My Laura Ingalls Wilder tour, Part 1

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I’m probably no more or less interested in the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder than the average person. I’m sure I read some of them as a kid – although I don’t really remember – and I definitely read some of them to my own daughters. I liked the stories, and I appreciated the quality of the illustrations.

I enjoyed watching the television series, although I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan. At best, I was ambivalent.

So why am I now, at age 59, embarking on a tour of all things Laura?

My interest was piqued last year when Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder was published by Caroline Fraser. It drew a lot of mixed comments from people who loved the Little House books, which portray pioneer life as seen through happy, rose-colored glasses. The book was fairly controversial.

I decided I should read it. But when I got it from the library, I got confused and instead checked out Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. This is definitely not the same thing. Pioneer Girl is written by Ingalls Wilder herself and is actually the first draft of what would become the Little House series. It’s a little bit rougher and grittier than the final children’s series, but it’s mostly the same stories of her early pioneering life, only less embellished. The book is heavily annotated by Pamela Smith Hill, which is sometimes annoying but other times helps to put Ingalls Wilder’s words into the context of the times.

I enjoyed reading that book, and it occurred to me that I live awfully darn close to most of the places Laura and her family lived: Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakota Territory (now South Dakota), Missouri, and Kansas.

Laura’s life intrigued me – especially her early years – and I was also interested in the history of the frontier, from the Indian Wars to the Dust Bowl.

So I decided to go ahead and read Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Whoa, this is a different story altogether. For one thing, this book is big and dense, and Laura’s early life only takes up about the first quarter of the pages. It took me a very long time to read – it’s 640 pages but seems even longer. But it’s very well researched, and I appreciated that. I felt like I learned a lot about Laura’s growing-up years, what she really went through (extreme poverty, near-starvation, nearly freezing to death during horrible blizzards), and what her parents were like. More than that, though, I learned more about the history of homesteading, farming practices, federal programs, relationships with Native Americans, and other events of the nation during those times.

The book continues into the time of Laura’s marriage; much of it describes the life of her writer daughter, Rose Wilder Lane – probably more than I wanted to know. But it gets into the writing (and editing, and re-writing) of the Little House books and Laura’s ascent into fame as an author in her sixties, all of which is pretty interesting.

Bottom line, it made me want to visit the places I’d been reading about. So, when my husband Dave announced that he was going to North Dakota and asked if I wanted to tag along, I said yes, on one condition: That we stop in Walnut Grove, Minn., and De Smet, S.D. on the way.

WALNUT GROVE, MINNESOTA

Walnut Grove, you may remember, was the setting for the long-running “Little House on the Prairie” television series (which Caroline Fraser describes as “not so much an adaptation as a hyperbolic fantasy spin off”) and was the basis of the book On the Banks of Plum Creek.

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On the day we visited, we arrived in Walnut Grove early, before the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum opened, so we drove around. We went to the Ingalls’ 1874 dugout site but found that it was closed due to flooding. (Indeed, it was raining steadily when we got there.)

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So we stopped for a cup of coffee at Nellie’s Little Café on the Prairie (promising “homestyle cooking”), which was actually fun. (Dave had milk and cookies). The café is thoroughly decorated with photos of the much-abhorred character Nellie Oleson from the TV series, played by Alison Arngrim, as well as other photos from the series, many of them autographed. You will definitely not forget where you are.

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Just across the street from the museum, which was still not open yet, we found the Masters Store & Hall (below).

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According to the sign on the building: “William J. Masters moved to Walnut Grove when he sold his hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa. Around 1847 he built this hotel. Laura wrote about her time here in Pioneer Girl. The Ingalls [family] sold the Plum Creek property and left Walnut Grove in 1876. They returned in 1877 when Pa bought a lot in the pasture behind this hotel and built a small house for his family. After returning from Burr Oak, Laura found work here setting tables, washing dishes, and folding laundry for 50 cents a week.”

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum recently purchased the Masters Store & Hall; Charles Ingalls is said to have actually helped build it.

Once we finally got into the museum, it was pretty much as I expected.

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I bought some of the Little House books at the gift shop and we started our self-guided tour. We saw some pretty basic stuff in the first museum building (the Depot Building): Reproduction photos of Charles and Caroline, a timeline of the family’s travels (including Laura’s birth on Feb. 7, 1867), more photos and memorabilia, Laura’s quilt, and some documentation about the books.

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There’s an entire room dedicated to the TV show, with a painted mural from the show’s main street (below), and lots of photos and memorabilia.

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Besides this main museum, there’s a chapel (not authentic)…

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… and a building they call Grandma’s House (below), which was built in 1890 but has no actual connection to Ingalls Wilder.

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Inside the house is an exhibit featuring illustrations by Garth Williams, who illustrated the Little House books as well as Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and other children’s books. I love the style of his illustrations, so this display was fun; included many of his original sketches.

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I also enjoyed the exhibit that shows some of the less-well-known writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder and also those of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Some of Laura’s hand-written letters are even on display.

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Also on the property is a dugout-style home similar to the one Laura describes in Plum Creek.

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Dugouts were usually temporary structures used for a few months until a permanent home could be built.

A little red school house represents the kind of one-room country school Laura might have attended.

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A settler’s home is also on the property, moved there from property owned by a neighbor of the Ingalls family on Plum Creek. The two-room home is furnished to represent a pioneer home of the late 1800s (below).

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Finally, we visited the Heritage Lane building, which displays a covered wagon, a railroad history exhibit, the original Walnut Grove telephone switchboards, the original Walnut Grove Tribune newspaper office equipment, and more.

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If you go to Walnut Grove, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum is located at 330 8th Street. Admission to the museum, including the replica dugout, schoolhouse, etc. is $5 per person. Museum hours vary; when I was there this summer it was open 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., but hours are limited during other times of the year and the museum buildings are closed during the winter.

The original dugout site is located at 13501 County Road 5, 1.5 miles north of Walnut Grove ($5 per car).

If you’re really into it, there’s a big ol’ Wilder Pageant held during weekends in July. The pageant is “an outdoor drama based on the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder in Walnut Grove,” and admission ranges from $18 (bring your own blanket) to $20 (chairs provided). Apparently there’s going to be another “Little House” cast reunion July 11-14, 2019, celebrating the 45th anniversary of the TV show, which makes me feel really old.

DE SMET, NORTH DAKOTA

From Walnut Grove, we drove on Hwy. 14 to De Smet, S.D., about two hours straight west.

Known as the “little town on the prairie,” De Smet offers two ways to explore Ingalls Wilder’s childhood: the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes and the Ingalls Homestead. We started at the homestead.

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This is the original 160 acres of land the Ingalls family homesteaded in 1880, and although little remains from the Ingalls family on that acreage, it was still very cool to stand on the site and imagine what it must have been like back in those days.

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We started at the visitor center and gift shop (I bought more books), then headed outside – with homestead map in hand – to visit a dugout, a claim shanty, hayroof barn, school house, church, and other places of interest.

Here’s one view of the homestead from the top of a look-out tower:

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Back on land, we saw an exhibit chronicling Laura’s travels as told through her Little House series, with photos and illustrations.

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We visited an original claim shanty built in 1878 by early Kingsbury County residents…

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…and the dugout, which was slightly better than the dugout we’d visited earlier in the day, though both were mighty smelly.

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We stepped inside the hayroof barn, built as Charles Ingalls would have done.

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I was especially interested in this little barn, because there were chickens, a baby calf, and a litter of kittens inside. I mean, who doesn’t love baby farm animals?

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There’s also an heirloom garden (below), wildflower display, and native grass prairie.

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Just outside the livestock barn, we boarded a covered wagon and rode to the little prairie school.

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I believe we were the only tourists without children in tow. Now that I think of it, we might have had the most fun of anyone.

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I will say that this part of the tour took longer than I would have liked; once we got into the school we were pretty much stuck there and had to listen to an overly long lecture by the resident schoolmarm, including a lengthy history lesson and a reading lesson, from which we could not escape.

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Poor Dave was made an example of when he didn’t keep both hands on his desk (or something equally absurd) and had to stand with his nose on the blackboard. (He was a good sport and played along.) Mercifully, the lessons ended and we re-boarded our mule-led covered wagon back to the barn.

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We walked around for a bit, visited the West Bethany Church (shown above, built in 1905 and originally located 10 miles north of the Ingalls homestead) and “Ma’s Little House,” a wood-framed home reconstructed on the location and to the dimensions of the Ingalls claim shanty built by Charles Ingalls in the spring of 1880 (below).

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Five cottonwood trees still remain from the thousands that Charles Ingalls planted on his homestead claim (below). These last living cottonwoods, dedicated to his five girls, are located in the Laura Ingalls Wilder memorial site and donated to the L.I.W. Memorial Society after Laura’s death in 1957.

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Admission to the homestead is $15 per person, including all activities and the covered wagon ride. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; hours are shorter during fall and spring, and the grounds are closed during the winter.

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Okay, by this time in the day I will admit I was pretty tired. We’d driven a lot and toured fairly extensively. So when we got to the historic homes area in town and found out that the only way to see the inside of the buildings was through a $12 two-hour guided tour, we decided to pass. Instead, we just walked around the outside of the buildings…on our own…for free.

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It’s actually an impressive group of buildings: the original Ingalls home built by Charles in 1887 (after Laura moved to Missouri); the original first school of De Smet, attended by Laura and her sister, Carrie; and the original surveyors’ home from By the Shores of Silver Lake. Kids can enjoy the Discover Center for hands-on activities.

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The L.I.W. Historic Homes and Discovery Center are located at 105 Olivet Ave. Admission, as I mentioned, is $12, and hours vary depending on the season. Remember, admission is by guided tour only. (It’s probably very interesting.)

Like Walnut Grove, De Smet also has an annual outdoor Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, “These Happy Golden Years,” held in July.

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We made one last stop before leaving De Smet: We visited the Ingalls’ grave sites. Buried there are Charles and Caroline Ingalls; Laura’s sisters Mary, Carrie, and Grace; and Laura’s son who died as an infant. (Laura is buried in Mansfield, Mo., where she spent most of her adult life.)

You’ll notice I called this post “Part 1” because I have a second trip coming up! Get excited! I’m planning to visit the Ingalls’ homesteads in Pepin, Wis., Spring Valley, Minn., and Burr Oak, Iowa. I’m sure you’re all on the edge of your seat.

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1 comment so far

  1. Jen! / Jen!Eats (@JeniEats) on

    I so love a literary quest. I loved this post and appreciate you sharing the adventure!


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