assumed the additional burden of the $140 owed to Stark Bro’s. However, the mortgage deed of release is in Grant Morgan’s name, not the Wilders’, and is dated September 22, 1898, suggesting that the Wilders paid Morgan in full prior to his first payment due date and that, he, in turn, paid off the mortgage.

According to the deed of sale dated September 21, 1894, Thomas and Charlotte White sold Laura E. Wilder part of the NW-SE Section 22 (36 acres) and part of the NE-SE Section 22 (4 acres) in Township 28N, Range 15W of the 5th Principle Meridian. It’s unclear (to me) who “Thomas M. and Charlotte M. White” were; they had no other land dealings in Wright County that I could find, although they were said to be living in Wright County at the time of the 1894 sale. The Whites may not have completed the tree planting, but they didn’t skip out of town, nor did the bank take over the land; the Wilders purchased it from the previous owner, who was present to participate in the sale. The Whites may have been Thomas Martin White (1850-1925) and his wife Charlotte Marie Knutson, from New Almelo, Kansas. This couple already had three children when twins were born in Kansas in July 1894; their next known (by me) location is Garfield County, Oklahoma. If you have any information about the Whites the Wilders purchased their farm from, please let me know!

Even if neither Thomas White nor Grant Morgan left “in the space of two days” as Rose remembered hearing, they weren’t the only foolish person to purchase trees without having first cleared the land on which to plant them – and to have a mortgage to pay for the trees – as the Wilders did the exact same thing. At least Mr. White made $25 on his six months’ of land ownership, whereas – because of the additional mortgage assumed – the Wilders ended up paying $540 for what the Whites had purchased six months earlier for $375.


     

THE WILDERS’ APPLE ORCHARD:
In On the Way Home (published 1962), Rose remembers 400 trees at the farm when the Wilders purchased the land.

In Laura’s 1912 “My Apple Orchard” article in Missouri Ruralist, written in the name of A.J. Wilder, Almanzo stated that “when he purchased the farm, there were 800 apple trees growing on it in nursery rows. Two hundred had been set out the spring before [meaning spring 1894, since the trees weren’t delivered until the fall of 1893], in an old worn out field.” These trees had been planted 25 feet apart in rows 32 feet apart.

In “The Story of Rocky Ridge Farm,” Almanzo stated that there was a $200 mortgage on the original forty acres, and that when they bought the farm, 4 acres were planted in apples and there were enough trees in nursery rows to plant 20 more acres. Both Ruralist articles are in agreement, as 200 trees spaced as described would have covered approximately 4 acres. Note that Grant Morgan’s purchase of 1000 apple trees agrees with Almanzo’s total. Links to both Ruralist articles can be found HERE. They can also be found in a published compilations.

There are several period photos that show Almanzo’s apple orchard and most can be found online or have been reprinted in books and articles over the years. In William Anderson’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography (HarperCollins, 1992) – see photos following page 64 – there is a wonderful picture of Rose with her donkey, Spookendyke, with orchard rows clearly visible in the background. After studying every photo of Rocky Ridge Farm that I could get my hands on, my uneducated guess is that Rose and friend are standing north of the barns, and the photographer was looking east. In the 1939 aerial photo of Rocky Ridge Farm, this area shows up as a large light-colored rectangle, suggesting that it was bare ground at the time of the photo, possibly recently-plowed vegetable garden or fenced barnyard or paddock. In the Anderson biography, the site drawing on pages 186-187 shows the hen house in this location. Note that the drawing shows no vegetable garden in sight; I don’t know where the Wilders’ vegetable garden was planted in proximity to the house. Do you?

Dating from a time when Laura and Almanzo were living on Rocky Ridge Farm, this 1939 aerial photograph shows parcels purchased in 1894 (Rocky Ridge Farm House), 1897, 1905 (where the new Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum is located), 1919 (Rock House forty acres), 1929 (now “Orchard House” property belonging to the Wilder Association), and 1899 (the old Mansfield to Macomb road cut through this land at the time of the purchase). The railroad tracks are south of the Wilder property and not shown in this photo. Do you see the original trails between the Farm House and Rock House?

TWENTY-FOUR ACRES OF APPLE TREES. It’s hard to know exactly which 24 of the original 40 acres were planted as orchard, but the fact that a separate 4-acre parcel of Stout’s homestead was included in the Wilders’ 1894 purchase along with Almanzo’s statement that 4 acres had been planted, strongly suggests that the 4-acre parcel was the location of the original 4-acre orchard (it’s also just south of where Andrew Stout himself lived and had his own orchard). County Road A now cuts this parcel almost in half, and the nursing home covers about half of the original 4 acre parcel. Although Almanzo said that he planted the remainder of his orchard with the same spacing as the existing trees had been planted (trees 25 feet apart in rows 32 feet apart), it’s unknown if Almanzo planted all of his orchard spaced as the original four acres were planted, or if some of the trees were planted closer together. It’s also not known how many trees Almanzo ended up planting. In 1893, the most well-known and widely-planted apple tree was the Ben Davis; that and Missouri Pippin were the trees Almanzo said he planted, so these must have been the trees supplied by Stark Bro’s to Grant Morgan. Ben Davis apples were hardy apples that shipped well, but they weren’t particularly tasty.

As some visitors may not be familiar with apple trees or orchard plantings, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home & Museum set out about a dozen apple trees to the east of the driveway from Highway A to the old museum and curator’s house (later the Rocky Ridge store, both razed in 2021). To show just how much of the original Wilder farm would have been required to plant a thousand trees at the suggested spacing, CLICK HERE to see my ridiculously large drawing which shows the 1894 purchase depicted at one pixel per foot and compares the drawing to 1839 and current aerial views. I love the detail in the current aerial and that the Japanese maple Rose planted is visible in all its red-leafed glory in this shot. Each “red dot” (at 6 feet wide, although apple trees can grow much “wider” than that) represents an apple tree at the suggested spacing. The 12 dots set apart from the others represent the group of apple trees currently growing at Rocky Ridge Farm; they’re not exactly in the right spot, but are shown in the general vicinity of the trees today, some of which have been planted more recently to help block the view of Orchard House from the museum grounds, it appears. Do you count a thousand dots, or did I miss a tree or two?

Note that the 1939 aerial shows the highway that had been built through Rocky Ridge Farm in the 1920s; there was no state highway or other public road cutting across the 1894 and 1905 acreage prior to that time. The “old road to town” was a continuation of the existing Hicks Cave Road which ran parallel to Fry Creek here and continued south towards the railroad tracks and then turned west into Mansfield. One can still see vestiges of the old continuation of Hicks Cave Road through the fence to the south of the intersection of Hicks Cave Road and Highway A, just west of the entrance to the new museum (see photo at the bottom of this entry). In On the Way Home, when Rose Wilder Lane describes her first trip from town to the farm with her parents, she is describing this old road from town. At the schoolhouse (which stood just north of the property Carrie Ingalls purchased), the old road turned south to follow alongside the railroad tracks, then it turned away from the tracks eastward across what is the Industrial Park property today. After about a quarter mile, the road turned north again to run beside Fry Creek before turning sharply uphill and onto the Wilder property. The Wilders built the farmhouse (shown as a black square) to face the old road.

The 1939 aerial is unique in that it shows both the old road from Mansfield to Macomb as well as the new highway, and that it was taken at a time when both Almanzo and Laura were still living in the farmhouse. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum is currently working to restore the 1894 parcel to how it looked in 1940. There was also a 1949 aerial; the two can be found here:
1939 aerial – www.pioneergirl.com/2021_09_24_aerial_1939.jpg
1949 aerial – www.pioneergirl.com/2021_09_24_aerial_1949.jpg

Taken from State Highway A just east of Rocky Ridge Farm, looking south at old road into Mansfield.

A quiet spot on Rocky Ridge Farm.

     

Rocky Ridge Farm (OTWH photos), see also “The Story of Rocky Ridge Farm” and “My Apple Orchard” (page 2 HERE)