Midwest Traveler: Pioneer days come alive in Walnut Grove, Minn.

  • Article by: LISA MEYERS MCCLINTICK , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 27, 2014 - 1:24 PM
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The Wilder Pageant, an outdoor show with about 50 cast members, live animals and special effects, brings to life Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memories of living in Walnut Grove during the 1870s. The pageant runs Fridays and Saturdays through the last three weeks of July.

Photo: LISA MEYERS McCLINTICK • Special to the Star Tribune,

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It’s way past bedtime on a sweltering summer night, but my twin daughters in calico dresses and pushed-aside bonnets sit hunched forward and riveted. In front of us, Laura Ingalls and her family frantically try to snuff out the real flames of a prairie fire before hundreds of spectators at Walnut Grove’s pageant stage. If there’s a place to tap your inner prairie girl, this is it. Long before American Girl dolls were introduced, generations fell in love with real American girl Laura Ingalls Wilder. In the way that Jane Austen fans converge in England, Wilder fans flock here from all corners of the globe.

They reminisce, wade into Plum Creek, visit the local museum, seek autographs from characters on the “Little House on the Prairie” TV series, and then settle in for the pageant, where a horse-drawn carriage clip-clops across the stage, children laugh as Nellie gets dunked in a pond, and special-effects crews pull off a fairly convincing grasshopper plague.

Not all the acting is polished, but after several decades of practice, the all-ages cast and crew of more than 50 people — plus real livestock and the flaming prairie fire — have the telling of Laura’s stories down to a science.

Less than three hours from Minneapolis-St. Paul and its world of smartphones, Wi-Fi and virtual realities, this remote patch of Minnesota prairie and farmland is far from a big city and claims about 860 residents. But that’s part of its charm.

A handful of young girls — and some adult women — wander through the local museum wearing calico skirts and bonnets. Others line up to get autographs and meet former stars, such as Charlotte Stewart, who played Miss Beadle and sells homemade tote bags in the museum store.

This year’s TV cast reunion July 25-26 includes Dean Butler, who played Almanzo, and Alison Arngrim, who played spoiled, bratty Nellie Oleson. Nellie’s smirking face can be found on snarky souvenir pins and shirts with “What Would Nellie Do?” slogans.

It’s past 11 p.m. when the pageant performance wraps up with the full cast on stage. One of my daughters makes a beeline for autographs, and it’s gratifying to see the young actors enjoy the adoration as a new generations soaks up the history, hard times and perseverance of one of Minnesota’s most beloved residents.

Grab a seat: The pageant has 1,000 reserved seats, along with spots on the grassy hillside if you bring chairs or a blanket. Shows are scheduled for 9 p.m. July 11-12, 18-19 and 25-26. The last two shows start two hours early and cost $28-$30 because they include introductions and a question-and-answer session with the TV series cast members. Regular shows are $14 for general seating and $16 for reserved seats (1-888-859-3102; walnutgrove.org)

Family fun: Visitors can join the Walnut Grove Family Festival July 12, 19 and 25-26 at Walnut Grove City Park for a variety of free activities. Kids can try making corn-husk dolls and seed art, watch live music or dance groups, participate in a Laura-Nellie look-alike contest for girls ages 8-12, and check out historic demonstrations such as carving or spinning.

Take a bus tour: Ninety-minute bus tours July 11-12 and 18-19 take visitors from the town park to local historic sites such the Ingalls dugout, Plum Creek, the school and church for $5 per person.

Go tripping down memory lane: Anyone who grew up with the “Little House on the Prairie” TV series (and can hum the theme song on command) will enjoy exhibits inspired by the show tucked into the many buildings that make up the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Tourist Center. There are also artifacts and hands-on activities that show what life was like for early pioneers, with a covered wagon, a sod dugout, antique dolls and a pump organ kids can try. (1-800-528-7280; walnutgrove.org/museum.htm)

Getting there

It takes about two hours and 40 minutes to reach Walnut Grove from Minneapolis. Follow Hwy. 212 west to Brownton and head south on Hwy. 15. At New Ulm, follow Hwy. 14, the designated Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, west to Walnut Grove.

Where to sleep

The only sleeping option on site is Walnut Grove’s Plum Creek County Park and Playground ($15-$27.50; 1-507-859-2005; www.walnutgrove.org/camping.htm), but places fill up fast for pageant weekends.

There are a few camper cabins and additional campsites at Lake Shetek State Park, about 30 minutes away (1-507-763-3256; www.dnr.state.mn.us), or check Walnut Grove’s website for hotels that are 30 minutes to an hour away.

Where to eat

You can get into the small-town spirit with pageant suppers served by church and town organizations from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Walnut Grove Community Center before evening performances. Meals range from burgers and hot turkey sandwiches to roasted pork loin and hot dogs, along with sides like beans, chips, baked potatoes and dessert bars or pie for under $10.

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