It’s easy to characterize Walnut Grove as just another sleepy town in south western Minnesota. On the surface, there is little to distinguish it from other villages in the region. There’s a water tower, a small diner and the ubiquitous railway line. Peak hour traffic and traffic lights are non-existent. But dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that Walnut Grove has special literary and historical significance. As the former childhood home of pioneer author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, the town offers more for visitors than is immediately apparent. Instead of driving straight ahead, slow down and take the turn into town. In doing so, you’ll discover plenty of ways to spend a full day in the real locale that inspired the famous Little House® book, On the Banks of Plum Creek.
Laura Ingalls Wilder never mentioned the town of Walnut Grove by name in her books, but in 1974 when NBC first aired the Little House on the Prairie TV series, people immediately made a connection and it wasn’t long before a steady stream of tourists started arriving in town. This year, both the TV series and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove are celebrating their 40th anniversaries. On July 25-27th, a TV show reunion is planned to occur in the town, with many of the show’s stars slated to appear.
On The Trail – To Walnut Grove and Back
In 1874, Laura Ingalls and her family relocated from Pepin, Wisconsin to a farm approximately 2 ½ miles north of Walnut Grove. The family initially lived in a dugout on Plum Creek and afterwards in a framed house close by (no longer standing). After a series of successive crop failures, the family left Walnut Grove in the summer of 1876 and moved to Burr Oak, Iowa to help run a hotel (below). It would have been a period of intense sadness for the Ingalls family, due not only to the failure of their farm, but because Laura’s baby brother, Charles Frederick died before they reached Burr Oak.
Laura never published her memories of living in Burr Oak. And despite some happy times, most notably the birth of her sister, Grace Pearl in May 1877, the Ingalls did not see a future for themselves in the town. The social environment was not ideal and money was extremely tight. Charles decided it was time to move on and the family returned to Walnut Grove in 1878. Instead of living on their farm near Plum Creek, the Ingalls resided in town. They remained there until Charles took a job with the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad in 1879 as a book-keeper, time-keeper and store-keeper. The new job would eventually take them to Dakota Territory.
But what does 21st century Walnut Grove have to offer visitors? Read on for our picks of the seven best things to see and do in town.
1. Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum
For many Wilder fans, the museum (below) is their first port-of-call in Walnut Grove. Visitors can learn about the history of the real Ingalls family and the time they lived in the area. Unique to the museum is the combination of exhibits relating to both the real Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie TV series. While purist Wilder fans can enjoy viewing items that belonged to the real Laura, including a sewing basket and quilt; TV show fans can salivate over an entire room full of memorabilia from the beloved series. Popular items include the actual mantel from the show, a selection of TV props and a wall mural (pictured below) depicting Oleson’s Mercantile, the school house / church and other points of interest from the TV town.
The museum’s multiple buildings are positioned around a planting of wildflowers, similar to what Laura would have seen when she lived near Plum Creek. Each building focuses on a particular aspect of pioneer life. Visitors can view equipment from the former Walnut Grove Tribune office, see inside the home of an early Walnut Grove settler (pictured below) and imagine themselves as a child, learning their lessons in a one-room school. The museum also features a replica dugout (actually, it’s more of a sod-house – there is a difference), a display of more than 300 Kelton dolls and a kitchen exhibit.
Those with no interest in Laura Ingalls Wilder can easily spend an hour at the museum, but Little House devotees can (and do) spend much longer.
2. The Dugout on Plum Creek
No visit to Walnut Grove is complete without visiting the remains of Laura’s dugout home on Plum Creek, just north of town. Wading in the cool waters remains a favorite of many visitors and I admit to never tiring of getting my own feet muddy and clothes wet when I visit. The feeling of the mushy creek bottom and the tiniest of little fish nibbling at my legs takes me back to my own memories of childhood and a simpler time. A marked walking trail is also open to visitors.
The land on which the dugout exists is privately owned and farmed. The owners graciously allow visitors to access their land for a small fee and ask this to be deposited into an honesty box, just a short drive inside the farm’s entrance (below). There are no restrooms, so visitors should plan accordingly. Sufficient turning space is available for RVs.
3. Family Festival
A few weekends every summer, Walnut Grove comes alive with its annual Family Festival. City Park is where most of the action occurs, with both kids and adults being catered for. There is a Laura and Nellie look-alike contest, live music, craft and food stalls, plus a variety of pioneer demonstrations. Quite often, the festival features celebrity appearances from the Little House on the Prairie TV series.
4. Wilder Pageant – Fragments of a Dream
The Wilder Pageant, also known as “Fragments of a Dream” is an outdoor play / drama presented over three weekends every summer. Patrons sit on folding chairs or blankets on an embankment overlooking Plum Creek. From here, they watch local and nearby residents present a rendition of the life and times of the Ingalls family during the early years of Walnut Grove. The atmosphere is almost haunting as the sun sets and the chorus sings. Patrons are encouraged to visit with the cast after the performance (pictured below).
5. Driving Tour of Town
Many visitors enjoy driving around the town to see parcels of land where Laura went to church and school. Although the Congregational Church that she wrote about was demolished in 1954, the bell that Charles helped to purchase can still be seen by visitors. Today, it hangs in the belfry of the English Lutheran Church on the corner of 5th and Wiggins Streets (below).
Located across the street from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum is the former Masters Hotel (below). Laura worked here during the summer of 1878. The building is now a private home and is not available for viewing.
Approximately 35% of Walnut Grove’s residents are Hmong. As a tribute to the fusion of traditional Hmong and American pioneer culture, a large mural was recently painted on the side of the Bubai Food Store (pictured below). It was created by Greg Wimmer, a Rochester based artist.
The town has a couple of stores that cater for people wanting to buy antiques. Junk with Purpose is located on the northern side of Highway 14 and sells re-purposed furniture, clothing, primitive style trinkets and ephemera. I’ve picked up a few small pieces here over the years and everything is quite reasonably priced. Another popular store is Fond Memories at the Creamery, which is located on Main Street in a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As the business name suggests, the building once served as a cooperative milk processing facility. The store stocks a large range of scrapbooking supplies and stamps, many of which have a pioneer or Laura Ingalls Wilder inspired theme. Visitors will also find a range of antiques, giftware, jewellery and other small items for sale.
7. Eating at Nellie’s Café or the Walnut Grove Bar & Grill
Luckily, visitors are unlikely to find Alison Arngrim cooking her notorious cinnamon chicken at Nellie’s Café in Walnut Grove. Instead, patrons will find far more appetizing fare at this small diner, located on Highway 14. Visitors should remember that many establishments in mid-western towns close relatively early – so be sure to plan accordingly. The café can become packed with diners during the annual Family Festival, so once again, plan ahead. When you’re there, be sure to check out the notice board area at the entrance to see a few mementos of visitors from the Little House on the Prairie TV series.
The Walnut Grove Bar & Grill offers regular pub-fare and is the only bar in town. Unlike others I’ve been to over the years, this one has a friendly atmosphere and I’ve never felt uncomfortable as a woman travelling alone and sitting down for a meal or drink.
Places to Stay
At the present time (June 2014), there is no dedicated lodging in Walnut Grove, other than camping at Plum Creek County Park. The closest nearby accommodation is in Tracy, Minnesota – located 8 miles west. The accommodation options there include an older style drive up motel (Wilder Inn) and the Valentine Inn Bed & Breakfast. If you can’t find accommodation in Tracy, a number of other nearby towns have motel style lodging, including, but not limited to Lamberton (10 miles east), Springfield (25 miles east) and Marshall (30 miles north west).
Enjoy your trip to Walnut Grove.