We were on holidays in St Joseph’s Hotel in Fethard-on-Sea in Co. Wexford when Elvis Presley died. I didn’t realise what the big deal was until a Dublin girl of my age who I’d been hanging out with appeared one morning in tears. Elvis? Elvis who? Sadly, my musical literacy hasn’t improved much since. But when Laura Ingalls (Melissa Gilbert) and Almonzo Wilder (Dean Butler) were getting it together on the TV series Little House on the Prairie, that rocked my world.
I followed that romance as if Laura were my BFF. It was heady stuff. I’m a big LHOTP fan. I even went to visit Michael Landon’s grave in Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City, CA last time I was there. If I have to tell you he played Charles Ingalls in the TV series, you might as well stop reading now ? Michael Landon agreed to direct it, if he got to play Charles and in later seasons, three of his own kids would also star in the show (Michael Jnr, Leslie, and Shawna). It had all the makings of a family business. And a lot like the Waltons, I grew up with the characters.
Driving back from Balaton, MN to Minneapolis, we passed through a town called Walnut Grove, population 871. And as luck would have it, it was the very same Walnut Grove that featured in LHOTP. I was stoked.
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Gift Store are certainly playing to the tourist trade, many of whom just happened upon the town as we did but other LHOTP pilgrims had made Walnut Grove their destination. The cast of the TV show has also dropped by, leaving various bits of memorabilia behind them. And there’s stuff from the real Ingalls family, too, like a quilt once owned by Laura and her daughter Rose, a bible from the church they attended, and many letters and photos.
Every year, the town runs an LHOTP pageant and features a Laura-Nellie lookalike contest for 8-12-year-old girls. If you have a daughter who could be ringleted to look like the mean ole Nellie or pinafored to look like Laura, the 2020 dates are July 11, 18, and 25.
Although the TV series was set in Walnut Grove (and filmed in California), only one of the books in the series featured it – On the Banks of Plum Creek. That hill where Laura flies down through the prairie grass in the opening shot? It’s not in Walnut Grove. It’s a flat as a long-playing record. But it is where the Ingalls family lived from 1874 to 1876 (and returned to for a short while in 1878). Charles and Caroline Ingalls had come to town with every intention of homesteading but after their crop failed three times, they purchased the land from the government and resold it at a $13 loss. But they were then free to move on. And on they moved to Burr Oak, Iowa, to help run a hotel. En route, their only son Charles Jnr, died aged 9 months.
The TV series ran for nine seasons with 204 episodes and four specials. It had quite the reach. One two-part episode, I’ll be waving as you drive away, ranks at 97 in the 1997 TV Guide list of 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time. It featured guest appearances by some greats like Johnny Cash and Roseanne Carter Cash, Louis Gosset Jnr, and an uncredited extra appearance by Sean Penn. [Note to self made to rewatch the entire series and see if I can spot the great SP and JC.]
I was amused to read that Nellie and Laura – arch enemies on screen – were good friends in real life. Alison Arngrim (Nellie) had some life, one that’s she’s written about in a memoir Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated.
A piece of trivia for you – Melissa G was adopted by a family who later adopted a boy named Jonathan who’d go on to be Nellie’s brother Willie on LHOTP. If you’re into it at all, there’s a great site with loads of good reading: http://littlehouseontheprairie.com/
But back to Walnut Grove.
The Gordon’s bought the 172-acre farm completely unaware that it had once been homesteaded by the Ingalls. In fact, were it not for Garth Williams, the artist who’d illustrated Laura’s books, they might never have known. Today, the Gordon family makes the dugout accessible to LHOTP fans, although the depression is about all that remains of the original home.
We ate in Nellie’s Restaurant, eavesdropping shamelessly on small-town life. Interestingly, a recent population surge is reflecting in the school system with 42% of students enrolled Hmong. Imagine what that would have been like back in Laura’s day.
Some miles outside of town, the enterprising Stan McCone decided to reconstruct a sod house from the era. Everyone thought he’d gone a little barmy, but in the spirit of ‘build it and they will come’ McCone ignored the naysayers and went ahead with his Sod House on the Prairie. His efforts were rewarded. His was one of four sod houses covered in a special documentary on the History Channel back in 2001. And the visitors keep coming, many of the less-informed no doubt thinking that this was the original Ingalls home. It’s great to see a little craziness come good.
Laura’s mother Caroline was born in 1839 in Brookfield, Wisconsin – the city we’d stayed in earlier that week. Funny that. Laura herself was born in 1867, near Pepin, Wisconsin. She didn’t start to write her books about her life on the prairies until the 1920s.
In the 1920s, Wilder’s first attempt at writing an autobiography, called Pioneer Girl, was uniformly rejected by publishers. Determined to succeed, Wilder spent the next several years reworking her writing, including switching the title and changing the story to be told from the third-person perspective. In 1932, Laura Wilder published Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in what would become an autobiographical series of children’s books, collectively called the Little House books. Just as Little House in the Big Woods recounts her life in Pepin, Wisconsin, each of her books focuses on one of the more memorable places she lived. With Wilder and daughter Rose working together on the manuscripts, other books in the Little House series include Little House on the Prairie, Farmer Boy, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years. Wilder completed the last book in the series in 1943, when she was 76 years old.
There’s hope for me yet.
I was reminded of a road trip through to Prince Edward Island in Canada and happening upon New London, and the childhood home of Lucy Maud Montgomery, creator of Anne of Green Gables, another favourite book series from the days when life was innocent and simplicity was key.
It’s one of the things I love about road trips – you simply never know what you might stumble across.