April 19, 2009

The Laura Ingalls Tour

Despite today's gloomy weather in my neck of the woods, I think spring has finally sprung here in Wisconsin! Temperatures on Friday and Saturday were in the low 70's, and my girls were asking me to pull out their summer clothes.

All of which got me thinking a bit about our summer plans and reminded me that some of you have asked about the Laura Ingalls Tour my family took last summer. As you make summer plans, you might want to consider taking it yourselves.

For us, it was a fairly easy trip to make because we live in Wisconsin, and Laura's birthplace was, of course, Pepin – a small town in the northwest part of the state on the Mississippi River; in fact, when we were there, my girls waded in the Mighty Mississip! So we just got in the car, drove up to Pepin, and went from there.

If you don't live close enough to do that, you can arrange to fly into Green Bay or – better yet – Minneapolis/St. Paul and then rent a car for the journey. However you get there, though, begin in Pepin, which is just an hour's drive from MSP. Besides seeing the river, you can stop in at a little museum and visit a replica of the cabin where Laura was born, located on the original site.

From Pepin, we drove to Burr Oak, Iowa, where the Ingalls family managed a hotel for a few years after the grasshoppers destroyed their crops. Laura didn't write in the Little House books about her family having to move away from Walnut Grove; she said it was just too sad an episode for children's books. Thus, in the books the family simply stays in Walnut Grove, but the museum in Burr Oak is worth the slight detour.

We stayed that night in Rochester - the only large-scale city along the entire route - and made sure we found a hotel with a pool (!). And the next morning, we headed out across the Minnesota prairie toward Walnut Grove, stopping along the way in Mankato and Sleepy Eye. Yes, all those towns really do exist!

Walnut Grove is still a tiny little town, and - as with most of the Laura sites - is not commercialized as you'd think it would be. The town has a small but nice interactive museum and gift shop, and you can drive just a few blocks to see the church bell that Pa helped to buy. Plus, you can eat in a quaint little diner called Nellie's Café, whose owner/waitress sports a hilarious beehive hairdo!

The best part about Walnut Grove is the drive just a few miles out of town to Plum Creek - yes, the Plum Creek. The dugout site is clearly marked, and you can wade in the creek and then climb the tableland, just as Laura and Mary did over 100 years ago. We started reading On the Banks of Plum Creek a few weeks before our trip and made a point to read a chapter while we were out there; that was surreal experience.

We stayed overnight in a very small town named Tracy, halfway between Walnut Grove and De Smet, South Dakota, which is the setting for most of the rest of the Little House books. The next morning, we drove the two hours to De Smet and spent a very busy day there, exploring the museum site in town (to which both the Surveyor's House and the Brewster School have been relocated), the house in town that Pa built (still on its original site), the cemetery where many family members are buried, and - most fun of all - the homestead site just outside of town. The girls climbed the actual cottonwood trees that Pa planted, and then we had a blast at the living history museum built on the other 159 acres, where the chief behavioral expectation of children is that they should "touch and climb on everything!"

We chose to take I-94 back toward home to make the trek a bit quicker. On the way, we couldn't resist a pit-stop at the Jolly Green Giant statue and a tour through the SPAM Museum. And then, after one more night in a hotel, we wrapped up the trip with a tour through Niagara Cave. Of course, none of those last three venues was Laura-related, but we decided my husband deserved those stops after living nothing but Laura for a week (though, truth be told, he thoroughly enjoyed the whole trip).

Last fall, I wrote briefly about the trip on my personal blog and included links to all of the above-mentioned sites. If you'd like to view those links as you consider taking this trip, feel free to click here; you can also find a list of links on the blog's left-hand sidebar under the heading "Great Family Trip Locations."

Of course, we don't need to visit every site about which we read with our kids; good writers take us to their settings in our minds. But if you can actually go to a real place described in literature, all the better! So, if you're considering an educational or travel-type vacation this year, this would be an excellent and reasonably-priced option. Let me know afterward if you go!

Photo Credit: Laura Ingalls Pepin


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