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Laura's Little House (er, Cave) on the Prairie

After visiting Henry's barn and saying goodbye to Mike and Roger, I left Windom, Minnesota on Friday afternoon and camped nearby at Shetek Lake State Park.  A powerful thunderstorm rolled in after dinner, 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 the window because the lightning flashed continually for 40 to 50 seconds at a time and was, literally, too painful to watch.  It was quite an amazing storm, but fortunately 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 here.  Yep, hail dent repair apparently is big business in the Midwest.


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

The weather was cloudy and cool on Saturday 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 the setting for the television series, "Little House on the Prairie," which was based loosely on the childhood of author Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867 - 1957).  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 this same part of Minnesota, as it turns out.  I  dropped by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove and soon learned, though, that the television series was almost entirely fictional.  It's a little confusing but I'll try to clear it up.


The real Laura Ingalls (a.k.a. "Half-pint") was born in rural Wisconsin, near Minnesota.  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).  Among their many moves around the Midwest, the Ingalls lived for a while 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 farther west, on the barren plains of eastern South Dakota in what is today the town of De Smet, and he moved his family there.  Laura, who was 13 when she moved to De Smet, finished high school there and became a school teacher, married a local farmer named Almanzo Wilder a few years later, then moved with him to Missouri.


When Laura was in her 50s, she began writing a series of books about her childhood adventures in the various places that she had 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 when she was a teenager.



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, which I visited later that day.

Above right:  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 then, so most families either built sod houses or dug a cave into the side of a hill, like the Ingalls did here.



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

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 a sunken depression.  How would you like to spend a snowy winter living here?

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

Laura's Long Winter

In the 1970s, NBC created a television series based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's childhood experiences, although the producers took some liberties with her stories.  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"), and called the series "Little House on the Prairie," though it wasn't set anywhere near Independence, Kansas, where she had based that book on.  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.


Above:  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.  This site was where Laura based her book, "The Long Winter."  Laura taught school nearby, married Almanzo Wilder, and moved to Missouri.  When she was in her 50s, she began writing a series of books about her childhood on the frontier.

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, the Ingalls family lived in Walnut Grove in 1879, which was the same year that my great-great-grandfather, Henry Reinhard, had 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, young Henry 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 had moved in 1880.  De Smet was where Laura had based her book, "The Long Winter," among other works.  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:  After "The Long Winter" of 1880-81, Pa Ingalls built this house for his family in De Smet.

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.



Left:  Gee, 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.



Here's the theme song of 1970's NBC television series, Little House on the Prairie.




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

Above center:  Here's 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 back in 1879.

Above right:  The three Ingalls girls, led by Half-pint.  My great-grandfather, Henry Reinhard Jr., moved to the Walnut Grove area in 1879, the same year as the Ingalls and was Laura's age, so they may have known each other.



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


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.

Farming 101 (or, The Difference Between Hay and Straw)

I've never lived on a farm but for some reason, I've always been interested in farming.  Maybe its because of my agrarian roots in the Midwest (that I've been discovering on this trip).  Don't laugh, but when I lived in Portland, I went to Portland Community College each spring to watch the annual Draft Horse Plowing Exhibition (I asked you not to laugh now stop it!)  During the all-day event, some local farmers dusted off their draft horses and riding plows and demonstrated how farmers used to plow their fields (see News:  May 19, 2001).  Each May, when I would excitedly ask my friends if they were going to the Draft Horse Plowing Exhibition too, they either laughed or gave me a blank stare.  Well, I thought it was cool.


Speaking of farming, here's the theme song of the 1960's comedy TV series, Green Acres


I've learned a lot about farming while traveling through the Midwest during the past few weeks, so to complete this agrarian-themed page, I thought I'd add a brief primer on farming.


Even though I'm interested in farming, having grown up in the suburbs of California I never knew know much about it.  Well, I DID know more about farming than this cute girl I once dated in college who I'll call "Monica" because that was her name.  Monica was a sweet girl and a darn good chess player, but she was definitely not, shall we say, a future homemaker of America.  I learned this one night at dinner in the U.C. Riverside cafeteria when we started talking about bread and I realized that she didn't have a clue where it came from (here's a hint, Monica: "flour").


I'm certainly no expert on farming and there's a lot more to it than this.  But in case Monica's reading this, I wanted to pass along a few things I've learned these last few weeks.  Here it is for your, um, consumption:


The Difference Between Hay and Straw:

  • Hay:  Any of several nutritional grasses and legumes, such as alfalfa or clover, that is cut, dried, and then used as feed for farm animals.

  • Straw:  Hollow stalks of grain (such as wheat), used mostly as bedding and garden mulch.  In a pinch, straw can also be used as animal feed.  Straw has less nutritional value than hay, though.  And if you ask a cow, she'll say that it doesn't taste as good, either.




Above left:   Before you can plant seeds, you have to break up the soil.  This is at the Draft Horse Plowing Exhibition in Portland, Oregon a few months ago.  Of course, these days they use tractors to plow the ground instead of horses, but it's fun to see how they used to till the land.

Above right:  Here's a three-horse team and riding plow.  Many farmers back in the 1800s used a single horse and a hand plow, which is more work and slower than using a riding plow.



Above left:  Draft horses are the largest and most powerful breed of horses.  They're descendants of the horses used in battle by knights in shining armor during the days of King Arthur.  Each draft horse weighs about 2,000 pounds and eats about 20 pounds of hay every day.

Above right:  Alfalfa is a long grass that's grown throughout the Midwest.  "Hay" typically refers to cut alfalfa, but can also refer to other types of cut and dried grasses.  Hay is usually harvested in the late summer.  After it's cut, the grass is spread out to dry, then is often bundled into round bales, shown here.  Farmers feed hay to their livestock during the winter months when the fields are covered with snow.  Each hay bale feeds one horse or cow for about a month. 



Above left:  Wheat (shown here), corn, and soybeans are the three main crops in the Midwest.  Wheat needs less water to grow than corn or soybeans and therefore is found in drier areas that can't support corn, such as the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas.  The two main types of wheat are "spring wheat" (used for bread) and "durum wheat" (used mainly for pasta).  I took this picture at the Laura Ingalls Homestead in De Smet, South Dakota.

Above right:  A head of wheat, shown here, contains numerous kernels, one of which is visible.  A wheat kernel is hard, similar to a popcorn kernel.  After the wheat is harvested (i.e., cut), it's threshed to remove the kernels from the chaff (the non-edible portion).  The hard little wheat kernels are then ground up at a mill to produce flour, which is used for baking bread or making pasta.  The wheat shaft is called "straw," which is used mostly for bedding in barns.  When a farmer harvests his wheat fields, he'll often make two passes.  In the first pass, he'll cut off the heads of wheat.  During the second pass, perhaps weeks later, he'll cut lower and harvest the straw.  Although farm animals prefer to eat hay, they can eat straw in a pinch.


Note:  In 2012, an astute reader named Trev wrote to me and clarified that alfalfa is not actually a "grass" but rather a legume (a bean species).  As he pointed out, legumes like alfalfa are important because they add nitrogen to the soil rather than extract it, while grass consumes nitrogen.  That's why soybeans, another legume, are often planted after corn on the same land, to replenish the soil with nitrogen.  Thanks Trev!



Above left:  Corn was a New World crop, totally unknown in Europe before the 1500s.  These little corn cobs are from the 1200s, if not earlier.  I saw these at Grand Gulch in southern Utah during a backpacking trip that I took through the Anasazi ruins there a few years ago.  They're only a few inches long, not at all like the huge corn cobs that are common today.

Above center:  These are corn's larger descendents.  This field is in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, near Plum Creek where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in the 1870s.  Corn requires more moisture than wheat, so in the Midwest, corn is typically found in areas to the east of wheat-growing areas, including Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois.  The Midwest truly is the breadbasket (and cornbasket) of the world.

Above right:  Most corn stalks have about two ears of corn.  Corn is used in a number of ways:  as corn-on-the-cob with melted butter, as livestock feed, for corn syrup, and converted into ethanol and added to gasoline.  My favorite corn product, though, is Nacho Doritos.


Now wasn't that even more interesting than the Draft Horse Plowing Exhibition?



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