Growing up, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the Little House on the Prairie books. I read the first few and connected with Laura. Like me, she was curious and defiant. She also loved her Pa and learned pretty much every lesson the hard way. As a young reader, I was more drawn to Nancy Drew, who was pretty and a super-smart super-slueth, and Judy Blume, who wrote about boys, getting your period and sex.
But I LOVED the Little House on the Prairie television show, which aired from 1974-83. And as I grew older and learned about real-life Laura and her struggles as a woman, mother and writer, I became a fan of both the Little House show and Laura Ingalls Wilder herself. So when i realized that two of Laura’s childhood homes were on my way to the Badlands in South Dakota, deciding to stop and visit them was a no-brainer.
Before I go any further, here’s a video of Little House’s opening theme song for fellow super fans to enjoy. Hum along with me as it plays ….
Today’s Walnut Grove, Minnesota, includes a Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum that was fun to visit. Click here to see some of the photos I took there. But other than the name and multiple highway signs that make sure you know it’s THAT Walnut Grove (The TV show, BTW, was filmed in California.), the town includes little physical evidence of the Ingalls’ time there.
The exception is Plum Creek.
Never mentioned in the TV series, the banks of Plum Creek is where the Ingalls family lived immediately before Pa built the log cabin they would live in on the prairie of Walnut Grove.
Located about a mile from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, the entrance to Plum Creek is easy to miss. There’s just a small sign that I at first zipped past. Even though I was watching mileage, as the museum staff suggested, I didn’t realize I missed it until I saw this memorial a little way past:
Located between corn fields, the dirt road turnoff to Plum Creek is in itself almost a mile long, as well as the driveway to a private home and farm. Owners Della and Harold Gordon knew nothing about the Ingalls connection when they purchased the 172 acres of land in 1947. However, after learning about its place in literary and Little House history, they decided to make the creek and location of where the Ingalls lived accessible to fans.
Wilder’s fourth book, On the Banks of Plum Creek, tells the story of the many months the Ingalls lived there. As the cover illustration by Garth Williams so wonderfully shows (Williams also illustrated E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little) their house there was not just on the banks of the creek, but within them. A dugout made from sod and built into the side of a hill, the grass above served as part of the roof, with the front door opening onto stone steps that sat on the mud of the creek’s shore.
I decided to reread On the Banks of Plum Creek a few weeks ago and found visiting here to be highlight of my time in Walnut Grove. While the museum is a mish-mash of curated collections related to Wilder, her daughter Rose (who was also a writer), the Little House television show, and 1800s daily life on the prairie, Plum Creek is a place that’s stood still in time.
The Ingalls lived directly on Plum Creek in 1874. Yet today, 145 years later, with the exception of the dugout house that no longer exists, the area looks just as On the Banks of Plum Creek describes:
Laura could not see a creek. She saw a grassy bank, and beyond it a line of willow-tree tops, waving in the gentle wind. Everywhere else the prairie grasses were rippling far away to the sky’s straight edge.
The path went across short sunny grass, to the edge of the bank. Down below it was the creek, rippling and glistening in the sunshine. Over the edge of the bank, the path turned and went slanting down, close against the grassy bank that rose up like a wall. Laura went down it cautiously …
There was only the high sky above her, and down below her the water was talking to itself. NOTE: Turn up your volume. The sounds are lovely!
[The] flowers all had their throats wide open as if they were singing glory to the morning …
As this sign explains, all that’s left of the house is this indentation. But being there, coupled with having just read On the Banks of Plum Creek, made it the dugout easy to imagine. This photo at right, which I took at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, shows how a sod dugout is constructed out of grass and dirt. Amazing to me that it stood for even one month, let alone years!
It was one room … The earth walls had been smoothed and whitewashed. The earth floor was smooth and hard … [The] front wall was built of sod. Mr. Hanson had dug out [the] house, and then he had cut long strips of prairie sod and laid them on top of one another, to make the front wall. … The ceiling was made of hay. Willow boughs had been laid across and their branches woven together. … “Goodness,” said Ma. “Anybody could walk over this house and never know it’s here.”
In 1879, the Ingalls family moved to De Smet, South Dakota, where Charles Ingalls took a job as a timekeeper for the railroad and became a homesteader. As any of you who follow me on social media know, I slept there on the Ingalls Homestead in a small covered wagon on Monday night.
The site is now a campground and learning center that, through hands-on activities, gives guests first-hand experiences of what life was like when the Ingalls lived there. Structures recreated on the property include a one-room schoolhouse, church, barn, shanty and look-out tower, where guests can try cleaning clothes with a washboard, pumping water, bale hay, muck stalls, and go on a covered wagon ride.
Although I didn’t visit them, there are several other locations in DeSmet related to Ingalls-Wilder history. Five of Wilder’s books are also set there, from By the Shores of Silver Lake to The First Four Years.
One of the things I learned there was that unlike what the Little House television show portrays, Mary did not get married, although she did spend time at a school for the blind in a big city. De Smet is where she, Ma, Pa, Carried and Grace died. All of them are buried in De Smet Cemetery, along with an unnamed infant son of Laura and Almanzo.
As a former Rainbow Girl and daughter of a Master Mason, I was interested to see the Masonic symbol on Pa’s grave, showing that Charles Ingalls was a Mason, too. I had no idea. Pa’s grave also really needs cleaning. Here are photos from the cemetery:
Before my trip is over, I’d like to write another blog post about claims that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s depictions of Native Americans, African Americans and settlers’ beliefs about manifest destiny made her a racist. I disagree. However, similar to slave-owning, racially prejudiced historical figures whose monuments have been taken down in recent years, Wilder’s name in 2018 was taken off the American Library Association’s award for authors or illustrators who have made “significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature.”
While I understand why some would make these arguments against Wilder (Ma, for example, says “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” among other hateful remarks about Native Americans), I also believe they are misguided and do more to disservice than help.
Yes, the Little House books contain racial insensitivityies, particularly in regard to American Indians. But as someone who writes books about history, I believe it’s crucial to first and foremost consider things like lens and context when analyzing actions or language use.
We also can’t learn from a history we refuse to acknowledge.