Baby's First Obsession

When I was a kid I was totally and utterly obsessed with what I called prairie times. Some might refer to it the 1800’s or, nothing at all.

This obsession started long before I ever set sight on the game the Oregon Trail, but clearly I was not alone in my fascination. There is something pretty catchy about the concept of bonnet-donned people surviving on an oscillation of one day being undoubtedly painfully bored gazing at some grain, and then the next day attempting to fight off life-threatening illness sans penicillin while floating a wagon across a f-ing river. Remarkable, really.

My own obsession was launched with a burning passion when I started reading the based-on-real-life book series Little House on the Prairie *. I ate those things up. But it wasn’t the main character and author Laura Ingalls Wilder who really piqued my interest. I didn’t idolize her at all.

No, I was far more intrigued by Laura’s older, blonder, more beautiful and elusive sister Mary Ingalls. That gal had intrigue. As an added bonus, at some point in the series Mary got Scarlet Fever** and went blind***. This about sent my shock value and fascination meter off the charts. How horrible…ly interesting!

*A TV series of the same name had already graced the American public’s screens at this point in history, but my family home would still not have cable for like one million years. I don’t actually think I ever saw that show and I’m not going to start now and risk ruining the visualizations I created in my head while reading the novels, thank you very much.

**I too, had Scarlet Fever, but let’s save my stories of mysterious and outdated childhood illnesses for another day. Okay fine I’ll give a summary real quick: chronic stress.

**Upon further research just now, I discovered that important professionals (of some sort) don’t buy the whole “going blind from Scarlet Fever” charade. Mary did have it, but way before she went blind. It has been determined that Mary actually went blind from a bout of meningitis, but that Laura changed the diagnosis to the far more relatable disease of Scarlet Fever for her book as it was uptrending at the time, making notable appearances in both Frankenstein and Little Women.

Hashtag Scarlet Fever.

Now, my own fascination with all things prairie times did not start and stop with devouring the Ingalls family tales. No. Upon discovering this era of now-dead pioneers, I felt that I had found my people.

In support of my desire to live like them, my mother outfitted me in the clothes of my prairie dreams. You know, an uncomfortable dress, a sweet bonnet, some white ruffled bloomers that reached the ankles. Vintage of course, I’m no phony.

But I didn’t want to just play pretend, I wanted to live this romanticized reality–so we spent some time hanging out at Columbia State Historic Park, the preserved remainders of a former California Gold Rush town.

baby’s first obsession pioneer

Here’s me in front of the saloon.

Now, most of the people hanging out at Columbia are just touristing around, taking pictures of the old Wells Fargo and eating gobs of rock candy from Nelson’s Candy Kitchen. Because they’re not psycho. I on the other hand, could out-pioneer the docents who were there to perform and set the mood in era-appropriate dress.

I did actually inquire about working as a docent myself, but given the fact that I was eight-years-old and would have required a parent to A: drive me to the Mother Lode every weekend, and B: accompany me while I worked, sadly, these dreams were never realized.

Despite my visits to Columbia therefore being limited in nature, I considered my commitment to character far and above anyone else’s, dismissing compliments on my very authentic outfit without so much as a wave or smile. I had shit to do.

My favorite activities to accomplish in a day at Columbia included the following:

1. Attending Fake School

I absolutely loved parking my bloomered butt on the seat of wooden desk in the old schoolhouse. I would just sit there and fantasize about being a student in a hot, boring, class while trying to not move a muscle*, because if you wiggled in class in the 1800’s you would get whipped. I’m not going to get into an extensive psychoanalysis on myself here, but like I said, chronic stress.

*Similarly, when I read Island of the Blue Dolphins I was inspired to sit on my folded legs for as long as possible to emulate the experience that the main character does after riding in a canoe for too long. She gets to land and can’t stand. I tried to do this once in a car ride. What an adorable little masochist/method actor! Why do you think I moved to Hollywood.

2. Visiting the Cemetery

Ah yes, in addition to fantasizing about near misses in the abusive schoolroom, I liked to visit the cemetary. It was a real cemetery, old and undoubtedly haunted with little pioneer children. That’s what I looked for, the gravestones for children. And their ghosts.

I would calmly walk through the cemetery and try to imagine what might have happened between the years of 1880 and 1885 that took the life of dear Ella-Beth, who, based on my estimations of outdated bathing rituals, probably experienced fewer than 500 baths in her entire existence. What could have possibly happened to dear Ella-Beth! A snakebite maybe. But Scarlet Fever, most likely. What a shame.

I, on the other hand, survived my Scarlet Fever. And got my tonsils taken out. Eventually I would graduate from pretending to be a pioneer to pretending to be a figure skater, which again, was inspired by a fascinating and high-stakes book series that introduced me to an entirely new world, this time called Silver Blades. It featured all the strict adherence to physical routine I so dearly loved, but with higher payoffs – those books had trophies.


Kate Ferguson