“Thing One” – Walnut Grove
I don’t know who introduced me to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. All I know, is by the time I was in 4th 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.
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 with 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 CD of folk musicians performing Pa’s fiddle songs, featuring 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. There are walking trails alongside large stretches of prairie, signs identifying prairie flowers, and 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, 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 in our CD player.
“Thing Two” – Spring Valley
In Spring Valley, Minnesota, about 3 hours east of Walnut Grove, is another Laura Ingalls Wilder spot. Spring Valley? You don’t remember that from the books? You’re right! 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. Looking at it, you realize why it was so difficult to put out fires back then and you feel really grateful for your local fire department.
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 myself. 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!
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 and 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 Amish 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’s kind of, sort of related!)
Walnut Grove starts off Part Two of our Minnesota Trail, continuing from Sauk Centre, and Spring Valley ends it:
Rebecca Blake Beech