Imagine Northeast Iowa

A blogging extravaganza by, for, & about Northeast Iowa.

Unexpected Extras in Burr Oak Iowa
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Unexpected Extras in Burr Oak Iowa

It was a Saturday. It was raining. And we were antsy. Maybe you know the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in a glass bottle? That was the overall energy of the family.

We narrowed our adventure selection to the old pioneer town of Burr Oak, located in Northeast Iowa. Burr Oak is best known for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park & Museum, but did you know this small town is also home of the first bank robbery in Winneshiek County?

To buy musuem tour tickets for the Masters Hotel, the three-story structure where Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family lived and worked in 1876-1877, we had to walk across the street to the Visitors Center.

What a fantastic find! The Visitors Center is the restored Burr Oak Bank – the exact location where the bank robbery took place in 1931 (long after Laura Ingalls Family had moved away). Visitors can walk through the original vault where hostages were held, read newspaper clippings and glimpse at photographs of the well-dressed bank robbers. These displays are free and well worth 30-40 minutes of your time.

Museum tour tickets include a personal tour guide - we encouraged her to finish her cup of coffee before braving the rain to cross the street back to the Masters Hotel.

Maybe it was the curious perceptions of our tour guide, maybe it was my mood or my evolving awareness of how closely connected we are to history and the strong energy it portrays. Let’s just say that even I am surprised at what I took away from the hour tour.

First, I’ll be upfront – the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family was never published any of her nine books. Maybe it’s because she referred to Burr Oak as dirty. To be fair it was a busy town with over 200 wagons traveling through on dirt roads daily as noted in her unpublished handwritten manuscript that lay on the check-in counter on display. The family discovered the Masters Hotel during their travels through Burr Oak. Laura was age 9 at the time. By looking at the front of the Masters Hotel, it seems small, but is indeed three full floors full of furnishing, artifacts and photographs.  

After a brief introduction of the historical site the tour guide pointed out that we had entered through the "men only" door and where now standing in "The Travel Room" - a space intended only for men to smoke, chew, gamble and drink.  After a lengthy uncomfortable pause my son and I were informed that we would have had to enter through "The Parlor" door which leads to a much happier space and houses a working piano and good lighting.

Interestingly, this hotel offered lodging for men only, 25 cents per person.  Three men would be required to share a bed with each man sleeping sideways in a bed so small that I'm certain their knees cascaded toward the floor.  Come to think of it, I didn't think to ask where the women lodged - for their sake I'm hoping there was a nice 4-star hotel nearby.

The basement was my favorite part of the tour - this is where the Ingalls Family worked and slept.  Ma worked in the kitchen cooking three meals daily for several guests.  The daughters were required to serve the meals at large tables in the basement space. Considering their ages at the time were 11, 9 and 6 - this was quite a responsibility. The family of five slept in a tiny bedroom a few feet from the kitchen and would move even closer during the winter months to stay warm near the stove.

I'm beginning to think that the Laura Ingalls Wilders' of our world were futurists, somehow knowing that by leaving their words and artifacts behind that they would mystify curious minds.  I also conclude that I've uncovered more questions than answers in our journey so the next time the family is antsy, you might guess where we will venture with so much more to explore.

  1. Pebbles
    I love this place. I have been going here since I was a child and bring my children here! I also live near the Braille School in Vinton where Mary first attended blind school. I have read all the books as well. I feel extremely connect to Burr Oak, Bluffton, Cresco, Canton, and Decorah just to name a few.

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