The next stops on the Laura Ingalls Wilder trail were Walnut Grove, Minn.; Pepin, Wis.; and Burr Oak, Iowa. The first town celebrated the “Little House on the Prairie” TV show more than the books; the second town was the setting for the first book, “Little House in the Big Woods”; and the third town was not part of the original books at all.
Walnut Grove, Minnesota
The Ingalls lived a mile or two north of Walnut Grove, first in a dugout and later in a house that Pa built. Laura and Mary started attending school in town, where they met Laura’s TV nemesis, Nellie Oleson. They suffered crop failures, locust infestations and a blizzard. This is also where Mary went blind after contracting scarlet fever. And, the Ingalls’ son, Charles Frederick, was born there. He died nine months later, and he is not mentioned in any books.
They lived there only for about two years, although the TV show depicts them living there much longer, into Laura’s adulthood. That time in their lives is described in the fourth book, “On the Banks of Plum Creek” — but the town is not mentioned by name.
Apparently, Walnut Grove (pop. 850) was caught off-guard when “Little House on the Prairie” was on TV. Visitors arrived looking for Laura, and they had nothing! Over the years, the town has put together a nice little museum, with period-style buildings (“a schoolhouse like the one that Laura and Mary would have attended”) and some artifacts (a quilt that may have belonged to Laura”) and memorabilia from the TV show. Walnut Grove has an annual pageant with a “family-oriented outdoor drama based on the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder in Walnut Grove.”
Walnut Grove does have the Ingalls Dugout Site, which was tracked down in the 1940s. It is indeed “on the banks of Plum Creek.” The roof caved in years ago and all that is left is a deep depression on the hillside. But features mentioned in the book — the plum thickets, the Big Rock and the Spring — are still there. You can imagine the Laura playing in the creek.
Pepin has even less than Walnut Grove. The Ingalls family didn’t leave behind any artifacts when they left the Big Woods, so the tow’s museum also has a covered wagon “like” the one the Ingalls family may have used.
There is a reconstructed cabin on the site of the original, so you can see where the Little House in the Big Woods stood. (The woods aren’t nearly as big as they used to be.)
Laura did not write about the Ingalls’ time in Burr Oak, at least not in the Little House series. She did tell about the experiences there in her autobiography. It was a sad time in their lives. They moved here after Walnut Grove, after the crop failures, after Mary went blind. And on the way, the baby boy, Freddie, died.
In Burr Oak, Pa managed a hotel and Ma cooked the meals for the travelers. The building still stands, and the tour guide will show you the tiny room where all five Ingallses slept, the kitchen where Ma cooked three meals a day for dozens of weary men, the tiny rooms upstairs that accommodated three men to a bed.
The family never got ahead here. They were so poor that a doctor’s wife tried to adopt Laura. They were deep in debt, and they left town in the middle of the night before the sheriff could come and take their horses for taxes.
They returned to Walnut Grove for awhile, before moving west so Pa could work for the railroad and help found the town of De Smet, South Dakota (which we visited in Laura’s Trail, Part 1).