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Laura Ingalls' Little House (er, Cave) on the Prairie  (Walnut Grove)

(Reprint from News: August 18, 2001)

August 18, 2001


I left Windom, Minnesota, that afternoon and camped at nearby Shetek Lake State Park.  After dinner, a powerful thunderstorm rolled in, so I hopped in the back of my pickup and closed everything up tight.  The storm was so intensethat I couldn't look out my window because the lightning flashed continually for40 to 50 seconds at a time and was, literally, too painful to watch -- quite anamazing storm, really.  Fortunately,though, there wasn't much hail which, in the Midwest, can be a big problemjudging from all the pock-marked cars that I see in parking lots.  Yep, hail repairmust be big business in the Midwest.


Theweather was cloudy and cool the next morning as I drove into the small village of Walnut Grove,Minnesota.  If you watched television in the 1970s, the name "WalnutGrove" might ring a bell because it was, of course, the setting for thetelevision series, "Little House on the Prairie," based loosely on thechildhood of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I've never read Laura's series of booksbut I've always been fascinated with the pioneering experience, long before Iknew that my ancestors were themselves pioneers -- and in the same part ofMinnesota, as it turns out.  I  dropped by the Laura Ingalls Wildermuseum in Walnut Grove and learned pretty quickly, though, that the televisionseries was almost entirely fictional.  It's a bit confusing, but I'll tryto clear up the story.


The real LauraIngalls (alias "Half-pint") was born in Wisconsin in the 1860s.  Herparents, Charles and Caroline, moved the family around the Midwest throughout the 1870s and 1880sbecause Charles, it seems, had a bad case of itchy feet, plus he couldn't holddown a job for one reason or another (though he could play a mean fiddle, just like in the television series).  During their numerous moves aroundthe Midwest, the Ingalls lived in a sod "dugout" -- a cave, really -- on Plum Creek,near the town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota. 


In 1880, Charles got a job for a railroadcompany on the barren plains of eastern South Dakota in what is today the townof De Smet and moved his family there.  Laura, who was 13 when she moved to De Smet,finished high school there and became a school teacher, married Almanzo Wilder a few yearslater, thenmoved with him to Missouri.  


When Laura was in her 50's, she began writingabout her childhood adventures in the various places that she'd lived. She based her book, On the Banks of Plum Creek on her experiences ofliving in the sod dugout near Walnut Grove, and based another book, calledLittle House on the Prairie, on her experiences of living in alittle house -- and on the prairie, no less -- in Independence, Kansas.  She based severalother books, including "The Long Winter" and "On the Shores of Silver Lake," on her later experiences in De Smet, South Dakota.



Above left:  The Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. There are also museums in the numerous other towns where she lived, including DeSmet, South Dakota, where I'd head later that day.

Above center:  Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls in the 1870s, around thetime they lived in Walnut Grove.

Above right:  I'm standing on the Banks of Plum Creek, near Walnut Grove,Minnesota.  The sign on the other side indicates where the Ingalls lived in 1879 in a cave dug into the bank.  



Above left:  This sign sits atop of Laura's former sod "dugout"on the banks of Plum Creek, near Walnut Grove.  There were very few treesin the upper Midwest back in those days, so most families either built sodhouses or dug a cave into the side of a hill, like the Ingalls did here.   

Above center:  A sketch of the Ingalls' dugout near Plum Creek with a"window" that was made of oiled paper.  There's nothing left ofthe dugout now except for a sunken depression.  How'd you like to spend asnowy winter living here?

Above right:  After leaving Walnut Grove, the Ingalls headed west to De Smet,South Dakota, as did I, traveling along the Laura Ingalls Wilder highway.


In the1970s, NBC created a television series based on Laura's childhoodexperiences, although the producers took some liberties with herstories.  I guess it's hard to film inside a dirt cave, so they gave thefamily a wooden house, called the town "Walnut Grove" (which has abetter ring than "De Smet," I guess), and called the series"Little House on the Prairie," though it wasn't set anywhere nearIndependence, Kansas.  This was an amalgam of herexperiences in Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota, of course, and is sort of like making a Mr.Potato Head while putting all the pieces in the wrong places, but Laura was deadby then and no one raised a fuss.  


Anyway, I hope that's not tooconfusingbut I wanted to set the record straight, since the T.V. producers twistedthings all around with Laura -- and don't get me started on what they did to herlittle dog.  To their credit, though, the producers diduse actresses who looked remarkably like Laura and her sister, Mary.


By theway, I discovered that the Ingalls family lived in Walnut Grove in 1879, which,interestingly enough, was the same year that my great-great-grandfather,Henry Reinhard, moved to this area from points east.  In fact, his son Henry Jr. (mygreat-grandfather) was the same age as Laura, so they may have known eachother and may have even gone to the same school.  Heck, he may have evendunked poor Laura's pigtails in his inkwell.  I also learned that thereal Nellie Oleson moved from Walnut Grove to Tillamook, Oregon where I'm sure shepestered her neighbors before moving to Portland, where she died in 1949.  I'll be sure to look upNellie's gravestone when I get back there.


As itturned out, this would be my "Laura Ingalls Wilder" day, because aftervisiting the museum in Walnut Grove, Minnesota and seeing where the Ingalls lived on thebanks of Plum Creek, I drove 100 miles west to visit the sleepy town of De Smet,South Dakota, where the Ingalls moved in 1880.  Pa Ingalls planted cottonwood trees on their homestead hereand these very same cottonwoodsare, amazingly enough, still standing.  Instead ofpaying $15 for a Laura Ingalls t-shirt in the nearby Visitor Center, I justpicked up a cottonwood twig and put it in my truck which, I thought, made a muchbetter souvenir.



Above left:  Charles Ingalls planted these four cottonwood trees in 1880 when the family lived on this homestead, a few miles outside of De Smet, South Dakota.  Laura taught school nearby, married Almanzo Wilder, and moved to Missouri, which is where, in her 50's, she began writing stories about her childhood. 

Above center:  I haven't visited enough cemeteries on this tripyet!  This is the Ingalls' plot in the De Smet cemetery (L-to-R:Carrie, Mary, baby, Ma and Pa).  Laura and her husband, Almanzo, are buriednear their farm in Rocky Ridge, Missouri.

Above right:  Laura lived a few blocks from this bar in De Smet, but I don't think she ever downed a cold one here. 


Here's the theme song of the NBC television series, Little House on the Prairie, starring Michael Landon and Karen Grassle, with Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls.

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Above left:  Introduction to the NBC series, Little House on the Prairie.  

Above center:  Ma and Pa Ingalls, also known as Michael Landon and Karen Grassle.  I doubt if my great-great-grandparents looked this cheerful (or clean) after bumping their way across southern Minnesota in a covered wagon for several weeks back in 1879.

Above right:  The three Ingalls girls, led by Half-pint.


Here's the Trail Band singing a lively tune, Down At The River.  When you hear this song, you can almost see the Ingalls swimming in Plum Creek.

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Down at the River

Grab a friend, grab a pole, come on down to the swimming hole

Bring your dog, bring a rope, but don't bring Mama 'cause she'll bring the soap

Yea, she'll bring the soap (Down at the River), she'll bring the soap (Down at the River)

Some are lost, some are delivered, take your place, down at the river.


Some catch fish, some catch cold, some catch fever and pan for gold

Some catch hell, just ask Joe, he found a turtle but he lost a toe

Yes, he lost a toe (Down at the River), he lost a toe (Down at the River)

Some things are lost, some are delivered, take your place, down at the river.


Some wear hats of the latest style, some wear nothing but a Kansas smile

Some get caught, some get found, some get a lickin' and they can't sit down

Brother Roy lost his teeth, dived in a river two feet deep

Now he can't eat corn, he can't chew rind, he talks kind of funny but he whistles fine

Yea, he whistles fine (Down at the River), he whistles fine (Down at the River)

Some things are lost, some are delivered, take your place, down at the river


Some folks splash, some have fun, some get sick from too much sun

Some get clean, some composed, some look funny when they hold their nose

Some get kissed, some get sparked, some get goosebumps in the dark

Some get sobered and some get lit, we all hate skeeters but we all get bit

Yea, we all get bit (Down at the River), we all get bit (Down at the River)

Some are lost, some are delivered, take your place, down at the river.


Some folks kick, some don't care, some blow bubbles, some lose hair

Some get saved, some can't swim, some find Jesus and jump right in

Some folks splash, some folks scream, some spend life swimming upstream

Some just wade, others leap, some don't think til they're in too deep

Til they're in too deep (Down at the River), in too deep (Down at the River)

Some are lost, some are delivered, take your place, down at the river.

Some are lost, some are delivered, take your place, down at the river.



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