On Laura’s Trail, Part 2

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.

Replica of the “Little House in the Big Woods” on the original Ingalls land outside Pepin, Wisconsin.


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.)

Burr Oak

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.

The Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa, where Pa managed and Ma ran the kitchen. No pics allowed inside.
The Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa, where Pa managed and Ma ran the kitchen. No pics allowed inside.

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).

On Laura’s Trail, Part 1

1wagonWhile planning Le Voyage Extraordinaire and researching possible waypoints along our indefinite odyssey across the country, we discovered that the path kept intersecting with places that had a connection with Laura Ingalls Wilder and her “Little House” series.

  • Pepin, Wisconsin — “Little House in the Big Woods”
  • Independence, Kansas — “Little House on the Prairie”
  • Maple Grove, Minnesota — “On the Banks of Plum Creek”
  • De Smet, South Dakota — “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” “The Long Winter,” “Little Town on the Prairie,” “These Happy Golden Years” and “The First Four Years”
  • Mansfield, Missouri — where Laura and Almanzo Wilder settled, where she wrote the books.
  • Burr Oak, Iowa — not depicted in a book

So, we decided, why not try to hit them all?

The first stop on Laura’s trail, and actually, the last stop for most of the Ingalls family, was De Smet (emphasis on the ‘Dee’). They spent many years there, beginning in 1879. The town has preserved their homestead and opened it as a living history site. Also, several buildings associated with them have been restored, including the “Surveyor’s House” where they lived when they first moved there, the house Pa later built in town, a store that was open back then, and the “Church That Pa Built.”

That church began as a Congregational church! (Congregationalists merged with other faith communities to become the United Church of Christ in the late 1950s.) The building itself, however, was sold to another church, and the UCC building (“the Church That Pa Founded”) is elsewhere in town. (We missed the worship service because we didn’t know what time it started.)

Also, Pa and Ma — Charles and Caroline — and sisters Mary, Carrie and Grace, as well as Laura and Almanzo’s infant son, are buried in the De Smet Cemetery.

We stayed in a “covered wagon” on the homestead, visited the cemetery and took a guided tour of the Ingalls buildings in town. The young lady who led the tour did a great job remembering all of the facts and dates and trivia. It was kinda cool when she described a passage from one of the books, and pointed to a certain spot. “This is the door where Laura first entered the house. She crossed this floor (with its original boards) and opened this door to look up into the attic at the huge bedroom.”

It was really quite a nice place to visit. It reminded Tim of some of his ancestors — who also moved around a lot. We will be visiting some of their homesteads and towns later.