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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 intense that I couldn't look out my window because the lightning flashed continually for 40 to 50 seconds at a time and was, literally, too painful to watch -- quite an amazing storm, really.  Fortunately, though, there wasn't much hail which, in the Midwest, can be a big problem judging from all the pock-marked cars that I see in parking lots.  Yep, hail repair must be big business in the Midwest.


The weather 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 "Walnut Grove" might ring a bell because it was, of course, the setting for the television series, "Little House on the Prairie," based loosely on the childhood of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I've never read Laura's series of books but I've always been fascinated with the pioneering experience, long before I knew that my ancestors were themselves pioneers -- and in the same part of Minnesota, as it turns out.  I  dropped by the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Walnut Grove and learned pretty quickly, though, that the television series was almost entirely fictional.  It's a bit confusing, but I'll try to clear up the story.


The real Laura Ingalls (alias "Half-pint") was born in Wisconsin in the 1860s.  Her parents, Charles and Caroline, moved the family around the Midwest throughout the 1870s and 1880s because Charles, it seems, had a bad case of itchy feet, plus he couldn't hold down a job for one reason or another (though he could play a mean fiddle, just like in the television series).  During their numerous moves around the 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 railroad company on the barren plains of eastern South Dakota in what is today the town of 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 years later, then moved with him to Missouri.  


When Laura was in her 50's, she began writing about her childhood adventures in the various places that she'd lived.  She based her book, On the Banks of Plum Creek on her experiences of living in the sod dugout near Walnut Grove, and based another book, called Little House on the Prairie, on her experiences of living in a little house -- and on the prairie, no less -- in Independence, Kansas.  She based several other 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 De Smet, South Dakota, where I'd head later that day.

Above center:  Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls in the 1870s, around the time 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 trees in the upper Midwest back in those days, so most families either built sod houses 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 of the dugout now except for a sunken depression.  How'd you like to spend a snowy 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 the 1970s, NBC created a television series based on Laura's childhood experiences, although the producers took some liberties with her stories.  I guess it's hard to film inside a dirt cave, so they gave the family a wooden house, called the town "Walnut Grove" (which has a better ring than "De Smet," I guess), and called the series "Little House on the Prairie," though it wasn't set anywhere near Independence, Kansas.  This was an amalgam of her experiences 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 dead by then and no one raised a fuss.  


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


By the way, 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. (my great-grandfather) was the same age as Laura, so they may have known each other and may have even gone to the same school.  Heck, he may have even dunked poor Laura's pigtails in his inkwell.  I also learned that the real Nellie Oleson moved from Walnut Grove to Tillamook, Oregon where I'm sure she pestered her neighbors before moving to Portland, where she died in 1949.  I'll be sure to look up Nellie's gravestone when I get back there.


As it turned out, this would be my "Laura Ingalls Wilder" day, because after visiting the museum in Walnut Grove, Minnesota and seeing where the Ingalls lived on the banks 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 here and these very same cottonwoods are, amazingly enough, still standing.  Instead of paying $15 for a Laura Ingalls t-shirt in the nearby Visitor Center, I just picked up a cottonwood twig and put it in my truck which, I thought, made a much better 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 trip yet!  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 buried near 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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