Discover Walnut Grove, the Minnesota Home of Laura Ingalls Wilder
By Erica Wacker
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"Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam. Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home."
- John Howard Payne
Pa Ingalls sat down with his fiddle and sang this tune one evening at his family's home on the outskirts of Walnut Grove, Minnesota. A devastating grasshopper plague had wiped out his wheat fields and any chance at earning a living that year, forcing him to walk hundreds of miles east to find work. When he finally returned home, he took his wife and three girls to town to buy them new clothes and food, restoring the Ingalls family's faith in better days ahead.
One of those girls was Laura, who made this and many other stories from her childhood famous in the nine "Little House" books she wrote and published with her own daughter, Rose. The fourth book in the series, "On the Banks of Plum Creek," chronicles her family's time in the southwest Minnesota prairie, where a museum, pageant and several other sites give Laura Ingalls Wilder fans from around the world a peek into the American pioneer life.
Little did the Ingalls family know that, long after they left Walnut Grove, they would become the town's main attraction. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum tells the story of the family's life here, displaying historic artifacts, several outbuildings and memorabilia from the "Little House on the Prairie" TV show that was set (but not filmed) here.
Visitors enter through the gift shop, where the books, DVDs, period costumes and other trinkets will tempt even the most casual Laura fan. Stroll through life-size replicas of the settlers' house, schoolhouse, outhouse, church and a dugout similar to the one the Ingalls family lived in when they first arrived at Plum Creek.
Other buildings feature antiques and displays about pioneer life, a kids play area and exhibits dedicated to the Wilder Pageant and the popular television series that aired for nine seasons from 1974 to 1983.
The museum is open daily April through October. The gift shop is open year-round; check the museum website for hours and holidays.
For three weekends every July, the Wilder Pageant brings in international audiences to relive the family's stories in live outdoor performances. The shows are held in a hillside amphitheater west of town on—you guessed it—the banks of Plum Creek. Titled "Fragments of a Dream," the pageant chronicles the Ingalls' life in Walnut Grove in two acts. Shows begin at 8:30 p.m. each night, with tickets starting at $18 for ages 6 and up.
Following the pageant, the Loose Gravel Music Festival takes place at the same site on the last Saturday of July. The 2021 lineup features contemporary country singer Hailey Steele, bluegrass band Henhouse Prowlers and headliners Pert Near Sandstone.
A mile and a half north of town is the site of the dugout where the Ingalls family lived before building their house. The land is now owned by the Gordon family, who welcome visitors to come see the plum thickets, table lands, big rock and spring that Laura described in the book.
The dugout itself is no longer there, but 25 acres of native grasses have been planted around the site. It's open May through October, weather permitting, for $7 per car. Bring a picnic and take in the sights and sounds of Plum Creek.
Back in town, a few businesses pay homage to Laura and other memorable characters from the books and TV series. Nellie's Cafe, named for the mean girl in Laura and Mary's class whose family owned the local mercantile, serves classic American fare for breakfast and lunch. The walls feature photographs from the show and the actress who played Nellie, Alison Arngrim.
Another worthy stop, the Fond Memories gift shop is located in the historic Walnut Grove Creamery building and sells unique gifts and scrapbooking supplies. The creamery operated from 1930 to 1953 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway
A roughly 300-mile stretch of U.S. Route 14, from De Smet, South Dakota to Pepin, Wisconsin, was designated as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway in 1995. The route loosely follows the Ingalls family's journey across the Upper Midwest, and today it connects several sites of significance in their transient lives.
After Walnut Grove, the second Minnesota town on the route is Spring Valley, in the southeast corner of the state, halfway between Rochester and the Iowa border. After marrying and starting their family in De Smet, Laura and her husband, Almazo, moved in with his family in Spring Valley in 1890. The Spring Valley Methodist Church is now a museum housing historic artifacts, antiques and records detailing the Wilder family's time in Spring Valley.
For more information about Walnut Grove and Laura Ingalls Wilder, visit walnutgrove.org.
Erica Wacker is a Midwesterner through and through, growing up in Illinois, going to college in Wisconsin, and settling down in Minnesota. She loves to run, travel with her family, and go to concerts to relive her youth.
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