It’s hard not to laugh at a particular scene in Walnut Grove’s annual outdoor pageant that depicts 1860s prairie life as settlers moved in and fought to make a living off the land. Walnut Grove’s first town council sits around Olson’s Mercantile, chatting about how the town will one day become a thriving city. More than 100 years later, the population hovers at 871. In fact, most of the towns where author Laura Ingalls Wilder lived (including Pepin, Wisconsin; Walnut Grove, Minnesota; and De Smet, South Dakota) remain small and rural, but they continue to draw fans from around the world who grew up reading On the Banks of Plum Creek and watching the popular TV series that debuted in 1974.
Today, visitors can wade in the real Plum Creek or make their way 1.5 miles north of town to the Ingalls family’s original dugout home. However, most come for the summer pageant and the museum. More than 50 people round out the cast for the pageant (which includes live animals and a prairie fire); other locals help host family-friendly activities like teaching kids to make cornhusk dolls or serving up hearty community suppers.
Food and lodging options are sparse at best, but Walnut Grove makes for a pleasant daytrip. And it’s impossible to leave without a renewed appreciation for the rigors of pioneer life and the modern, can-do spirit of American small towns.