Reporting Mike Binkley
WALNUT GROVE, Minn. (WCCO) – It was 35 years ago that the TV show “Little House on the Prairie” made its debut. And soon afterward, viewers everywhere knew about Walnut Grove, Minn.
The show was based on the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who endured and yet embraced the rough life of a pioneering family. The show made it seem as if the Ingalls spent all their time in Minnesota, while in truth, they also moved around to Iowa, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Missouri and Kansas.
But Walnut Grove, which is about three hours away from the Twin Cities, is happy to get all the attention. Each summer, the community celebrates its most famous residents by putting on the Wilder Pageant over three weekends in July. It features an outdoor drama at a hillside amphitheater near Plum Creek, just as the sun is starting to set.
Beth Kleven, a high school English teacher, has played the role of “older Laura”, narrating the play for the past several years.
“As a performer,” she said, “it makes you feel so good when you look out and see people smiling back at you and nodding. I’m at the age where I do think about these memories like Laura did, and it’s fun to see people going ‘Ah,’ you know, when I talk about that fresh baked bread those women used to make.”
Much of the town, in fact, is a tribute to simpler times. The Laura Ingalls Wilder museum is a little village in itself, with mementos from the late 1800s, such as a Bible from the congregational church the Ingalls family attended in Walnut Grove.
It also features photos of the people that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about. For example, you learn that her nemesis, Nellie, was actually named Owens, not Oleson. And Pa looked nothing like Michael Landon.
Nicole Elzenga is the Collections Manager at the museum. One of the most prized possessions there is the fireplace mantel used on the Hollywood set. Elzenga points to the initials carved into it, and said, “C.I. C.I., of course, stands for Caroline Ingalls and Charles Ingalls.”
Nearly all the cast members from the show have made it to the real Walnut Grove.
“And when Melissa Gilbert came here this past October, she saw it and was amazed that we had it,” said Elzenga. “And she was very excited. She even spent a little quiet time with it.”
Just north of town is what they’ve determined is the actual spot where the Ingalls family first settled in Minnesota. It was a sod house, right along Plum Creek. There’s not much left of it right now, but you’ll find a recreation of it in the pageant.
This summer alone, Walnut Grove has had visitors from as far away as Ireland and Finland, all of them talking about their sense of coming home.
“It’s the family thing,” explained Kleven. “It’s the closeness of family. It’s the old-fashioned values. It’s the peaceful way of life even though they really suffered a lot of hardships. It’s the being delighted with simple things. It’s the camaraderie of friends. It’s being with other people.”
Next weekend, July 24-25, will be the final weekend of the summer for the Wilder Pageant and family festival. But the museum is open through the end of October.