Monday, September 24, 2007

Looking for Laura Ingalls, Part 3: Walnut Grove, MN

It's time I finish telling about this trip. In previous enteries, I wrote about DeSmet, SD and the Big Woods of Wisconsin.

After attending the old church where Laura and family worshipped, we left DeSmet and drove east on US 14. The highway parallels the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern railroad, the old Chicago Northwest line that brought Pa Ingalls out to the Dakota territories in 1880. At the time he worked as a paymaster for the railroad, back when they were laying tracks across the tall grasses. All the small towns around here, “out on the prairie” as Garrison Kellior would say, were laid out by the railroads and appear to be cut from the same pattern. Main Street T’s off from the railroad tracks. One end of Main Street would be next to the tracks, the other along Highway 14. The crammed into the ground next to the tracks are grain silos and it appears the railroad is getting ready to haul in this year’s crop as empty hoppers have been positioned along the sidings next to the silos.

I would have liked to have stopped at South Dakota State University in Brookings to see the Harvey Dunn exhibit they have there, but weariness had overtaken us all. Hearing moans, I keep driving toward Walnut Gove, our last scheduled stop along the Laura Ingalls trail.

Walnut Grove is set off from the other communities along the prairie with its water tower. Instead of the old can type tower, held up on steel stilts, the type that looks like the cover shot for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Walnut Grove has a modern tower that looks like an alien space ship hovering over the hamlet. Pa and Ma must be rolling in their graves.

The Ingalls family lived in Walnut Grove twice. They moved here from the Big Woods back and first settled in a dugout along Plum Creek, a few miles north of town. They later built a small house, but Pa had a hard time making payments on the land. They then moved for a year to Burr Iowa, where they ran an inn and their only son died as a young boy. Afterwards, with some more money in their pocket, they moved back to Walnut Grove and lived here till they moved to the Dakota’s in 1880.

We went through the museum there along the railroad tracks, it consisting of several converted homes and a school. By this point, my daughter was losing interest. One soon reaches a point that you just can’t look at another rug beater or butter churn or scrub board without rolling your eyes. Because Walnut Grove was the setting for the Little House in the Prairie television shows (even though they were shot in California), the museum has a nice collection on the shows and photos of all the actors visiting the hamlet.

After visiting the museum and shooting my obligatory photos along the railroad tracks, we headed north to the site of the Ingall’s dugout. I pulled up into the parking place behind a Honda from North Dakota with a “Sushi” license plate. It seemed such a dichotomy that I had to take a photo.

The dugout is no longer visible, even though there is a depression where it was suppose to sit. It was at the dugout that my daughter finally met her match, a retired teacher from Arkansas, who estimates she’s read each of the Little House books at least 35 times. The two of them had a great chat as we waded in the creek (if that’s possible in 3 inches of water). My daughter kept warning everyone to watch out for leeches, recalling some story from the book On the Banks of Plum Creek. If there had been leeches in the water, they would have had to be pretty small. My thoughts about camping along Plum Creek and taking my daughter fishing were shattered. Plum Creek wasn’t much more than a mud hole. As it was still early afternoon, we decided to keep heading east and spend out last day back again in the Wisconsin Dells. Our “themed trip" had come to an end.


  1. Their dugout was my favorite of all their homes and the only one I wouldn't mind living in. You were getting me all excited for a real life picture of it until that last paragraph.

  2. Oh, how I loved those books and made my family crazy with attempting to churn my own butter and make sugar candy drizzled in snow. What a "theme" trip and what a great post. Thanks!

  3. What a great father/daughter adventure!

  4. I didn't realize that the Ingalls moved around quite so often.

  5. Thanks for these themed trips. I enjoyed those as much as you did. May be a little less!

  6. Thanks for bringing back memories of some of my favorite childhood books. I do believe I remember the stories of the leeches in the stories from Plum Creek.

  7. I didn't even know there were any Hondas in North Dakota.

  8. I really like the first picture. I grew up on a farm and I think farm life is still deep within me though I left it many years ago.

  9. I'm with Ed, I had no idea they moved around so much. I really enjoyed your vacation!

  10. You're making me want to reread her books. It would actually slow me down from the fast pace of this city.

    Just the pics alone, especially the house in Walnut Grove, slows my heart rate and brings me peace. Thanks for sharing this story. We all learned something new.

  11. I really enjoyed that. Thanks Sage!

  12. Murf, I can't believe you would enjoy living in a cozy house in which snakes and worms would be regular visitors.

    Ms. Boxer, we didn't get to try to the snow candy this trip!

    Diane & Guatami: all of us had fun. My daughter was at the perfect age to enjoy this, in another year or so we may be following Steinbeck!

    Ed, Jaded & Kontan: Pa didn't want any grass growing through his toes!

    Diesel: For one day in August, there were no Hondas in ND because the one that was registered there was in MN

    Tim, Welcome back from your honeymoon--great pics in your blog--I never lived on a farm, but spent just enough time on them that I have some romantic notions about such a life, but not enough time to think it as boring labor.

    Scarlet: Sounds like I'm not the only one who needs to slow down.

    Joe, thanks.

  13. When put like that, it's not so appealing, Mr. Realist, but it sure looks awfully cute on the book cover.

    When will you be going on the Anne of Green Gables tour?

  14. It was at the dugout that my daughter finally met her match, a retired teacher from Arkansas, who estimates she’s read each of the Little House books at least 35 times. The two of them had a great chat

    OK, now I'm jealous. Man, I would have LOVED to have done something like this as a little girl! Oh the experiences of doing this just like Laura!

    I have to say... you're tempting me to reread the whole series. I'd forgotten a lot of things... like the fact that the Ingalls even had a son!

  15. do not despair at your daughters short attention span. My brothers and I used get dragged all over the South West by Gramps as he showed us Western history. At the time we HATED it. As the years have gone on we all have come to appreciate it for the rare and wonderful trips they were. I think those trips have given us all a real appreciation for the past and our role in the soon to be past


  16. The water tower just looks so out of place. Keep the old, keep the character...