Lets Talk Prairie

The Mountain Farmgirl has had a lifelong passion for the Little House books and for pioneer life in general (of which the Mary Jane World was just a natural extension). Far from being alone in this, she discovered this week that there are some whose obsession runs as deeply as hers … or even deeper! Join the Mountain Farmgirl as she courts this deeply-ingrained farmgirl obsession in, “Let’s Talk Prairie!”

Who amongst us has never read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House’ books? … or seen the TV series  … full of wonderful family values (though with more than a few historical inaccuracies)?  For me, this back-to-the-land obsession all began in the second grade when my Brownie troop took a field trip to a local living history museum. This wonderful place, called the Museum Village at Smith Clove, was a replica of a generic 19th century town consisting of historical buildings that had been purchased and moved to the site. In addition to the church, the one-room schoolhouse, the blacksmith, pottery and print shops, there were broommaker’s , candlemaker’s, weaver’s & cobbler’s  shops,  a dress emporium, general store,  an apothecary shop, cider mill … and my favorite one of all, an ancient log cabin dating back to the last quarter of the 18th century! The moment my 2nd grade legs and I walked inside it, I was hooked! I knew in an instant that my world would never be the same ever again --- and it practically took a crowbar for my troop leader to pry me out. I never wanted to leave! … And quite frankly, since that moment back in 1962, I never have! (Who knew that I would one day have an adorable little log cabin of my very own?!  Coincidentally, after college I got a job at that very same museum demonstrating all the various crafts and aspects of pioneer life, from blacksmithing to candle making and everything in-between; but truth be told, the little log cabin, where I demonstrated open hearth cookery, spinning and weaving was always my favorite one of all!). Here I am at the museum (I’m on the left) with my fellow Brownie friends that day in the 2nd grade:

Since my “log cabin conversion” that fateful day, I have been a pioneer girl at heart, visiting museums and historical sites, and reading every related thing I could ever get my hands on. Shortly after my 2nd grade trip, my mom, recognizing my love of all things historical, took me to a local museum called the Bull Stone House.  It was named after the first white pioneer settlers in

 our county (William Bull and his wife Sarah Wells), who built a massive stone house (he had been a mason back in England) and settled there … less than a mile from my house!! It had a real Indian lookout in the attic (I once found an arrowhead amongst the bean plants in our garden, and now that I think about it, I’ll add it to my list of ‘Sacred Objects’ that I wrote about in my last blog). In

addition to an old Dutch barn, the Bull Stone House also had a natural spring that ran through a portion of the kitchen, right over the bedrock that made up part of the floor! Talk about modern conveniences … this was the original “running water” back in the early 1700s! It meant that Sarah wouldn’t have to lug water from an outside well in an untamed land for her twelve children when William was away from home. There was also huge fireplace downstairs in the kitchen, with a high mantle (big and tall enough for my entire family to stand up in … and it had a flintlock rifle hanging over the mantle. It made a big impression on me, with all its iron pots on the hearth and hanging on the crane over the fire. It warmed my heart to see them, as it still does to this day when I go back for the family’s annual picnic (Today there are many thousands of descendants). I remember that my eyes were as big as saucers as one of the resident family members, Mike Brown, gave my mom and me a personal tour. He showed us the linen wedding dress that Sarah had somehow found the time to weave the cloth for from flax, fashion into a beautiful dress for one of her daughters, and (as if that were not feat enough), then embellish with embroidery. As someone who loved to sew even back then, I was enthralled! (Who knew that I would one day have the good sense to marry into this family, that Mike would become a dear friend, and that one day my children and I would volunteer our time there for one of our home schooling projects? But that is a longer story best left for another day)!

As I said before, I’m obsessed with the pioneer, homesteading lifestyle. I started satisfying the itch first by reading about it, then exploring related crafts and making things “from scratch” --- until I was old enough to live as a back-to-the-lander myself.  As a child I read everything I could find, the Little House on the Prairie series being just one in a long line of the genre. Things like “Letters from a Woman Homesteader”, a real journal of a widowed woman who makes her way out west to stake a claim with her young daughter … and the first travel guide to the Oregon Trail, which helped lead the way west for the Donner party, the ones who ultimately met with a gruesome fate. I also love the many historical novels of Janice Holt Giles, which chronicle the settlement of Kentucky. They are wonderful! Then there were Davy Crocketts and Daniel Boone’s autobiographies, as well as books by the Nearings, all non-fictional accounts of people actually ‘walking’ the ‘talk’. I always came back to the Little House books, though.  They were


enchanting adventures, even if they were mostly fictional accounts based loosely on Laura’s life. Much of them, it is speculated, were actually written by her daughter Rose.   A lot of this I learned in a new book I picked up this week by Wendy McClure called “The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie”. Its author, a fellow ‘Laura’phile, obsessed about the books and the prairie life long enough to act upon it more than most. It started innocently enough by churning butter and making Long Winter bread in which she ground wheat in a hand-grinding coffee mill.  We’ve all done that, right? Somehow though, she, like a few other authors who have written about their Little House adventures along the ole ‘Laura trail’, made the jump from ‘churning’ to ‘chasing’ … by that I mean visiting Laura’s many homes and other places mentioned in the book.
I remember reading a book once, written by a young homeschooled girl who did that very thing. (Once the prairie-bug bites, you never quite know just where it will take you)! This girl convinced her family to get an RV (which they dubbed “The Prairie Schooner”, and made a pilgrimage from the Big Woods of Wisconsin on westward, producing a glossy hard-covered photo-journal called “Searching for Laura Ingalls”. It was lovely, making me wish secretly (and not so secretly) that I could do the same with my children. We, however, had neither the time nor money to undertake such an adventure, and instead, we lived the life as fully as we could rather than just looking in from the outside by following the trail that Laura had taken long before us.

If any of you are as smitten as I with what I call ‘the prairie life’ (an idealized, romanticized vision to be sure … because REAL prairie life was just downright hard and unforgiving), there are plenty of ways you can share it with your family. Aside from churning butter, grinding grain and making bread, on our homestead we built a beehive and produced our own honey. Well, okay, the bees did, but we collected and bottled it.  YUM!  In-between winter and spring, we tapped the maple trees that volunteered their sap and we boiled it into syrup, maple snow and some of the other sweet delicacies that Laura describes in her books.
Then there were the chickens. We hatched them, we raised them, we all built them a chicken coop and a movable pen so that they could free-range to their heart’s delight (well, within certain confines, that is).  It never occurred to me to wallpaper our henhouse, but next time ‘round you can be sure it will be stylish as well!  How I loved the chickens and collecting the eggs, but that was as far as my prairie sensibilities would take me on this subject. Shamefacedly, I must admit that I can’t stand eggs … never have. ‘Probably never ate more than one bite in my whole life – enough to know that bite would be my last -- but I love to bake with fresh eggs for my family!  Same goes for milk … can’t drink it personally, but that never stopped me from getting my sweet little pygmie goat, Chloe, who was a member of the family for many years.


Yes, we ‘played’ prairie, but we also relied on it for real in some ways, too, as when we grew much of our own fruits and vegetables, built a root cellar and a  pantry worthy of the names, and put by much of our own food for winter, which we cooked on a real wood-burning cook-stove. (Confession time again: I’ve  been a vegetarian since the time we raised cows and pigs on our Chester farm and butchering time came round. My mom, farm girl that she was, could butcher and dress a duck or a chicken faster than you could say ‘Henny Penny’, but I drew the line when it came time to saying  goodbye to ‘Squeak’, ‘Curly’,  ‘Piggle’ and ‘Brown Eyes’ (our cow).  That’s when I started raising veggie burgers instead!



For our home schooling family, ‘prairie life’ was also an academic exercise. We followed the Prairie Primer curriculum one year, even using McGuffy Readers and Ray’s Arithmetic books, the ones that Laura and Mary actually used. (This was a curriculum choice at which the author of ‘The Wilder Life’, Wendy McClure, pokes endless fun and ridicule. But I let those comments roll right off my back. We also had ‘the Big Green Book’ … the one Pa used to take off the shelves to show the girls the wonders of nature.  Our copy has an authentic gilted cover like ‘Pa’s’ and is a real treasure.


Another fun project for my kids and me was a series of cross-stitch kits that we bought. I saw them originally at a homeschool fair, and bought a “Z” kit for our daughter, Zia as a present. In addition to stitching the sampler, which contained a bible verse using the first letter of her name, it had a wealth of related crafts (such as making soap, candles, etc), stories, a cooking project, and all sorts of supplementary ideas. It was so much fun that we each ended up buying a kit to correspond with the first letter of our own first names, and after they were done, we kept on going right on down the alphabet. We eventually made them all into a quilt, which is currently in our daughter’s hope chest for the future.
For me, ‘Prairie life’ is akin to Farmgirl-ness … that is, it's a condition of the heart. I imagine it is the same with others, too.  It has been in my blood since the second grade, and has expressed itself in various ways over the years. Does anyone else have that same connection?  How does it manifest for YOU?
Until next time,
Mountain Bounty, Mountain Blessings,
The Mountain Farmgirl



By: Shari
On: 10/03/2011 08:10:44
I hear you! I am a Prairie Girl too! Well, a coastal prairie girl, but yes, I have always been obsessed with the old ways. My fiancee's family founded our town, so we have a similar thing going on there too. We sometimes participate in reenactments at the old adobe homestead, and I am extremely into embroidery, sewing, cooking from scratch, etc. Read Prairie Girl's Guide to Life, there are some fine crafts and activities in it! Blessings
By: Ellen Waff
On: 10/03/2011 10:01:24
I did much the same with my three daughters, but had Tasha Tudor as my role model. Her illustrations are set in New Hampshire and Vermont....closer to home for me. We all read the 'Little House" books, and loved them (of course). My youngest daughter is the Program head, and Assistant Manager of Historic Yates Mill Park in Raleigh, NC. She puts on 'Laura Ingalls-based' programs there for children (many homeschoolers) including one on "The Long Winter".
By: Sandie Block
On: 10/03/2011 10:34:15
Dear Cathi,
Oh my gosh - your blog is a full circle moment for me. In 1974 & in my early 20's, I moved from Queens, NY to Highland Mills, NY. At some point, I went with a group of friends to a Bluegrass & Arts Festival at Museum Village & had my first opportunity to wander around & when I walked into that very same little log cabin, I was changed forever. I still think about the cabin now 40 years later & that feeling that I got when I walked through the doorway. I thought "I could so live here!!" I also remember a wonderful Herb Day at the Bull Stone House that I attended. I live on Oklahoma now, with a different sort of pioneer history, but I often think back on my time in Orange County - Highland Mills, Chester & eventually Warwick, my favorite town & filled with so much history. Thanks for sharing this story - it really brought me back...
By: Joan
On: 10/03/2011 10:38:18
Oh Cathi - what a wonderful morning you gave me - traveling into the past. Yes this was somewhat the way I was raised and I would have loved to live the complete 'Ingalls' way of life and if only more of us would learn to share the 'good' life with our children and grandchildren - they will never be lonely or alone - they will always have LIFE to remember. God Bless
By: brigitte farmgirl in the heart
On: 10/03/2011 15:58:05
About each end of summer...When the leaves start to lost there green and wear there red, orange and yellow colors...I feel a call...The pioners call! Insted of reading the Laura Ingalls books, I put my CD's and look at the original Little house on the prairie...It feel so cosy... I was very surprise to reed that you were a vegeterian...BRAVO! I'm too! And my littles chikens and goats really appreciate that too! Long life to you!
By: Lorri
On: 10/03/2011 17:07:05
Loved this blog post. I have always wanted to be a prairie girl and took it as far as I could living in the city. I garden, can, bake,sew and plan to actually build a small chicken coop this coming spring. I have read the Little house books my entire life and recently visited Laura's home in Missouri. I could have stayed there all week!
By: anita
On: 10/03/2011 19:37:33
I have always been enamored with Laura Ingalls and her books as well. My third daughter shared my passion when she was a grade schooler and I was so pleased that one year she wanted to be Laura Ingalls for Halloween! I read each of the books out loud to my family several times through out the years. I've been a city girl most of my life, but when my husband lost his job 3 years ago we began a new way of life and a new way of looking at things! I never thought I would be thankful for that job loss. Since then we have 4 different gardens in our yard. I'm trying to convince my husband why we need chickens! A goat would be awesome! My husband told someone that I am actually a very good cook now.:0) I made my first batch of shampoo yesterday and it is fantastic! Yes, when I visit museums and those little places that take you back in time I feel the same way!
By: Juanita Massey
On: 10/03/2011 19:53:32
Hi cathi, I so enjoyed your blog and I feel the same way and I like the older ways, I cooi from scratch and I grow asmall garden and put up every thing I can. I have asmall herb garden also.
I feel the same way about the Amish people, I read every thing I can and I do admire these people, I go to Lancaster Pa several times a year and I actually get depressed when I hve to come home. I tell myself this is sinful, but I love it there. I wish I could live up there and My husband loves it to. I have always dreamed of living on a farm and living as close to the land as possible. Love the little house series. So we are sort of kindred spirits. Thanks Juanita
By: Barbara Whitebread
On: 10/03/2011 20:42:29
This blog hit me in a very personal way! I read the "Little House" books many times over as a child and LOVED them. When I read them, I was completely in Laura's world. My parents bought property(here in Kansas) that had 16 acres with woods, three springs that spilled into a pond that had a marsh on the back side where blue herons nested and then walked around the edge of the pond. The pond spilled into a creek. It was pure heaven to me. The wildlife was abundant. I remember hearing various kinds of owls talking to each other at night. So, your blog took me down memory lane, in more ways than one. It was very comforting! Thank you for sharing Cathi :) !!!!
By: Roxanne
On: 10/05/2011 07:10:12
Yes, let's talk 'prairie'!
I have 2 comments to express on this theme of your blog.
First, I am another Tasha Tudor lover, she has been my role model with her life style, her strength and inspriation for yrs and have read everything I could ever find on her.
Secondly, the book you mentioned, 'Letters from a Woman Homesteader'. As I looked it up and read a few page incerpts, I kept thinking this sounds so familiar and then when Elinore mentioned her husband Clyde... I realized I own the video called, "Heartland, A Wilderness Women/Filmhaus Production". This brutal prairie life is so well depicted and I would recommend this film to anyone not only the prairie gal. It made me realize how EASY our lives are now; they were able to endure their hardships both physically & emotionally with faith, courage, and strength. These women were tough little cookies.
I feel such a kinship with 'prairie gals' so it was such a delight to read your 'prairie' blog, Thanks!
By: Brenda
On: 10/05/2011 16:34:38
My first big girl books. Loved them, collected them and then found more as an adult about Laura's life after the last in the series. My youngest daughter has taken them all with her when she moved from home because she loved them also. I have made many hand made items for Christmas over the years, I think it all started after reading Laura Wilder books and the gifts they gave each other.
By: Stef
On: 10/06/2011 08:41:09
Little House books were my very favorite. I read them 4 times, and am very thankful that my Mom saved them for me.
I can still remember the print on the 'prairie girl' dress my mom made for me in 4th grade for Halloween. I wore it throughout the year.
By: Lady in Pearls
On: 10/10/2011 21:12:29
My goodness, it is nice to know there are other country girls out there! This post took me back to growing up and hunting in rural parts of Texas, as well as reading the 'Little House' books with my mom. My hair was always very long, and I remember begging my mom to braid it like Laura's. I learned how to track deer, grow a garden, shoot and properly dress animals-all before I learned how to read! I feel these things were just as important to my early education as letters and numbers. It is understandable that my idea of prairie life is also overly romanticized, but something that I find romantic about the period is the wash basins and pitchers! Although there is no necessity for that now with indoor plumbing, seeing the beautiful porcelain sets at my grandmothers' houses and at antique shops always make me swoon about the frontier and Victorian eras. Your posts are wonderful and always excite my inner-farmgirl, thanks for sharing!
By: barb
On: 10/17/2011 15:20:13
I have always loved the little house books. Two years ago, my husband indulged me and we went on a "chick" vacation, up to DeSmet SD, Walnut Grove MN, BUrr Oak IA, and Pepin WI.
My husband loved it so much, we went to Mansfield MO last year to complete the tour of her life. What fun we had!
By: Sharon
On: 11/07/2011 11:31:48
Hi Cathi,

Thank you for making my day. I have been a pioneer girl at heart since reading On The Banks of Plum Creek at age 6. That book served as a gateway to the whole Little House series and helped shape who I am today. These books have been a lifelong source of comfort and inspiration. This summer I read Wendy McClure's book, The Wilder Life. This book brought one of my life long dreams to life - visiting all of the Little House sites. Your blog has reminded me that I want to make that dream a reality and need to work on that this year. Thank you for helping us all reconnect to what brings us together. :)
By: Sherri Farley
On: 11/13/2011 05:13:18

I live very close to Laura Ingalls Wilders's home in Mansfield Missouri. It's a lovely place to visit, and of course my daughter loved her books as a child. I grew up in the Qzark's and come from a long line of pioneers, it's a part of who I am. I am proud of that self-reliant, independent spirit I have inherited from my ancestors. I also make cloth dolls reminiscent of the pioneer doll just like Laura's Charlotte. Love your blog!

Thanks so much for sharing, Sherri. It is so nice to hear from you. We come from good, hearty stock! Love your website and your patriotism, not to mention your dolls. Miss Effie is a charmer!! ... and those clothes ... magnificent!  Thanks for stopping by. - Cathi

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Cathi Belcher

Cathi Belcher,
an old-fashioned farmgirl with a pioneer spirit, lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As a “lifelong learner” in the “Live-Free-or-Die” state, she fiercely values self-reliance, independence, freedom, and fresh mountain air. Married to her childhood sweetheart of 40+ years (a few of them “uphill climbs”), she’s had plenty of time to reinvent herself. From museum curator, restaurant owner, homeschool mom/conference speaker, to post-and-beam house builder and entrepreneur, she’s also a multi-media artist, with an obsession for off-grid living and alternative housing. Cathi owns and operates a 32-room mountain lodge. Her specialty has evolved to include “hermit hospitality” at her rustic cabin in the mountains, where she offers weekend workshops of special interest to women.

“Mountains speak to my soul, and farming is an important part of my heritage. I want to pass on my love of these things to others through my writing. Living in the mountains has its own particular challenges, but I delight in turning them into opportunities from which we can all learn and grow.”

Column content copyright © 2010– Cathi Belcher. All rights reserved.

Mountain Bounty

“Keep close to Nature’s heart ... and break clear away once in awhile to climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods, to wash your spirit clean.”
– John Muir