How My "Little House" Fantasies Helped Me Downsize

Did you read the Little House on the Prairie books when you were younger?  I read all of them several times from about age 8 to age 11.  This was still a few years before Little House became a TV show starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert (which told a story quite different from the fact-based narrative of the books).  My younger sister, however, became passionate about the show and had to watch it every week without fail.

Jennifer even turned a box into an elaborate log cabin diorama for a school book report.  My mom (a crafting genius) helped her, and I pitched in to glue popsicle sticks painted with wood stain for a plank floor, weave tiny rag rugs, quilt a cover for the little bed, and create a small fireplace and chimney out of craft stones, glue, and Mod Podge.

I guess we were all a little obsessed.

log cabin

Starting over

Those 19th century American pioneers, like Little House's Ingalls family, were literally starting over, heading for a land they knew almost nothing about.  Minimalists by necessity, they would have chosen the most useful and versatile items available.  Their few sentimental keepsakes (like Ma's china shepherdess) would have been both meaningful and portable.

What was packed into the typical covered wagon?  Keep in mind that most of them were only about twelve feet long and four feet wide, so families would have left almost all of their possessions behind when they decided to emigrate.

The most important cargo on the nearly 2,000-mile trek was food – beans, rice, cornmeal, flour, lard, salted bacon or dried meat, sugar, salt, coffee, tea, and perhaps some dried fruit.  Basic kitchen items, such as an iron skillet, Dutch oven, coffee pot, and tin plates and cups would have been included.

A canvas tent did double duty as the wagon cover.  Pioneers would have packed blankets, a change or two of clothing, needles and thread, and first aid supplies.  Tools, candles, rope, chains, and a rifle and gunpowder would also have made the list of necessities.

Extras might have included letters, a treasured daguerreotype or tintype photograph, or the family Bible.  A patchwork quilt made with pieces of loved ones' clothing might be wrapped around a pair of silver candlesticks or an heirloom mantel clock.  Some travelers, like Pa Ingalls, brought small musical instruments such as fiddles or harmonicas.

When grazing and water became scarce and the oxen pulling the wagons weakened or died, heavy items – if you were foolish enough to carry them – had to be left along the side of the trail.  Fort Laramie in Wyoming earned the nickname "Camp Sacrifice" because of the furniture, sewing machines, grandfather clocks, pianos, iron stoves, anvils, and crates of china and books that littered the area.

Dreams of a simpler life

When my husband and I moved into our 800-square-foot apartment* several years ago, I had fantasies of leading a very minimalist lifestyle.  We were starting over, and I wanted to move only what we needed and used, with just a few special items for beauty and enjoyment.

* Yes, I know it's much bigger than a one-room log cabin.

Jon accused me of hanging onto my childhood fascination with Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I had practically memorized Little House in the Big Woods and all of its cozy sequels.*

* This blog is reader-supported.  If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.

I have a pioneer heritage.  My great-grandparents were homesteaders in Mariposa County, not too far from Yosemite.  My grandfather even traveled in a covered wagon when his family visited relatives in Oregon when he was two years old.  My mom was born in her grandparents' old hand-built house, lived for almost a year in their barn, and started first grade in the one-room schoolhouse just down the road.  She and my dad are now buried in the old family cemetery.

So why shouldn't I dream of packing everything I own into a wagon (or the smallest U-Haul truck) so I can be free to make a new life and find new challenges?

I've always been a neatnik – just ask Jennifer, who shared my room growing up, or my husband of nearly 40 years.  I like to clean and organize my drawers and shelves, and I've always felt comfortable having a place for everything and everything in its place.  But I used to fit as much as possible into every space, and prided myself on my efficiency.  My mom did the same.  The house didn't look messy, but it was packed full.

So our small apartment was a clean slate, an empty canvas – choose whichever metaphor you like to describe a situation where we thoughtfully, intentionally added only what we needed, used, and loved.  With an empty apartment and time to plan our move, we had the opportunity to be mindful about what we kept, sold, or donated.  

It was surprising how much we owned that didn't make the cut.

Yes, this was MY fantasy, not necessarily Jon's.  There was a certain amount of compromise.  But I was still inspired by my Little House dreams.

All we really need

In the end, pioneers needed what we all need for survival:

  • adequate food
  • clean water (cholera killed many)
  • good health and a fit body (most walked 15-20 miles every day over rough terrain)
  • the help, encouragement, and company of each other

Those who tried to carry too many extras wound up tossing them to increase their odds for success.

While most of us are blessed with many more articles of comfort, entertainment, and decoration than the pioneers, it's sometimes good for us to remember that they are embellishments of life, not requirements.

What would you want in your little house?

This post was adapted from a section of my book, Downsize Now: The Joy of Decluttering for a Fresh Start.  Whether you actually move from your current home into a smaller living space, or undertake a radical challenge like the Packing Party, you have a chance to reinvent yourself and carry just the essentials into your new life.  By releasing all of those accumulated items, you gain freedom and energy.  You'll enjoy less housework and less stress, plus more room, more time, and more money for what matters most to you.

Buy your copy of Downsize Now, and get tons of practical advice and ideas so you can start enjoying those good things today.


  1. I love this post and your writings are always beautiful. I’ve always dreamed of a little log house with just the necessities. I’ve been decluttering for years anticipating downsizing in the future, as I’m heading toward 72 and my husband is 84. Thank you for all your posts! You are one of my most favorite writers!

    1. Thank you so much! Good luck on your downsizing journey.


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