Little Town on the Prairie

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on March 25, 2001

Laura Ingalls Wilder lived along Plum Creek for only a couple of years, but the people in nearby Walnut Grove, Minn., continue to honor the famous American author with an outdoor drama each summer.

We revise as little as possible, says Bill Richards, pageant director and principal of the local high school. The script is adjusted every once in a while to accommodate changes in cast or a new fact that we find.

The Fragments of a Dream pageant, written by Walnut Grove native James Merchant, hasnt changed much since it was first performed in 1978. Retired farmer Al Farber, who has played town resident Frank Kennedy since 1984, still captivates audiences when he climbs to the top of the set to secure a cross on the new church steepleand the cast of pioneer families cheers in celebration.

The 60-member cast, made up of amateur actors from the area, presents the pageant each July at an outdoor amphitheater along the banks of Plum Creek west of Walnut Grove.

This town has always been full of talented people, says Pam Steffen, who composed part of the musical score for the pageant and co-owns the Fond Memories gift shop in town.

In 1874, Laura Ingalls and her family left Pepin, Wis., and moved into a one-room sod house 1.5 miles north of Walnut Grove. Ingalls, who was 7 years old at the time, went on to author eight books in her lifetime, including On the Banks of Plum Creek, inspired by the four years she spent growing up there.

Walnut Grove (pop. 644) is a farming community on Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota. The highway, which passes through the middle of town, was designated the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway in 1995 because it traverses the four Midwestern states the Ingalls family lived in during its migration westward.

Walnut Grove has grown over the years, but some of its original buildings remain, including the Masters Hotel where Laura Ingalls worked washing dishes and caring for younger children. The hotel now is a private home, as is the schoolhouse she attended.

A 1903 bank building is a fine arts center, open year-round with exhibits by regional artists. Even the church bell that Ingalls father, Charles, helped purchase calls people to worship every Sunday at the new English Lutheran Church building.

However, not much remains of the sod house occupied by the Ingalls family more than a century ago. The dugout is only an indentation in a hill on a piece of prairie owned by Stan and Hazelle Gordon. But people still stop by and put their toes in Lauras Plum Creek, Hazelle says.

Hazelle volunteers at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Gift Shop in Walnut Grove a few days a week. The museum grounds, open to the public from April to October, contain two old farmhouses, a historic train depot, and a replica of a one-room schoolhouse. The structures display early Walnut Grove artifacts, including a quilt sewn by Laura Ingalls, a doll collection, an original 1887 parlor organ carried West by covered wagon, and memorabilia from the popular television series, Little House on the Prairie. Laura Ingalls Wilders literary work inspired the show, which first aired in 1974.

During the summer months every able-bodied person helps out here, Hazelle says.

Lynn and Doug Rees traveled all the way from River Forest, Ill., with their two children, Stephen, 8, and Madeleine, 5, to tour the museum and attend the pageant. Ive read all of my (Little House) books to Stephen, and now we are starting to read them to Madeleine, says Lynn as she and her daughter head to the stage to collect autographs from the pageant cast.