By Emily Oyos
For centuries, wilderness has been at the center of storytelling. From pictographs to oral histories to the written word, nature has provided a common thread connecting people across all times and places. Now for some 90 years, millions of children around the globe have envisioned one such natural place in their young minds—the Big Woods of Wisconsin. “The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees.” Published in 1932, Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder was the first installment of an eight-piece autobiographical book series, which would later be followed by various spinoff series, picture books, cookbooks, and a hit TV show.
But, were the “Big Woods” of Pepin, Wisconsin exactly as Laura described them? Now in 2022, 90 years after the original book was published, we decided to do a deep dive on this historic area and the small town of Pepin, located halfway between La Crosse and Minneapolis along the Mississippi River.
According to Laura’s childhood memory, her family was isolated in the Big Woods; there were no houses, people, or roads for miles. “As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods.” Today, we know that this was merely a childhood exaggeration; the Ingalls family was not nearly as secluded as Laura made them out to be. In fact, many of Laura’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins lived nearby to the north, including her uncle Henry Quiner’s family, who shared a 160-acre plot of land with the Ingalls.
It was on this plot of land where the famous “little gray house made of logs” sat. Although the original cabin is no longer standing, you can visit a replica at the Little House Wayside rest about seven miles northwest of Pepin. When visiting this area today, the first thing you might notice is the lack of “Big Woods.” While the area has since been converted to cornfields, it is very likely that the land was not as heavily forested in the 1860s and 1870s as Laura made it out to be. According to the original field survey notes for the Ingalls’ and Quiner’s property, the area had a varying degree of rolling oak-covered hills with thin to dense tree coverage.
The densely forested, true Big Woods were north of the Ingalls’ property. An early editor of the book, with less knowledge of the area, changed Laura’s wording to place the family directly in the Big Woods, thus confusing readers for years to come. The northern half of Pepin County, which was considered part of the Big Woods, consisted mainly of sugar maple, oak, and basswood forests.
Of course, with sugar maples come maple syrup tapping, originally discovered by Native Americans before the 17th century. This enjoyable forestry activity grew in popularity among pioneers in the late 1800s, with some having “sugar parties” as described in the chapters “The Sugar Snow” and “Dance at Grandpa’s.” “At supper time Pa and Grandpa came from the woods. Each had on his shoulders a wooden yoke that Grandpa had made. From each end hung a chain with a hook, and on each hook hung a big wooden bucket full of hot maple syrup.”
Although maple syrup tapping is still a labor-intensive process, thankfully, technological advancements have allowed us to increase production of this sweet treat while reducing the physical strain on our bodies. Wisconsin recently ranked 4th in the United States for maple syrup production, producing a total of 265,000 gallons in 2020. Does your family tap sugar maples or collect goods from your woods? What are some of your favorite activities to do on your property?
Due to the popularity of Little House in the Big Woods, the small town of Pepin, Wisconsin has become known around the world as the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her beloved book series. Ninety years later, people still visit Pepin to see the replica Little House and attend the annual Laura Days festival. While the Ingalls’ woods may have disappeared, the story of their family has continued. Your woods, however, can continue to stand the test of time with proper management and care. Ninety years from now, what legacy do you hope to leave behind in your woods? What stories do your woods tell that should be carried down for generations to come?
About the Author
Growing up on the Dakota prairie, Emily was captivated by the adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family. For a while, she even wished her name was Laura. Today, Emily works as the Landowner Education and Services Associate at the Aldo Leopold Foundation, a partner of My Wisconsin Woods.
In researching for this article, Emily was very disappointed to learn that the beloved Ingalls’ family bulldog, Jack, was left behind in Wisconsin when they moved to Kansas. Laura continued to include him in her books because she and her sisters had loved him so much. An interesting but sad factoid for all of the Little House fans out there.
- Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder (Author) and Pamela Smith Hill (Editor)