Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2006 | People

Wild About Wilder: Sarah Uthoff

By Shelbi Thomas
Sarah Uthoff has used her Laura Ingalls Wilder expertise to judge "Miss Laura" contests and train staff at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum in Burr Oak.

Most people would see simply an ordinary dirt road on the outskirts of DeSmet, South Dakota. For Sarah Uthoff, though, the path whisked her back in time and into the footsteps of the historical character who's shaped her life in unexpected ways.

Ever since she read the Little House on the Prairie books as a child, Uthoff, 95BA, 98MA, has been fascinated with the life and times of their author, Laura Ingalls Wilder. On a recent visit to DeSmet, home to several locations mentioned in the Prairie books, she walked along a dirt track with a slight rise.

"I couldn't see anything [modern]," she says. "I thought, 'Laura probably walked this road.' I felt like I was in the book."

Indeed, Uthoff could often be mistaken for a character from pioneer America. The reference librarian at Cedar Rapids' Kirkwood Community College regularly dons period clothing to bring Wilder's prairie adventures to life for a new generation of readers. Uthoff first researched Wilder and her pioneer lifestyle for a fourth-grade 4H presentation. Now, she's knowledgeable enough to educate and entertain audiences at events including the annual Laura Ingalls Wilder Remembered Day at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch.

Although she loves the books for their old-fashioned family values, good role models, and historical accuracy, she sometimes struggles to translate them for today's youngsters. During one classroom presentation, her reference to a ranch stumped her young audience, most of whom knew a ranch only as a one-story house inhabited by grandparents. "Even in Iowa, you have to work at explaining farming," Uthoff says. "Some kids genuinely believe that food just appears in the supermarket."    

Her collection of Wilder- and pioneer-related items such as corncob dolls and tin lanterns fills the rooms of her family farmhouse outside Iowa City. A cousin once said that "Laura took over your life," and Uthoff admits to being "obsessive" about Wilder. One of Wilder's stories that she presents contains elements of Uthoff's own family history. "I feel like I understand Laura because, as Midwestern farm women, our family experiences are tied together in many ways," she says.

As you'd expect from a former history major, Uthoff is passionate about keeping alive the story of frontier America. "It's important to know how we got here. You don't understand the whys if you don't understand the hows," she says. "Some people think history starts from the time they were born."