Destination: Walnut Grove & Plum Creek

sod house
Soddie with sod roof

My goal was De Smet–850 long miles from home–where I’d visit Little Town on the PrairieThe Long Winter, and By the Shores of Silver Lake sites. But I sure couldn’t travel that far without a stop along the way to the banks of Plum Creek. The small town of Walnut Grove, namesake of the TV home of the Ingalls family, is just a few miles from Plum Creek, so I figured a stop at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Gift Store was in order. Except for the fact that TV actors visit Walnut Grove each year for the Wilder Pageant, Walnut Grove doesn’t offer much to LIW fans. Wilder herself only mentioned the town in passing; the family’s home in the area was at Plum Creek. This little town’s fame is totally reliant on the television show.

soddie with windows
Walls like concrete

The emphasis is on ‘gift store’ at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Gift Store. This museum was similar to the one on my trip to the Little House in the Big Woods last summer–a lot of books, dolls, and souvenirs for sale, but not much actual Ingalls’ memorabilia. (But of course I did buy two books!) One room housed story boards floor to ceiling, illustrating the family’s journey with photos and explanation of the period, along with excerpts from Wilder’s books. There was a binder of photocopied articles Wilder wrote when she and Almanzo settled in Missouri. A buffalo coat like Pa wore. But other than that? Only a place setting of dishes, a sewing basket, and two balls of crochet thread actually belonged to Wilder. My favorite (and most authentically museum-worthy) display was a few original sketches and paintings by Garth Williams that became the illustrations fans of the books know and love so well.  The originals are surprisingly small–some only 3″ X 3″!

The other room in the museum itself was dedicated to the TV series–magazines, photos, autographs–but that really isn’t my connection with Laura Ingalls Wilder and I admit I barely looked at it. The museum site also has a few other exhibits representing the time period: a chapel, a “Grandma’s House” (which focused on all things housekeeping), and a school room.There was also a sod house on the museum grounds, but it couldn’t compare to the display of sod houses (or soddies as they’re lovingly referred to) on the McCone family prairie grass farm in Sanborn.

I actually visited the Sod House on the Prairie (which is a private venture) first since it was on the way into town. The family has built replicas of different styles of sod houses–a dug out, a sod house with plastered walls and wood floors, a rough soddie with dirt floors and hay roof–and furnished them accordingly. It is a labor of love–and the re-creations gave me an idea of what life would have been like in prairie homes. One word: dirt. Dirt everywhere. Even the display cards in each soddie were covered with gritty grime … and bird poop. So when you look at Garth Williams’ endearing renderings of Laura frolicking on the banks of Plum Creek with the cozy little sod house tucked into the hill like a Hobbit house, just remember: dirt.

on the banks of plum creek
Plum Creek

Even though Plum Creek is just a creek (!) and the “remains” of the Ingalls’ dugout is only a depression in the bank, the site is surrounded by restored prairie that is home to birds and snakes and foxes (oh, my!) that makes a lovely little hike. (Bring bug spray!) In all honesty, I’d skip Walnut Grove and just drive through Plum Creek for a quick walk to stretch your legs and maybe a wade in the creek.

It was those times when I walked on Ingalls’ land and listened to the tall grass rustle, maybe catching sight of a thrush on the wing, that I felt Laura’s legacy. And that’s what I came for.

Destination: Little House In the Big Woods, Part 2

@wikipedia.org
@wikipedia.org

While my reason for visiting Pepin was really to check off a Little House site from my bucket list, I was charmed by the village itself and  the surrounding area. Driving in on US 61, I turned onto the Great River Road and drove alongside the bluffs, overlooking the Upper Mississippi. Known as the Driftless Area, this region escaped the glaciers of the last ice age and is characterized by high wooded bluffs, deep river valleys, and, of course, the mighty Mississippi. I had no idea.

@wikimedia.org
@wikimedia.org

Pepin itself was already a place for settlers to trade during the nineteenth century. Remember when Pa tramped off seven miles into town one day from the Ingalls’ house in the Big Woods? That town was Pepin.  Settlers who trapped all winter sold their pelts during the early months of spring, and the river gave traders a route for selling those furs. The surrounding countryside, once those Big Woods, is now farmland.

Downtown PepinToday Pepin itself seems to be centered on the Laura attractions and Lake Pepin. The marina was hopping the day I arrived, and it looked like every slip was taken. Brochures for sailing and kayaking trips, as well as guided fishing expeditions were stacked at every cash register, it seemed, and I’m guessing the outdoor adventure industry is a lot more lucrative than the Laura connection. Outside of the harbor area (which was “prettified” nicely), Pepin resembled most other small towns (pop. 837) in rural America.

I stayed at A Summer Place Inn on Main Street just two blocks up from the lake. Owner Nancy greeted me at the door and took me to my room. Nancy was the perfect B&B owner for my tastes: she gave me a suggestion for dinner and directions to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum (just a block and a half away), told me what time coffee and pastries would be set out in the mornA Summer Place Inning, and otherwise left me on my own. The room was cozy, clean, and decorated in pretty typical (but tasteful) B&B fashion. (Check out Ruth’s Room on A Summer Place’s website for a photo.) The cottage garden around the lawn of A Summer Place was sweet as sweet could be—bordered, of course (!), by a white pIMG_2112icket fence.

Nancy’s dinner suggestion was Harbor View Café and I’d go back in a New York Wisconsin minute. No menus, just their famous chalkboard! I started with a craft beer (spilled a bit because my hubby wasn’t there to pour it correctly for me), and ordered black bean fritters over a warm kale salad. It was served with a timbale of rice which was delicious, but really not needed. Dessert was the chocolate buttercream pie I mentioned here.

This trip was quickly thrown together, but I’d love to return to Wisconsin and take in more along the gorgeous Mississippi—talk about God’s country.

Next time: maybe kayaking?!