Becky stands On the Banks of Plum Creek looking across at the Ingalls Dugout Site in Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

RealImaginaryWest Day 3 – On the Banks of Plum Creek & Little Tent on the Prairie

A woman wearing a bonnet looks across Plum Creek and up a hill to a sign that marks the location of the Ingalls dugout house.

We crossed the entire state of Minnesota, stopping in Walnut Grove, the settings for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, On the Banks of Plum Creek and the Little House on the Prairie television series. We then drove to the Ingalls Homestead in De Smet, South Dakota.

I thought this would be a short one today, seeing as our only true destination was our next Laura Ingalls stop, Walnut Grove, Minnesota. We hadn’t planned on staying in Walnut Grove, but rather we intended to carry on to DeSmet, South Dakota, our third and final Laura Ingalls stop. We had six hours of driving to be followed by one day and two nights of exploring DeSmet and relaxing! Unfortunately, our first night in South Dakota did not go quite as we planned…which I’ll get to after a few reflections on the last of our time in Pepin, the drive across Minnesota, and our visit to the Laura Ingalls museum there in Walnut Grove.

Packing Up in Picturesque Pepin

It was our first day packing up the tent and the campsite on this trip, plus we got back to the campsite late after sailing Lake Pepin, so I was nervous about getting a jump on the day. So nervous, actually, that I didn’t bother to shoot a pano of our campsite until after we’d packed the whole thing up. Before we left, I wanted to grab a pano of the waterfront at the center of town. Plus, we had been invited by our new friends from the cruise to brunch, so we thought we’d at least take a few minutes to have coffee with them.

360-degree panorama of our campsite at Lake Pepin Campground. Click and drag to look around. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

It was funny, though…when we went to shoot the pano, we saw Maria from our cruise perusing the streets just soaking everything in and enjoying it. And Pepin really was a very special-feeling place…great for Laura Ingalls lovers, art walks, and bumming along the riverfront. It felt like being at the beach, except it was a river instead of an ocean, and it was Wisconsin instead of the East Coast. Maria hung out with us after I shot the pano, as we were looking for Dave to see if we could find a tool I use to blow the dust off of my lens. She, as everyone else but the captain on the cruise, was from Minneapolis, and told of how she worked for many years with the family business in worldwide shipping. Her family was Greek, and she ran much of the company with her brother until recently when she retired and started her own business as a wellness coach. She shared how she was always more laid back than her brother, and that she really enjoys having a much more zen lifestyle than she had with the craziness of running the shipping business. She certainly seemed to be having a wonderful weekend so far, and it was great to see someone enjoying life like she was.

360-degree panorama at First & Main in Pepin, Wisconsin. Click and drag to look around. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

We then went out to our friends’ farm, about two miles out of town. The family was extremely hospitable, and their farmhouse and all their property was beautifully manicured and had a lot of old-fashioned charm. They were a wonderful family to have met, and we really enjoyed their company! They gave us a few suggestions of sights to see in South Dakota and suggested taking in as much of the Mississippi River as we could.

A highway curves around a tree-covered bluff with a rock outcropping on top

Maiden Rock Bluff along the WI-35 west of Pepin

We decided to take their advice and proceeded to take a slightly more northern route along the river west of Pepin. Then we meandered our way across Minnesota, working our way to US-14 at Nicollet. Minnesota was all rolling hills as far as we could see. Eastern Minnesota was forested with a few farms, giving way to fewer trees and almost exclusively farmland with a few small towns here and there as we proceeded west.

A highway curves past a sign that says 'Lamberton' and a very large barn that has 'Lamberton Stockyards' painted in large lettering across the top.

Approaching Lamberton, one of several small farming towns along US-14 in the Southwest Minnesota prairieland

Walnut Grove’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum

Masonry buildings line both sides of a very wide main street in Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

Downtown Walnut Grove, two blocks off of US-14 and three blocks around the corner from the museum
Cars are parked in front of a wooden building with letters that say 'Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum'.

Outside the main building & gift shop at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, Minnesota

Eventually we arrived at Walnut Grove. We may have seen about four cars for the last half of that—I’m not sure if that’s because of lack of population density and tourism, or just because it was July 4th. Either way, roads and streets were extremely quiet, and there were very few people at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, which I’m told was wall-to-wall people just the day before.

A large tree shades the center of a courtyard covered with tall grasses and buildings all around.

Looking into the interior courtyard at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum

Becky looks over a railing at a covered wagon exhibit that includes tools and supplies that many pioneers brought with them.

Exhibits like this covered wagon show how pioneers like Laura’s family settled this region.

Becky, wearing her bonnet, examines an interpretive sign in front of a sod house that is covered and surrounded by tall prairie grasses.

Becky checks out a dugout house like the one Charles Ingalls built on the family homestead outside Walnut Grove. People asked Becky if she worked here because of the bonnet she wore! She made it on her sewing machine just before we left.

Walnut Grove today is still a rather small town, which appears to be mostly farming-centric. The museum has a large gift shop with several buildings on the grounds containing exhibits on all of Laura’s books and the many offshoots of her story that have made it into 40 languages all around the world! Not only did her story make it into an American television series, it even landed in Japan as an animated TV series called Laura the Prairie Girl.

The displays, exhibits, and artifacts at the museum are excellent, with only a few genuine Ingalls articles. (The family really didn’t have much to spare, and most of what they had is on display in Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband Almanzo lived most of their years together.) There were, however, a lot of tools and products from the same era, including a covered wagon exhibit, a dugout house, a miniature schoolhouse and church, a two-seat outhouse (?!), outdoor jail cells, and a number of vintage dolls, which give you a really good idea of what life was like at the time and what sorts of things people had then. A good percentage of the museum is dedicated to the television series and the cast, so Little House on the Prairie fans are going to appreciate this Laura Ingalls museum best.

Becky sits at a desk next to the pot-belly stove inside the schoolhouse.

Ready for class
Becky smiles as she sits on a small horse sculpture in the courtyard.

Having a blast
Becky, reading a brochure, waves me away from the open door as she sits inside the outhouse (which was all staged!)

Ooooops! Guess I’ll have to wait…

The Ingalls Dugout Site

A water tower in large letters reads 'Walnut Grove' on one side, and in small letters reads, 'On the Banks of Plum Creek' on the other side.

The water tower in Walnut Grove
A sign in front of a modern red barn and silo reads, 'Welcome to the Ingalls Dugout Site, $5/car or $30/tour bus'.

You pass a modern farm with a paybox on the driveway
back to the dugout site.

The Ingalls’ time here was written about in Laura’s book, On the Banks of Plum Creek. After visiting the museum, we drove out to the Ingalls Dugout Site, a mile or two out of town. This was the actual location where Charles Ingalls moved his family and began establishing a new homestead. The original dugout he built there collapsed years ago, but you can get to the creek and see where the prairie grasses are being restored. There’s also a half-mile nature trail that runs up to the tableland where you can really get a close look at the prairie flora.

The serenity of the place was remarkable, except for the bugs. You got the idea that this would be a wonderful place to grow up, with the creek to play in and the hills round about.  There are many more trees now than there were back when the Ingalls family lived here (perhaps none, actually). Despite that, it was really something to be able to connect with someone from another time and imagine living there as a child or as a family. While I’ve only read Laura’s first book, Becky has told me so much about them and I’ve seen so much in the museums that I could still feel the connection.

Becky, wearing her bonnet, sits on her knees smiling and looking around next to Plum Creek. A short wooden sign points the way to the spring and the dugout.

Serenity by the spring. A bridge crosses Plum Creek to the dugout site and to a nature trail.
Becky, wearing her bonnet, looks across the spring on Plum Creek and up a hill at a sign that marks the location of the Ingalls dugout house.

Looking across the spring and Plum Creek, toward the site of the Ingalls’ dugout house.

The Ingalls lived in Walnut Grove twice, once after Burr Oak, Iowa, then returning a few years later.  They left shortly after their return here because a swarm of grasshoppers wiped out their crops, and Charles was offered a job working for the railroad in DeSmet, in the Dakota Territory. DeSmet, now in the eastern part of the state South Dakota, would be the last place Charles and Caroline Ingalls would live, and it would be the most prosperous time of their life. Becky and I left for the Ingalls Homestead there, only a two hour drive, and arrived just before dusk.

Westward to South Dakota

Our drive into South Dakota was another very quiet stretch of road dotted with small towns, farm after farm, and several lakes of varying sizes. Just before crossing the state line, we passed through the positively giant Buffalo Ridge Wind Farm. As far as the eye could see to the north or south, there were turbines cranking out electricity. Buffalo Ridge is close to 2000 feet in elevation and apparently is a great place to catch strong wind.

Dozens of wind turbines dot bean fields that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Wind turbines dot the horizon as far as the eye can see at the Buffalo Ridge Wind Farm, near the Minnesota-South Dakota border

Speaking of wind, there was a lot of it at the Ingalls Homestead. It was a steady, gusty wind of at least 10mph. It along with the rock hard prairie turf made it very challenging to set up our tent, which easily took almost an hour to pitch. It then took another hour to get a fire started thanks to the wind…which was blowing straight across the prairie and into the hill where the camping area was.

It was around 11:30pm by the time we finally got done grilling our hamburgers from home. It was still pretty warm, and the wind persisted with clouds building to the west while fireworks were going off miles away in four directions due to the holiday. You could also see a huge fire burning a few miles into the distance, which looked to be controlled from what we could see on the viewing platform there.

All the while you could see lightning in some clouds to the Southwest, but nothing that seemed to be threatening us for the night, so we turned in for the night and enjoyed the yellow moon and the idea of relaxing for the next day, already at our destination.

Little Tent on the Prairie…?

Now in all my life living in Northeast Ohio, I can only recall one storm with gusty winds and nearly constant lightning, and it was one of the scariest storms of my life. I might have been in my preteens or early teens for that storm, but I knew it was especially bad because even all the adults were at least a little freaked out. I’m glad I didn’t live in a tent during that storm.

The wind was already flapping the tent around quite a bit when we went to bed. I think it took me another hour to fall asleep, while Becky fell asleep in a few minutes.

I awoke again at around 1:30 or 2am and the winds were much much stronger. The gusts would come and the tent would lean about halfway in on us. I woke Becky up and told her the winds were really insane…and wondered what we should do! Some of the strong gusts practically flattened the tent, slapping us in the face! I was so shocked and so tired I had no idea what we should do…and so Becky decided that we should do the unthinkable…after all that work pitching the tent, we would now take it down before the wind does!

Earlier that night, Becky said she was “feeling lazy” and suggested we forgo blankets and sheets for our cold-weather sleeping bags. This proves to be providential, as we were able to quickly pack up the bedding and put it into the car in a way that left space for us to sleep in the car if we needed to.

After the contents of the tent got packed, it was time to pack up the tent and tarp underneath. We had to do it in what was easily 25mph winds, and with constant lightning to our west with huge clouds bearing down on us. It wasn’t raining yet, but it would soon enough, so time was of the essence if we were going to preserve our poor little tent from the wind and mold.

We took the rainfly off and just rolled it up and put it the car. We then took down the center poles in unison so no part of the tent would be subjected to the wind with a pole inside to get it ripped. Then we had to unstake it…and I decided we should just try to fold it, even though the wind was not cooperating. It took both of us to hold it down and get it done and back in the bag. This seemed like our best option unless we wanted to rush the thing into the car and risk damage to it in there with all our other things.

After we finally got everything packed up, we drove into DeSmet to see if there were any motel rooms available. We struck out, as everything is pretty much buttoned up by 10pm. In town, the wind seemed inconsequential and calm almost! Thanks to the open prairie and farms all around us, where we’d planned to camp felt like the center of a maelstrom about to fully unleash itself.

With no other choice, we eventually just went back to the Ingalls Homestead and tried to get comfortable in the car. The rains came, making it impossible not to roll the windows up, which trapped in the heavy warm air. We slept there…sort of…and we were glad we had someplace safe, even if it was on four wheels.

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