I spent a day my children probably consider a waste of good summer weather traveling to a town on the Minnesota Prairies with a population of 650. It wasn’t an obligatory visit to relatives, the usual excuse to head into the boonies. The person I wanted to see lived there are about 100 years ago. I never met her but I feel as though I have known her all my life. Her name was Laura Ingalls Wilder.
I must admit the four hour journey past field after field of corn and potatoes was in stark contrast to the excitement of Minneapolis. But it put us in the proper frame of mind, distancing us from the noise and crush of a big-city. In Laura’s day, one would not pass countless silos. Even large barns would have been scarce. Hours of flat green, all the same shade, makes one appreciate an gnarly, dark old jackpine.
It is difficult to imagine Pa taking a horse and wagon all the way from Walnut Grove to Sleepy Eye and then to Mankato. Mile after mile of farms certainly put my family to sleep.
“I don’t want any complaints,” I warned them. “We’ve spent the last four days going to zoos and amusement parks and doing everything two kids could want. Today, I get to do something that interests me and I expect you to be patient and pleasant.”
They tried to amuse themselves. When my daughter went cross-eyed from reading and my son’s Game Boy batteries died, they asked to play the sign game. We start with A and find the letters of the alphabet. The first to Z wins. But signs were almost nonexistent. Everyone became stuck on Q. Of course, there were no Queen’s Highway signs or French translations containing the word “que” and not even any antique shops which dot the rest of Minnesota. We’d have been busier than gophers if we’d been counting Lutheran Churches.
We didn’t see a single fast food place, or restaurant, for that matter, during the whole journey. Plenty of roadkill. Minnesota small mammals must be very slow moving since the highway was single lane traffic minimal. Perhaps they throw themselves in front of vehicles out of boredom. Could it be a form of Minnesota chicken adding some excitement to prairie life? Prairie chicken?
Radio music was limited. What station you get depends on which silo you pass. Unfortunately, you’re very lucky to hear two consecutive songs before the station buzzes is one.
Needless to say, the children were bored by the time we got to Walnut Grove. While I was fascinated with the quaint community Museum dedicated to the Little House on the Prairie books; the kids were craving french fries. They were not impressed when we took them on the driving tour of “sites of Laura’s life.”
“Look,” I announced. “That’s where Ma and Pa took the children each Sunday. ”
My children stared slack-jawed and bewildered at the three-bedroom frame house and then back at me.
“The church is gone now,” I continued. “There’s a little sign on the lawn verifying this was the actual site of the first Lutheran Church. Next we are going to see the new church where there’s a Bell that Paula helped by, instead of boots. It still rings today.”
They nodded in unison assuming it was better humor me. Perhaps if they were silent, I’d finish sooner.
There was a small spark of interest when we examined the Ingalls’ homestead on the banks of Plum Creek. Would there still be leeches in the water? How about the giant toe pinching crab? The water was disappointingly peaceful and clear.
The collapsed sod shanty, now a grassy mound, and the top of Laura’s thinking rock earned at least five seconds of interest before the mosquitoes interrupted us. As we left the community of Walnut Grove, I expressed regret that we could not be there for the next day’s town pageant and visit from the actor who portrayed Nelly Olson on television. My children stiffened. I lamented the fact that we had hotel reservations for hours north. There was a collective sigh of relief from the back seat.
They soon relaxed. After all, I had resisted the urge to buy a genuine prairie bonnets. Neither had I driven the 20 miles out of town to inquire about spending the night in our authentic sod house. All in all, they were rather lucky. It only took two hours for me to read aloud the new book about Laura’s family. At least they were polite enough not to snore.
September 27, 1992