Every time you walked through tall grass as a child, did you think of the pioneers, and how they drove their wagons through grasses as high as their horses? So many kids do, thanks to author Laura Ingalls Wilder.
There are several “Laura” places to visit in the United States, but Walnut Grove is definitely one of the most popular, thanks in part to the television show Little House on the Prairie being set there, and also because of their spectacular pageant. “Walnut Grove covers a very specific period of the Ingalls Family life from when the Ingalls family first arrive in Walnut Grove until they leave for the final time,” Sarah Uthoff, Wilder expert and Iowa librarian, said.
“It is also the most Hollywood of the productions with incredible special effects. They have real animals like the horses that pull the Ingalls wagon as they arrive. For the prairie fire scene they have a buried and punctured gas line so real fire sweeps across the stage,” she said.
Two of the pageant’s sets are built on railroad cars that move and rotate on real railroad tracks. Each night the pageant staff constructs a church on stage. “It’s just a very impressive show. My mom who is all Laura-ed out and has seen a lot of theater says it’s the best outside show she’s ever seen,” Sarah said.
There are reserved seat chairs, but there’s also an area where visitors can sit on a blanket to watch the show. The pageant does go late into the evening, and some families leave at intermission, but Sarah said most children are “kept wide awake” by the show. “The 9 p.m. start is really used effectively by the production crew and makes the special effects work better.”
The pageant is held in a natural amphitheater at the bottom of a tall hill. The hill, of course, is near the banks of Plum Creek. Like Laura, everyone wants to wade in the creek, but it should be done before the show takes place, because at 11:15 p.m. when the show is over, it’s too late to wade and people would have to walk through some dark woods, Sarah said.
But if you do wade there during the day, you’ll definitely be rewarded with a good experience. “Plum Creek is the best place to wade that I have ever found. Its bottom is almost all sand and mud and there are little nibbling fish just like Laura described. I’ve tried to wade in a lot of creeks around here and none of them is anywhere near as enjoyable as Plum Creek,” Sarah said.
Some people are surprised the real Walnut Grove doesn’t look like the set on TV, but Sarah said the show isn’t as fresh in people’s minds anymore since it’s only shown in syndication. Walnut Grove doesn’t have a lot of traditional Midwestern main street businesses, but those who do remember the TV show say they don’t mind because in their memory, the town blew up in the last episode.
“Actually, a turn of the century fire destroyed most of the buildings,” Sarah said.
Walnut Grove hosts performers from the show on a regular basis. “They have lots of artifacts from the show including the original fireplace mantle from the set and the doctor’s bag that Doc Baker used on the show – which was actually his grandfather’s who was a doctor,” she said.