Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway: Walnut Grove, Minnesota — Part 2

I got up early today and was raring to go! We were spending the day in Walnut Grove and exploring all the sites where Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family lived, worked, attended school, and went to church. We would also be going to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum.

The Ingalls family moved to Walnut Grove around the time Laura was seven years old (Note: Laura started writing her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, when she was 65 years old. Her publishers questioned whether a child as young as she was at that time the family was in Pepin, Wisconsin [two years old] could remember such details. Therefore, the ages given for Laura in all the books were slightly older than her actual age when she lived at each location. I believe, since there was no television or radios back then, families told “stories” frequently in the evenings, and it was through that storytelling that she had vivid memories of all the places they lived, including Pepin. Again, that is MY opinion.)

Our very first stop was at Nellie’s Cafe in Walnut Grove. If you were a fan of the television series, you know that when the character, Nellie, grew up, her mother built a hotel and restaurant supposedly for Nellie to run. Well, Nellie couldn’t cook and was rude to the customers, so Caroline Ingalls took over the cooking. Those were some pretty funny episodes. SOOOOO, I wanted to eat breakfast at Nellie’s Cafe.

They had a wall full of autographed pictures from several of the actors from the television show (some of the actors visit Walnut Grove regularly during their peak season, usually the month of July when they have their outdoor, weekend pageants depicting the Ingalls family while they were in Walnut Grove). Even though this building had nothing to do with the actual historical sites related to the Ingalls’ family life, it was fun to eat there. Besides, our breakfast was very good, and they had the BEST bacon EVER!

When the Ingalls family first arrived in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, they lived in a sod dugout on the banks of Plum Creek about one and a half miles north of the town. This location was discovered in 1947 by Garth Williams, the illustrator for Laura’s books. Williams had been following the Ingalls’ trail in courthouse records. When he got to Walnut Grove, he learned that earlier that year Harold and Della Gordon had bought the 172 acre farm that had been homesteaded by the Ingalls. He told the Gordons that the unusual depression on the banks of Plum Creek was the location of the Ingalls’ dugout. Can you imagine their surprise?

The Gordon family has left the dugout site as they found it in 1947 and continues to maintain access to it for Laura’s fans. Visitors can still identify the plum thickets, table lands, big rock, spring, and other sites that Laura describes in her book “On the Banks of Plum Creek.” The deep depression is all that remains of the dugout home (as time passed, the roof collapsed creating the depression). None of the buildings that Pa built remain, and their exact location is unknown. The Gordon’s planted about 25 acres around the dugout site with native grasses to enhance the visitors’ experience.

Entrance to the site is through the current 1900 era farmstead, and one can visit during daylight hours from May through October, weather permitting. The Gordon’s charge visitors $5.00 per car which you deposit at the site on the honor system. You just follow the signs to the parking and picnic area and enjoy the sights and sounds from Laura’s time. Of course, as I walked around, I imagined the spunky little Laura wading in the creek and running through the prairie grasses.

You turn off the county road at this sign.

It’s like you are going up to the driveway to the Gordon’s private home (Well, you kind of are!). Just follow their road on around and up the hill.

This is where you stop and pay your fee.

Just keep following the road around. I’m pretty sure that field is the same field Charles Ingalls plowed, planted, and harvested back in the 1870s.

Around this bend is a parking lot that doesn’t look like much, but you are in the correct spot. Now just get out and explore!

That is our little shih tzu, Zoey. She LOVES road trips!

Karen Grassle, the actress who played “Ma” in the television series, visited the dugout site in 1975.

That is the big rock. You can tell the course of the creek has changed quite a bit since Karen Grassle was there in 1975. We later learned from the lady at the museum that there was a terrible flood this past July 3rd that washed away most of the parking lot.

We had to cross over to the other side of the creek to see the dugout.

This is the view looking toward Plum Creek as I am standing in front of the dugout.

About half a mile north of the turnoff for the dugout site is a monument set up on the side of the road. This monument marks the spot of the Ingalls farmland to the southeast and documents her writing of the book On the Banks of Plum Creek tells of actual incidents of pioneer life in Walnut Grove and north Hero Township in the 1870s.

That field behind the monument and the bushes is the field Charles Ingalls plowed, planted, and harvested.

Next, we stopped in at the museum. I wasn’t ready to tour the museum yet, but I harned on the internet that the museum had maps of the town to give visitors showing the location of the school and church the Ingalls attended along with the present location of the actual bell “Pa” helped purchase for their church, and part of the building that was the Masters Store and Hall where Pa and Laura worked. We picked up a map and headed out.

First, we stopped at the site where the Ingalls family attended church. At one time the Congregational Church stood on this corner lot, however, this greenish colored house is now on the site and is a private home. Can you imagine living here and your kids running around and playing in the yard on the same ground on which Laura Ingalls Wilder ran and played?

Next, the school site. This private home sits on the site where the school that the Ingalls children once attended stood. I thought it was nice that there was a sign in the yard stating that was the actual site of the school. I wondered how old that tree in the yard next to the sign was. Was it here when Laura was here? Look closely at the tree. Do you see the initials carved into the bark of the tree? My guess is that probably isn’t an original carving by Laura or Almanzo, but it sure added a little extra excitement to one’s imagination. Of course, I just HAD to skip around in the street in front of the house, just like Laura probably did in the school yard in that very spot! (Skipping at my age was NO easy task! 😂)

On to the next stop: Pa’s Bell. The actual bell that the Ingalls family heard every Sunday morning and Charles gave money to help the church buy is still in Walnut Grove! It is in the belfry of the English Lutheran Church. Here are a few pictures of the bell.

You have to look REALLY hard to see the top of the bell in this picture.

This is from the other side of the church. I think you can see the bell better from this side.

While I was taking pictures, a man from across the street started walking over to me. We talked about the Ingalls and the history of the town. I told him I was a big fan of the Little House books and the TV show. He told me the church was open and I could ring the bell if I wanted. Well, let me see ….. YES!!!! We went inside and he showed the ropes to pull. I first pulled the one on the right several times. The rope on the left was another clapper inside the bell that had a different sound. However, when I pulled it, it didn’t work. He said that one gets tangled and caught on something up in the belfry occasionally. I said that was ok; I was just super excited I got to ring the bell that Charles Ingalls more than likely rang!

Do you want to know the BEST part of all this is? Jack was sitting outside in the car with Zoey, and he RECORDED the sound of the bell as I rang it. (Video is about 60 seconds)

The last site we went to, but certainly not the least, was the Masters Store and Hall. The two-story part of the building was still standing. The store was on the first floor and the second floor was a hall where a church met and where the town held dances, meetings, and other gatherings.

Attached to the south of the two-story part of the building (to the left) used to be a one-story hotel, the Masters Hotel. It was built somewhere around 1876. Charles was an accomplished carpenter, and it is possible that he worked on the Masters Hotel building. Laura writes about her experiences working here setting tables, washing dishes, folding laundry, and babysitting the Masters’ granddaugther in her autobiographical book Pioneer Girl.

This picture is a copy of an old picture of the Masters Hotel, Store and Hall. It’s not a very good picture because I had to take it through the old glass on the front of the building. If you zoom in you can see the one-story hotel on the left side of the two-story building as well as some people.

The Masters Hotel building is right across the street from the museum. The museum had been interested in purchasing the property for quite a long time. The owner passed away in the fall of April 2016 while informally negotiating with the museum, but there was no contract. The owner’s daughter was supportive of the museum purchasing the property and sold it to them in the fall of 2016. The museum intends to restore the building and use it as a museum, however, it will take years to complete such an undertaking as well as financial support through donations and a lot of volunteer labor.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our adventure in Walnut Grove. Part 3 – coming soon!

So, for now …..”On the Road Again!”


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: