October 29, 2022 | Last updated May 1, 2023

Learning About Preservation From Virginia Lee Burton’s “The Little House”

Historic preservation seeks to honor the connection people inherently have between identity and place. Virginia Lee Burton’s classic, The Little House, speaks to that connection with the direct emotional resonance that makes children’s literature so powerful.

In a quickly-changing world, the need for old places becomes more and more apparent. Old places have roots to anchor us—they are receptacles of memory that help us to better understand our own identities. At its very core, historic preservation seeks to honor that connection people inherently have between identity and place.

Virginia Lee Burton’s classic The Little House (1942) speaks to the connection between place and identity with the direct emotional resonance that makes children’s literature so powerful. Burton tells the story of a Little House who happily shelters the family who built her until she is eventually abandoned and falls into a state of disrepair. Her misfortune changes when she is found by the great-great-granddaughter of the man who built her. Inspired by her happy childhood memories, the woman decides to purchase, rehabilitate, and then move her family into the Little House. 

While the Little House is undoubtedly the main protagonist of Burton’s tale, I want to focus on the great-great-granddaughter and the moment she decides to reclaim the house. Even in its decrepit state, the woman instantly remembers the house as “the Little House my grandmother lived in when she was a little girl.” Despite its faded paint and broken windows, the woman is still able to feel the love and pride of her family across time and space: the house has the power to transcend time, place, and generational differences.

The old places we cherish might not necessarily be on the National Register of Historic Places, but that does not diminish their importance. My great-grandmother’s old farmhouse in Western Nebraska is a sacred space for me. I have not been back there since she died and I doubt that I will ever return. But I still hold this place in my heart because of its precious memories. It’s the place where we made kolaches in the kitchen, where the adults played pinochle after dinner, and where all the grandkids slept in a big pile of sleeping bags and blankets in the living room.

I encourage you to ask a friend or family member the question: “Is there an old place special to you?” Their answer might surprise you, and you will learn a great deal about who they are and what they value.

A cross-stitch made by my great-grandmother

– Jessica Tebo

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