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Helen Burkhiser

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If only Helen Burkhiser had read Little House on the Prairie when she first began teaching school in 1937, Mankato, Minnesota might be more prosperous than Minneapolis today, and you and I might be making soap by hand out of ashes and pigs fat.

As it happened, Burkhiser did not hear about Laura Ingalls Wilder for another 25 years. When she was teaching at Logan school in Moline, Illinois. A fellow teacher suggested Wilder's books for a unit Helen was teaching on pioneers.

Three chapters and Helen was hooked. Soon her fourth-grade class was pulling taffy, churning butter, dipping candles and shelling corn. The venison stew they served that Thanksgiving attracted the whole school.

Although Helen Burkhiser retired in 1982, she was unable to stop. Other schools asked her to put on pioneer programs. She began to dress and talk like Laura Ingalls Wilder, not only at school, but at area nursing homes and local clubs.

Soon she had transformed her basement into a prairie home with pioneer artifacts she collected. Here, for visiting elementary classes, she would read House on the Prairie books, pass around old implements and have students make apple butter and maple sugar candy.

She found herself teaching courses at Black Hawk College in Moline. Before long, she had moved from her basement to an 1845 pioneer stone house near Saukie golf course in Rock Island, where students could get a sense of how cramped a prairie home was. Eventually, it was difficult to tell where Wilder began and Burkhiser left off. Helen began leading tours to the Minnesota and South Dakota sites of the Wilder books.

Helen is an example of what can happen when a person gets hooked on books. Two generations of students have discovered an alternative to hanging out at the mall. I for one wish Helen had been hooked earlier. All of us Rock Islanders would be making soap, sliding down haystacks and going for Sunday visits with our horses and buggies.

The only downside would be that long semi-annual trip to Mankato, Minnesota for provisions: calico, salt and shoes. All of Wilder's pioneers had to go to Mankato at least once in every novel, and Helen would certainly have wanted us to all be authentic.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.