Laura Ingalls Wilder
I don’t know who introduced me to the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. All I know is, by the time I was in fourth grade, I would’ve given anything to have been able to wade in Plum Creek, ride wild horses over the prairie, endure a long winter, or stand up to the Nellie Olesons of the world.
“Thing One” – Walnut Grove
Driving west on Highway 14 in the middle of Minnesota, you realize that you are in Laura Ingalls Wilder territory when you see that the highway is named for her. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, in the town of Walnut Grove, has several buildings. Inside, you will find original Ingalls family artifacts, general pioneering gear, and rooms devoted to local history. There’s also a really great gift shop where we bought a recording of folk musicians performing Pa’s fiddle songs. It featured fiddler Bruce Hoffman playing Pa’s actual fiddle.
The museum provides directions to a private family farm nearby which allows public access for a small donation. On the farm property, you can see what remains of the actual site of the Ingalls’ dugout house on Plum Creek. It’s amazing to realize that a whole family lived in such a small space. After viewing the dugout remains, my daughter and I had a long talk about what family life might have been like living in such tiny quarters. Uphill from the dugout, there are walking trails alongside large stretches of prairie. The trail includes signs identifying prairie flowers. Best of all, you can wade in Plum Creek to your heart’s content. Luckily we didn’t encounter any leeches! This stop is not to be missed.
Across the highway from the museum is Nellie’s Cafe. The cafe is named for the infamous Nellie Oleson, the “mean girl” of Plum Creek, whom every reader loves to hate. We enjoyed our lunch there and drove back to Minneapolis to the tunes of our new fiddle music.
“Thing Two” – Spring Valley
In Spring Valley, Minnesota, about three hours east of Walnut Grove, is another Laura Ingalls Wilder spot. Spring Valley is a town where Almanzo Wilder’s family lived for many years. It’s also where Laura, Almanzo, and their young daughter Grace lived while they were recovering from some really hard times described in The First Four Years. The Spring Valley Methodist Church Museum is a historic church which was connected to the Wilder family. I loved the displays with information about the Wilder family and the beautiful, old Italian stained glass windows. Downstairs are exhibits of local history. Don’t miss the amazing antique fire engine with leather buckets on the sides.
The highlight of my visit was when my tour guide demonstrated how to ring the church bell and then asked me if I’d like to try it. The antique bell weighs 1,200 pounds and is connected to a large, dangling rope. You have to grab the rope and then give it all your weight and let go quickly, in order for it to ring. Your reward for this effort – a beautiful, deep resounding chime which you somehow feel you’ve earned!
Other Local Attractions
One of the bonus surprises of my trip to Spring Valley was driving through the nearby town of Harmony, Minnesota on my way to another Laura Ingalls Wilder site (see the Iowa page). There is an Amish community in Harmony so I shared the road with several horse-drawn buggies and friendly Amish people who waved as they passed by. If you have time, stop and take a look at some of the roadside stores which sell Amish furniture and crafts. There are also farmers markets and Amish tours in the area. (Yes, I know Laura wasn’t Amish. But her lifestyle would have been closer to Amish than to kids of today so it still feels appropriate.)
Walnut Grove starts off Part Two of our Minnesota Author Adventures Trail, continuing from Sauk Centre, and Spring Valley ends it:
Rebecca Blake Beech