This series is one of the first I remember reading and simultaneously composing a story in my head about three little girls in pioneer times–girls decidedly *not* named Laura, Mary, and Carrie–telling them to myself as I walked, drove in the car, or in general had any spare moment of downtime. And only on Monday nights was I allowed to stay up till the unorthodox hour of 8:30 to watch the show with my parents. I can still hear the theme song as that wagon bounced over the prairie with Karen Grassle holding down her bonnet.
It was the Best Editor in the World who first told me you could visit Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house and other Little House spots, which she learned on her own cross country journey, from NJ to Alaska, where she earned an MFA before the program became low-res.
(More on my thoughts about MFA programs when I’m not traveling across the great plains and encountering internet vacuums).
We aren’t going quite as far as Alaska (though I’d like to someday–maybe with a book in hand and bookstores to visit, or even an MFA class to say hello to) but the Laura Ingalls Wilder experience is definitely going to be a highlight of our trip. After all, I have a just turned seven year old who is already up to book five in the series and is as into “old-fashioned” as I was, in some odd display of genetic linkage.
(When I was about the same age I objected to my poor mother getting a food processor since chopping by hand was more life on the prairie-like).
The actual town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota is our first stop. It is hot and dry when we arrive. A few hours earlier, we had a surprisingly good lunch in a town with a population of fifteen that boasts three businesses, including our lunch stop. The cook is a master of frying and I had a German version of a hamburger, made with local beef, Swiss cheese, and some mustard-sauerkraut concoction that added exactly the right touch.
The kids really need to stretch by the time we pull into town, and what an array of options for stretching there are! The first thing they do is climb into a real, actual wagon. They can sit on the seat and look out, just like Laura and Mary did when they left the Big Woods! (This appeals more to my daughter than my son, who is more interested in determining the differences between wagon and car wheels, and incidentally discovers the very twentieth century foam they have wrapped around the frame in the wagon cover).
But the rest of the museum is decidedly authentic. There’s a little church with a pump piano. Ma and Pa apparently decided to settle in Walnut Grove because there was a church and a school to be had. Although Pa helped build the church, so I’m not quite straight on all my historical details. There’s also a little one room schoolhouse, a recreation of a pioneer cabin AND a dugout. Many of the displays are hands-on–and say so–encouraging the children to rub clothes on a washboard, don dresses and sunbonnets, and stir pots on a cook stove.
There’s even a four foot tall horse (not real) on which the kids can practice their mount and dismount.
It’s a great place to spend some hours off the road–rich in history, and fun, and able to bring the stories to life in ways that will captivate kids who know them. There’s a cafe with homey specialties (which we didn’t get to try) and a gift shop with toys you’ll never see anywhere else (and which should keep the kids engaged for another thirty + hours in the car).
However, the Minnesota heat is staggering. I’ve never felt anything like it, and the small, close buildings they’ve set up do nothing to lower the temperature. Which is why when we finally pile back into the car again and move on up the road to check out Plum Creek–the actual site where the Ingalls family all lived in their own dugout) we have a beyond nice experience waiting.
I’ll tell you all about it as soon as I can get back on the net.
Oh, and that second night of camping in Wisconsin? Let’s just say that between mosquitoes that enter the kids’ mouths and ears, and a fantastic, healthy, but–between the bugs and the heat, largely wasted–take out dinner hastily consumed in the car as my husband tries to throw together the tent–not all camp outs are blissful.
And maybe they shouldn’t be. That’s what we’re learning here on the road. There are high points where being together as a family feels like the only thing we’d ever need, everything that is essential contained in one snug space. And when it’s not so special–when the kids are engulfed by biting insects and rising to the occasion without panic or even complaint, or squabbles erupt and we have all the time in the world to really work them through–well, that’s when we see what we’re capable of as a family.
That’s when we know who we are.