Homestead Hopping Along Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway
It started out innocently enough. My kids and I listened to the first Little House on the Prairie on audiobook on a long road trip. The simple language captivated them and kept them quiet for hours. So, like any smart mom, I checked out the others from the library. It didn’t take long before we had read every book in order, and my children became interested in the history behind the stories.
As a kid, I was familiar with the books and the TV show, but I never imagined the places Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about still existed. As I began my research, I found that not only do they exist, but that you can camp on or near many of the homesites.
And so, a plan was hatched. We’d follow Laura’s path west, from her birthplace in Pepin, Wis., to DeSmet, S.D., where the Ingalls family finally settled. Only instead of a covered wagon, our explorations would take place in a 29-foot Class C motorhome.
I knew if we were going to make this journey, we’d have to do it soon. My daughter was about to turn 10, and would soon be past the prairie dress stage. My son, about to turn 13, would put up with sunbonnets only so much longer. It turns out they were the perfect age, old enough to appreciate the history, but young enough to revel in the hands-on demonstrations we found along the way.
Our first stop, Pepin, Wis., is a quaint town only an hour and a half from Minneapolis, Minn. It was the site of Laura Ingalls’ birth in 1867, and the setting for her first book, Little House in the Big Woods.
These days the Big Woods have been cleared, but there is a replicated cabin on the spot where the original once stood. There is also a small museum in town, where we stocked up on slate pencils and stick candy. For my kids, however, the main goal was to pick up rocks at Lake Pepin (as Laura did on her first trip to town, famously ripping the pocket of her dress). We had lunch in town, pressed pennies on the railroad track and camped right next to the lake.
Early the next morning, we packed our provisions and headed west on U.S. Highway 14, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway. Our destination was Walnut Grove, Minn., the setting of On the Banks of Plum Creek and the town mentioned in the TV series. We had planned our trip to coincide with a Wilder Pageant weekend, when the city puts on an extravagant outdoor performance. The pageant began in 1978 and now draws 7,500 people over three summer weekends to the hillside amphitheater near Walnut Grove.
The show, full of song, dance, live animals and pyrotechnics, was quite a hoot. My kids were mesmerized by the simulated prairie fire, elaborate sets and, of course, the famous scene of Nellie Oleson getting dunked into Plum Creek.
We camped that night at Plum Creek Park, one of the few overnight facilities in Walnut Grove. It’s a small, friendly park run by the city, with water and electric hookups, playgrounds and nearby Lake Laura to satisfy the kids.
We learned that Laura never mentioned the name of the town where they got their store-bought supplies in On the Banks of Plum Creek. It wasn’t until Garth Williams began to illustrate the Little House books that Walnut Grove was identified, when he took Laura’s hand-drawn maps and went out in search of the dugout home on Plum Creek. He found the site in 1947, on a private farm north of Walnut Grove.
The same family still owns the farm, and has strived to keep the site as they found it. Visitors are welcome; when you pull up to the farmhouse, put $5 in a can and drive down to the creek. My son couldn’t believe our motorhome was rumbling down the same trail that led the Ingallses’ covered wagon to their home carved out of a hillside.
Like others before us, the first thing we did was take off our shoes and wade into the creek. The original dugout is collapsed and the “wonderful house” the Ingallses eventually built on the site is long gone, but the spring still feeds the creek, surrounded by plum thickets. Thankfully, there were no leeches, like the ones that plagued Nellie.
After a peaceful hour at the creek, we dried off, hopped back in the motorhome and headed for the festival at the town square. The weekend event features pioneer crafts and demonstrations, as well as the annual Laura and Nellie look-alike contests. Girls from near and far signed up, decked out in their prairie finest. Not surprisingly, there were more Laura contestants than Nellie ones, but we all agreed the Nellie wannabes were far more entertaining.
Our next stop was the town’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, which is much more extensive than the one in Pepin. The museum holds artifacts that Laura owned as well as props from the TV show. But the real fun is exploring the outbuildings, including a chapel, a dugout display, an 1870s jail cell, a one-room schoolhouse and a covered wagon. My kids most enjoyed playing postmaster in one of the displays, and we all lingered over the array of Little House books from different countries.
From the obligatory photo op in the covered wagon, to the excellent gift shop, expect to spend some time at the museum. And moms, beware. Not only are there prairie dresses and bonnets of all shapes and sizes, but children can also get dresses, bonnets and lunch pails for their dolls. We were only able to lure our kids away from the gift shop with promises of pie at nearby Nellie’s Café.
Fortified, we packed up our rig and headed west, following the trail the Ingallses took after the great grasshopper plague of 1875 ruined the crops and devastated Walnut Grove. The family went in search of jobs with the railroad and free government land, which they found outside of De Smet, S.D.
The small town, which now beckons visitors to “discover the Wilder life!” is the setting for the last five books in the series. Just east of town, we turned down the dirt road to the Ingalls Homestead.
The homestead is open to day visitors, but if you plan ahead, you can reserve one of the four RV sites on the property (which also features covered wagons and a bunkhouse). Since we wanted to see the De Smet pageant, we reserved far in advance and scored the last site on the bluff, overlooking the Big Slough, the cropland and the cottonwood trees Pa planted at the end of By the Shores of Silver Lake.
We pulled into the homestead just in time to set up camp and walk over to the pageant grounds. The community was doing a production of “The Long Winter,” one of the books set in De Smet. We carried over our lawn chairs, and set up on the bluff. The pageant was nothing like the elaborate Walnut Grove production, but it was true to the story, and it was pleasant to sit there in the shadow of the cottonwood trees, slurping our snow cones.
The next day we went into the city and saw the site of the Ingallses’ store (where the family weathered that winter), the site of the Wilder brothers’ store and others mentioned in the books. The Loftus store is still in business, although these days it sells souvenirs instead of sugar and salt pork.
The main attraction in town is the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and surrounding exhibits. Docents lead small groups into the Surveyors’ House, where the Ingallses spent the first winter in DeSmet. It has been moved from its original spot near Silver Lake and lovingly refurbished to look just like it would have when Laura first ran ahead and peeked into “the biggest house she’d ever seen.” By modern standards it was tiny, but we had already seen the 10-by-10 footprint of the dugout, so we could understand her excitement.
Next on the tour was the one-room schoolhouse, where layers of plaster and wallpaper had been peeled away to reveal the original chalkboard. We also toured the last house that Pa built, still standing on a quiet side street. Laura was married by the time the house was built, but her parents lived in it until they died. It was interesting to see the craftsmanship of the house, with the original floors and handbuilt cabinetry.
When we pulled back into the homestead that evening, the kids ran to the playground and it didn’t take long before the seesaw was surrounded with girls in prairie dresses. The boys gathered around my son, who had bought a slingshot at the Loftus store and was shooting pebbles into the Big Slough.
The Ingalls Homestead was by far our favorite campground. During the day, the site was abuzz with bonnet-clad girls making corncob dolls, doing laundry by hand, playing the pipe organ or helping drive the team of horses to the one-room school.
But it was at night, after the day visitors had left, that we truly came to appreciate the homestead. The kids could run through the huge expanses of prairie at twilight. They pumped water at the well, and my daughter even took some of our laundry down to the wash bucket to show the other girls how the process worked. In the morning the staff let her take care of the chickens and the calf, cuddle the barn kittens and set up the exhibits before the day visitors arrived.
It was peaceful and quiet. Ingalls described the feeling when she first saw the land as “an enormous stillness,” and that perfectly described our mornings at the Homestead.
We were sad to leave, but we had one more destination: the big city of Mankato, Minn. As we were planning the trip, we found out Alison Arngrim, the actress who played Nellie Oleson on the NBC TV show, was performing her one-woman act as part of the biyearly LauraPalooza conference. Yes, you read that right. Each year, a group of Laura Ingalls Wilder scholars gathers in Mankato; the theme of this year’s event was “What Would Laura Do?”
It was easy to poke fun at Laurapalooza until I saw some of the events — a speaker from the National Weather Service discussing the events of The Long Winter, a documentary called “Pa’s Fiddle” about the music of the time — and realized they sounded interesting. Maybe I was a Laura nerd, after all. “We prefer the term Laurati,” laughed Sarah Uthoff, vice president of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association. OK, I could accept that.
Arngrim was hilarious and the perfect end to our crazy adventure. It was time to leave the bumpy, gravel roads behind and get back to the 21st century.
For More Information
Laura Ingalls Wilder Days
Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum(Pepin, Wis.)
Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum (Walnut Grove, Minn.)