My daughters and I were all fans of The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. My husband was familiar with Laura, Pa and the gang, too, as he often read aloud these books to our youngest daughter. One evening when our youngest was in third grade, my husband came stomping down the stairs complaining that Pa just kept moving the family. The Ingalls would get settled, friends were made, life was productive and then Pa would move the family. He went on and on about Pa uprooting the family, his inability to stick with farming in one place, and the difficulties of moving. My husband looked for confirmation and support from our son and oldest daughter, who quizzically gazed at him. Our older kids were sitting at the dining room table in the fifth house and fourth state in which they had lived, recently having returned from spending a summer outside of London, which was a happy benefit of their Dad’s work. Our oldest made an understated but hilarious poke at the similarities between our lives and the Ingalls; my husband’s face registered the understanding that he had lacked a few moments earlier and we all had a good laugh. Occasionally we still refer to my husband as “Pa” when we gear up for another move, there have been three since that evening.
Laura’s many home towns were on my agenda. Unfortunately for me, my timing was poor. The DeSmet, South Dakota sights opened after Memorial Day (I’m a bit behind in this blog) and I wasn’t willing to go two hours out of my way for a drive-by. I focused instead on visiting Walnut Grove from “The Banks of Plum Creek”. Minnesota was the last ‘new state’ I would enter and I was excited to cross the border into the Land of 10,000 Lakes. The two hour drive was across fertile farmland and ever so enjoyable. I never tire of barns, silos, farmhouses, and fields on my horizon; proving once again that you can take the girl out of the Midwest but you can’t take the Midwest out of the girl. Walnut Grove was a small town that readily emphasized its relationship to Laura Ingalls Wilder with the Olsen’s Mercantile, Nellie’s Diner, a Wilder Pageant in July and a small museum. The museum was closed but it was a kiddie-place, so I was relieved that I couldn’t visit and was quite content to take a few photos and continue to the Ingalls’ family dugout along Plum Creek, north of town.
I put my $5.00 in the box by the barn of the Gordons, the current owners, and drove down the dirt road to explore where Laura played as a child. Spring was just coming on and Plum Creek was in full view. The big rock that Laura described as well as the spring and the remains of the dugout were all there. The fields of prairie grass and a walking trail around the area were established and maintained by the Gordons allowing for wildflowers and birds as well as fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder to enjoy the area. As I departed, a school bus arrived and I happily made my way back to State Route 14, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway. I couldn’t help but notice what a fertile, productive farm the Gordons’ had and considered once again the limited farming abilities of Charles Ingalls.
The LIW Historic Highway took me through a town called Sleepy Eye. I wondered aloud how this town had gotten its name and happily noted that it was busy, active and thriving as I drove on to Mankato. I made a brief stop in Mankato to see the homes of Betsy-Tacy, who were the characters of a popular series of the same name written by Maud Hart Lovelace. Although this series was a bit before my time, it was especially beloved by several of my friends, including a set of five sisters from Kalamazoo that I had the privilege to befriend years ago. Betsy and Tacy’s homes and the “Hill Street” neighborhood were just as Lovelace described them, a welcoming small-town midwestern life. I was pleased I had read the books before my trip and that I had made the stop.
My other Ingalls destination was to be Pepin, Wisconsin but after reading that the big woods in “The Little House in the Big Woods” had been cut down for farmland and there was a plaque in its place, I concluded it was time to head home to Michigan. My psyche couldn’t take three hours of driving to view a plaque, not after 8+ weeks on the road. My only stop in Wisconsin was worthy of any dessert lover, it was at a Culver’s, the home of butter burgers and frozen yogurt. The particular Culver’s I visited boasted to be the largest Culver’s in the USA, just off I-90 south of Madison. The ‘concrete mixer’, vanilla frozen yogurt mixed with M&Ms, was delicious and my last stop before facing non-stop construction from Rockford, Illinois to Chicago and then non-stop traffic on I-294 around Chicago.