It has been a banner year for Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House books. The author’s 150th birthday was observed in schools and libraries and celebrated in many of the places she called home: Pepin, Wisconsin; Burr Oak, Iowa; De Smet, South Dakota; and finally Mansfield, Missouri, where Wilder lived most of her 90 years and where she wrote her famous children’s books about growing up on the American frontier. But no place is more central to the Laura Ingalls Wilder story than Walnut Grove, Minnesota.
This is largely due to a television series on NBC, loosely based on Wilder’s books. “Little House on the Prairie” aired weekly on Monday nights, and it made Walnut Grove a household word in the United States and later around the world. The show starred Michael Landon, Melissa Gilbert, and Karen Grassle with guest appearances by celebrities like Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Burl Ives, and Johnny and June Carter Cash.
“Little House on the Prairie” was on the air for nine seasons from 1974 to 1983, and it was one
of the most successful programs in television history. As a result, the town, the author, and her book, also titled Little House on the Prairie, became world-famous.
Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born 150 years ago on February 7, 1867, near Pepin, Wisconsin, a place she would later write about in her first book, Little House in the Big Woods (1932). She was the second child of Charles and Caroline (Quiner) Ingalls; her older sister, Mary Amelia, was also born in Wisconsin two years earlier in 1865.
However, Laura did not actually spend much time in the “Big Woods” because in 1868, Charles and Caroline Ingalls decided to move. They left Wisconsin in a covered wagon and traveled west to Kansas. The flat, open prairie of the Great Plains was just the kind of farmland that Charles was looking for. They settled on a homestead about thirteen miles west of the new frontier town of Independence. It was here in 1869 that Charles built the simple, one-room log house that his daughter would one day immortalize in her third book, Little House on the Prairie (1935).
Once again, however, the Ingalls family did not stay put. Unwittingly they had built their “little house” on the Osage Indian Reserve and legally had no real claim to the land. Furthermore,
the deal on their property in Pepin fell through when the new owner could not come up with the required cash. So in 1871, it was back to Wisconsin, but this time with a new baby in tow – Caroline Celestia, nicknamed “Carrie,” was born on August 3, 1870.
Back in Wisconsin, Charles Ingalls once again grew restless. He did not like the “Big Woods” and longed for the open prairies where a farmer could plow and plant without first clearing the land of trees and stumps. So the Ingalls family moved again, this time to Minnesota. In 1874, they settled on the banks of a stream called Plum Creek about a mile and a half north of the small town of Walnut Grove. Laura was just seven years old at the time, but the two years she spent living there became the basis of her fourth book, On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937).
Today, Walnut Grove is a quiet little town in southwestern Minnesota with a population of 870.
It is located on Highway 14 about 50 miles north of I-90. The sign at the edge of town says it all: “Welcome to Walnut Grove - Childhood Home of Pioneer Author - Laura Ingalls Wilder.”
The first stop on any tour of Walnut Grove is usually the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Gift Store with its iconic covered wagon standing nearby. The history of the Ingalls family is on display in a series of old buildings, including a 1898 train depot, a little red schoolhouse, a chapel, an early settler’s house and a dugout similar to the one the Ingalls family lived in when they first settled on their new farm north of town. The museum also has a large section focused on the “Little House on the Prairie” TV series along with information about cast members, especially those who visited the museum through the years and most recently in 2014 for the show’s 40th cast reunion.
The mandatory second stop on a tour of Walnut Grove is Plum Creek, where the Ingalls family lived in a dugout built by the previous owner in the high bank of the small stream. The one-room structure had a dirt floor and roof of woven willow branches covered with prairie sod. The front wall was also made of long strips of sod stacked on top of one another. The dugout had a door and a single greased-paper window. As “Ma” said in On the Banks of Plum Creek: “It’s small, but it’s clean and pleasant.”
Of course, nothing is left of the dugout - the sod roof collapsed long ago and only the depression in the stream bank marks the spot where the Ingalls once lived. That and a large sign which reads: “LAURA’S DUGOUT HOME ON THE BANKS OF PLUM CREEK – THE CHARLES INGALLS FAMILY’S DUGOUT HOME WAS LOCATED HERE IN THE 1870s. THIS DEPRESSION IS ALL THAT REMAINS SINCE THE ROOF CAVED IN YEARS AGO. THE PRAIRIE GRASSES AND FLOWERS HERE GROW MUCH AS THEY DID IN LAURA’S TIME AND THE SPRING STILL FLOWS NEARBY.”
The current owners of the property, the Gordon family, have planted about thirty acres of prairie grasses and flowers around the site to replicate the original setting. You can follow a trail through the prairie landscape or walk along the banks of Plum Creek as Laura often did. You can also eat lunch on a picnic table across the steam from the spot where the dugout once stood. Many visitors say the spirit of the Ingalls family still lives here in this peaceful, evocative setting.
Of course, the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder does not end in Walnut Grove. After two years, the Ingalls family moved to Burr Oak, Iowa, where Charles managed a hotel. Sadly, on the journey
to their new home, the Ingalls’ only son, nine-month-old Charles Fredrick, became ill and died on August 27, 1876. The family was grief-stricken as they continued on without him.
The Ingalls family spent the next two years in Burr Oak and while they were there Caroline gave birth of her fifth and last child on May 23, 1877. Grace Pearl was Laura’s youngest sister.
In 1878, Charles and Caroline decided that the busy, bustling town of Burr Oak was no place to raise their family, so they moved back to Walnut Grove for another short stay. This time they lived in town, and Charles worked at the local hotel and did other odd jobs to support his family. It was in Walnut Grove that Laura’s sister Mary lost her eyesight after becoming ill with a high fever and severe headaches.
In 1879, new job opportunities opened up with the railroad in the Dakota Territory, and Charles and his family once again headed west, eventually homesteading a farm near the new railroad town of De Smet in 1880.
While living near De Smet, Laura took a job as a school teacher and also met the love of her life, Almanzo Wilder. Laura and Almanzo were married on August 25, 1885. She was eighteen years old. The next year, Laura gave birth to her daughter Rose on December 5, 1886. She also had a son in 1889, but he died soon after childbirth.
In 1894, when Laura was 27, the Wilders left South Dakota in a covered wagon and moved to a farm near Mansfield, Missouri. They named it "Rocky Ridge Farm," and it was here that Laura and Almanzo spent the rest of their lives. They cleared and farmed the land and planted fruit orchards and a large vegetable garden. In typical fashion, they did whatever was necessary to turn a profit: they sold eggs and homegrown produce and cut and split firewood for the residents of Mansfield.
While at Rocky Ridge Farm, Laura published articles about agriculture and other farm-related topics in local newspapers and magazines like the Missouri Ruralist, but she did not begin writing the books which made her famous until much later. Finally, in 1932, she published her first children’s novel, Little House in the Big Woods. She was sixty-five years old. After that, she continued to write more Little House books for the next eleven years.
Almanzo Wilder suffered a heart attack in 1949 and died on October 23, at the age of ninety-two. Eight years later, Laura Ingalls Wilder followed her husband in death on February 10, 1957, three days after her ninetieth birthday.
Wilder wrote eight Little House books between 1932 and 1943. The unedited draft of a ninth novel, The First Four Years, was discovered after her death and published posthumously in 1971. It is usually included with the other titles in the Little House series.
Wilder’s books about growing up on the American frontier have never been out print since the 1930’s. They are considered classics in children’s literature and are still widely read today. Over 60 million copies have been sold in more than 100 countries.
The TV program “Little House on the Prairie” was one of the most successful dramatic series in television history, and it is still seen in reruns in the U.S. and in more than thirty countries around the world.
Not bad for “a little half-pint” as “Pa” often called his daughter in the Little House books! Laura Ingalls Wilder would be proud of her accomplishments, but she might be a little surprised by her worldwide fame and by the year-long celebration of her 150th birthday in 2017.
Notes: The books in the original Little House series include: Little House in the Big Woods (1932); Farmer Boy (1933) – about Almanzo Wilder growing up in New York; Little House on the Prairie (1935); On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937); By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939); The Long Winter (1940); Little Town on the Prairie (1941); These Happy Golden Years (1943).