The homeschooler’s Little House on the Prairie site tour guide

The homeschooler's site tour guide to Little House on the Prairie
Jamie Martin, editor of Simple Homeschool, also blogs about motherhood at Steady Mom

5 states – 2,200 miles – 2 adults – 3 kids – 1 minivan – 9 days – 3 Little House sites…

…and we lived to tell about it!

Since we arrived back from our whirlwind tour of the Midwest a few weeks ago, I’ve been reliving our trip by posting photos on Steady Mom and social media. On one such update a reader asked:

“Won’t you share the specifics of your trip so we can benefit from all your work if we decide to do the same?”

Several other readers also mentioned you might like to check out one or more of the sites some day with your family, so I thought perhaps a post about our experience might help you plan your own Little House site tour.

I’ll go ahead and let you know, though, that I’m pretty sure this is the longest post I’ve ever written anywhere. With so many cool photos to share, and so many tips to include, I wanted to be thorough and include as much information for you as possible.

Here we go – enjoy!

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1. Site 1: Pepin, Wisconsin and the Little House in the Big Woods

We made Pepin our first stop. I had low expectations for it since I had read there wasn’t too much to see there. Maybe because I wasn’t expecting much, it ended up being one of my favorite sites of all!

What to see:

– Make sure you visit Lake Pepin, as this is where Laura and her family picnicked and features prominently in Little House in the Big Woods.

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– Then take a drive north from Pepin on County Road CC 7 miles to the site of the Ingalls’ cabin. A replica cabin of the same size has been built there. (It has a picnic table inside so if there’s nobody there you could eat inside!)

There’s mostly farmland all around now (as opposed to the Big Woods), but I loved the lack of a touristy feel and the privacy here. The kids ran around and played inside and out without bothering anyone.

Where to eat:

– As mentioned before, there is a picnic table in the cabin as well as more on the grounds themselves.

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– We chose to eat lunch by the shores of Lake Pepin and to recreate the picnic that the Ingalls family ate there in Chapter 9 (Going to Town) of Little House in the Big Woods: bread, butter, cheese, hardboiled eggs, and cookies.

There were no picnic tables by the lake though, so the kids sat on a bench while Steve and I stood. Then they collected pebbles by the shore like Laura and Mary did in the book.

– We didn’t eat there, but another option I heard good things about is the Harbor View Cafe in Pepin.

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Where to stay:

Pepin has a few bed and breakfasts available, but we stayed in La Crosse and then drove up the following morning (about 1.5 hours north).

La Crosse has a nice little downtown area by the river and several chain hotel options. Pepin also has the Lake Pepin Campground.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder Days:

We avoided the Little House pageants and festivals during our trip, preferring a less crowded experience.

But if coming to visit at a busier time appeals to you, keep in mind that each September Pepin hosts a weekend of Laura Days.

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Site 2: Walnut Grove, Minnesota and the Banks of Plum Creek

Laura describes her family’s time in Walnut Grove in the book On the Banks of Plum Creek.

In this town they lived in a dugout, Pa built their first house with store-bought boards (on credit, sadly!), and they struggled to survive after grasshoppers destroyed the crops.

What to see:

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Sod House on the Prairie: This is one of those sites you see advertised on huge billboards on the side of a country road, and have no idea what to expect! But it had great reviews on TripAdvisor, so we decided to check it out.

25 years ago a farming couple decided to build a sod house on their property so visitors could experience what these common prairie homes would have been like. They made two versions: one typical of slightly wealthier families and one that a poorer family would have created.

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You put your entrance fee ($5/person) in a box on their farmhouse porch and then just make yourselves at home!

We were the only ones there and had a great time – they had clothes and bonnets to try on, which made it interactive for the kids (And me, too! ;) ).

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This site is in Sanborn, Minnesota which is actually a few miles east of Walnut Grove.

Plum Creek: I preferred the sites that are a little less “done up” and touristy, a little more subtle.

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Plum Creek was perfect in this regard–located on a private farm (that has opened the site for a small fee of $5 per car), you drive in, park and then explore for yourself.

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The site of the Ingalls family’s dugout is marked and you can explore and wade in the creek itself  (Though Jonathan and I were the only ones doing so at the time–maybe others were afraid of crabs and bloodsuckers?!)

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Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum: The museum in Walnut Grove focuses mostly on life at the time the Ingalls lived–with a dozen or so exhibits that showcase the history of the pioneers.

They also have a room dedicated to the TV show, which I personally loved–including the very fireplace mantle that was used in the show!

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Current admission costs: 13 & over – $6; Ages 6-12 – $3; 5 and under – Free

Pa’s Bell: Take a few extra moments during your visit to drive by the English Lutheran Church at 450 Wiggins Street, where the very bell that Pa donated his boot money for still rings.

Close by at Fourth and Washington, you can also see the location where Laura and Mary went to school with Nellie Oleson for the first time, which gives you a good idea just how far they had to walk from the dugout site to learn each day.

Where to eat:

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Nellie’s cafe: It’s pretty much the only restaurant in town! And fun, too. They are very used to tourists as well, so we didn’t feel the least bit out of place.

The wall is full of autographed photos from the TV show–mainly Nellie, of course. And the menu is your typical diner fare of burgers and fries, fried chicken, etc.

Plum Creek: Plum Creek has a few picnic tables, so you could bring your own food there as well.

Where to stay:

Mankato: Mankato is the nearest city with a selection of hotels available – we stayed at the Holiday Day Inn Express and had a nice, quiet night there.

– Plum Creek Park: In June, July, and August you can camp in Walnut Grove close to Lake Laura on 205 acres.

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Summer Pageants, Walnut Grove:

Each July Walnut Grove presents a pageant about Laura’s life.  They also have regular reunions each summer from cast members of the TV show.

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Site 3: De Smet, South Dakota – The Little Town on the Prairie

De Smet is the site of the majority of Laura’s life, and most of her books take place here: By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years.

If you head here for a visit, be prepared to stay awhile!

What to see:

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic HomesI recommend starting with this tour, which is led by a tour guide and takes about an hour and a half. FYI: It’s not really hands-on or for young children, so keep that in mind!

Across the street from where the tour begins is a small playground, which might be a good place for one parent with littles to hang out while the other takes older children on the tour.

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On this tour you’ll see The Surveyor’s House where the Ingalls lived by Silver Lake, the actual restored school Laura and Carrie attended (& were sent home from on that fateful day of seat-rocking from Little Town on the Prairie!), a replica of the Brewster School where Laura first taught, and Ma and Pa’s house on 3rd street (not featured in any books but where they lived the majority of their lives.)

Current admission costs: Adults $12; Children $6; Children under 5 – Free

Main Street: Walking down Main Street in De Smet is like stepping back into the 1800’s.

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The two blocks look like your typical small town of stores and businesses, but each storefront window has a description of what building or business existed there during Laura’s time–and anything interesting or memorable that happened at that spot.

It was especially exciting to see The Loftus Store (still open!), the site of Almanzo’s feed store, and the location where the Ingalls survived the Long Winter.

When you tour the historic homes, they give you a town map to help you locate other sites you may want to see on your own.

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De Smet Cemetery: Pa, Ma, Mary, Carrie, Grace, and Laura and Almanzo’s infant son who died shortly after birth are all buried here. (Laura and Almanzo are buried in Mansfield, Missouri.)

I found it moving to walk among the headstones and remember that these were just ordinary individuals being faithful in their ordinary lives–never knowing or imagining that one day they would inspire the world.

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For me, wandering around in the quiet grass here–away from any crowds or tours–was a highlight of our time in De Smet.

Ingalls Homestead: This is the original site of the land the Ingalls worked and lived on for several years (before moving back to town.)

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The homestead has been turned into an attraction in recent years where you can go and have a bit of an Ingalls “experience.” This was definitely the most touristy of the sites we visited, but still very well done.

It features plenty of hands-on activities, making it a perfect choice for young children. 

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My favorite moments there were seeing the towering cottonwood trees that Pa planted over a century ago, and walking through a replica on the actual location of the Ingalls family’s claim shanty. (This is after Pa made final additions to it.)

We also went on a covered wagon ride, and the kids each had the chance to hold the reins and drive the horses!

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Current admission costs: $10 each for ages 5 and over; 4 and under – Free

Where to eat:

DeSmet has a few restaurants options: A Dairy Queen/Subway (where we ate), the Oxbow Restaurant (a local choice), and there are picnic tables at the Ingalls Homestead if you want to take your own food.

Where to stay:

Ingalls Homestead Covered Wagon: You can camp at the Ingalls Homestead during your stay if you’d like to! Make reservations ahead of time for one of their covered wagons (see photo below) to stay in overnight.

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This might be a good way to experience the homestead in the quiet hours of night and early morning, before it opens for tours. We didn’t stay there, as we head a long drive ahead of us to Keystone, but I’ve heard from scores of others who raved about doing so.

– Hotels/Bed & Breakfasts: De Smet has a couple of small motels as well as two bed and breakfasts – The Prairie House Manor Bed and Breakfast is just a few houses down from Pa and Ma’s house in town.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, De Smet:

Each summer in July De Smet puts on a pageant from one of Laura’s books. This year it’s These Happy Golden Years–2015 will be By the Shores of Silver Lake.

Other Little House sites:

The three sites above are the ones we visited during our week away, but there are others to choose from, too!

Check out these links to plan a trip close to your neck of the woods.

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Keystone, South Dakota:

Carrie Ingalls lived here for much of her adult life, and a small museum/school in Keystone is open for viewing.

Keystone is, of course, also the home of Mt. Rushmore (Carrie’s husband actually named the spot after a visiting New York lawyer) and not too far away is Badlands National Park–both of which were incredible to see!

Laura visited Keystone to see her sister in 1939 (once she and Almanzo had a car) and they went to both Mt. Rushmore and the Badlands.

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Independence, Kansas:

Close to Independence you can find a replica cabin at the site of where the Ingalls spent their year in Indian Territory.

Mansfield, Missouri:

Site of Laura and Almanzo’s Rocky Ridge farm — where they lived as adults. Steve and I visited years ago and it’s worth a tour (even if only to see Pa’s fiddle!!)

Burr Oak, Iowa:

Here the Ingalls lived and worked in a hotel for a year. It isn’t mentioned in any of her books, but the Master’s Hotel has been renovated and is open for guided tours.

Vinton, Iowa:

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The College for the Blind that Mary attended still exists! There’s no tour available, but we drove by it toward the end of our tour.

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The old Main building still looks the way it did when Mary attended.

Malone, New York:

Near Malone Almanzo Wilder grew up on this working farm, now open for tours.

Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 6.50.24 AMIf you do plan a trip to one or more of the sites, also pick up a copy of William Anderson’s The Little House Guidebook.

Not only is it helpful to have with you as you travel around, but the color photographs are gorgeous and valuable for any serious Little House fan!

“When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.”

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods,…She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”

~ Little House in the Big Woods

About Jamie Martin

Jamie is a mama to three cute kids born on three different continents. She serves as editor of Simple Homeschool, and blogs about mindful parenting at Steady Mom. Jamie is also the author of two books: Steady Days and Mindset for Moms.

Comments

  1. What a fun trip. We went to Pepin last summer. We live in Wisconsin, but not close, and I couldn’t believe that we hadn’t been there, having read Little House in the Big Woods so many times. (It’s really fun reading about places we know and how much has changed.) I wanted to add that our favorite part was driving REALLY slowly from the recreated cabin into town and imagining how long and sunny it would have been to ride in a wagon. It was also a pretty good down-hill to the lake, but coming home would have been slow going. Thanks for sharing your trip!

  2. Courtney says:

    Amazing, Jamie! Thank you for sharing. You have lived a dream. I must plan to do the same for my own kiddos. Blessings!

  3. Just so you know, this made me cry. xo
    Caroline Starr Rose’s latest post: The Fear of Writing Outside Your Experience — And Doing It Anyway

  4. Thanks for sharing specifics! This may be something in the cards for our family in the future…
    Steph’s latest post: Lessons in Self-Care: Think Big, Start Small

  5. This is fabulous, Jamie. Both the Wisconsin and Minnesota ones are very close to family so it is already on my list to go to sometime. We haven’t yet read the series, but I am looking forward to sharing them with my kids.. Thanks, for sharing your research and experience with us!
    Johanna’s latest post: Getting there, not just arriving {life as a pedestrian family}

  6. Joanna Peterson says:

    Thanks so much for sharing! I love your take on all the places since we also like to avoid the touristy stuff. And you made me cry, too, especially with that final quote. Laura was able to capture her childhood for us in a way no one else has ever done.

  7. This is just lovely… for those of us who live on the far side of the world and are really unlikely to ever actually get there… This is the best virtual journey ever. Thank you so much for all the work that went into this, we are really going to enjoy a virtual visit!!!
    se7en’s latest post: There is a Huge LEGO Debate Going on Over Here…

  8. My uncle used to work at the Iowa sight saving school and we would visit there during the summer. It’s a tiny little town, how funny to think that you were just there! This is the neatest trip. Your kids are really lucky to have this kind of experience!
    Maggie’s latest post: Summer friends gathered

  9. We went to Mansfield when we went to South Dakota. I loved walking around Laura and Almanzo’s house. We really enjoyed the museum and Pa’s fiddle. Such a great trip.
    April’s latest post: Ecuador #10: The people

  10. That was interesting info. I grew up close to DeSmet and went there several times as a girl. I see they have some new attractions, such as the shanty replica and staying in the wagons. I’d love to go back again with my daughter. Great pictures!
    Chandra Regan’s latest post: My Soap Box about Adoption, Children & Infertility

  11. Thanks so much for sharing this information. We live in central Iowa, so some of these could be a day trip for us. Your articles have been so helpful and inspiring.

  12. Kim Mason says:

    http://www.news-leader.com/story/news/local/ozarks/2014/07/22/msu-offers-free-online-course-laura-ingalls-wilder/13003547/?sf28850121=%22%271%27%22
    This may be of interest to you. MSU Is offering a free online course this winter about Laura and her writing. I think it sounds like fun!

  13. We visited Pepin and the cabin outside of town, in May. There is also a small museum in town that has some family heirlooms and things from localcousins, aunts, uncles, etc. If I remember correctly, more from Caroline’s family. Small, by some standards, but my daughter and I really enjoyed seeing things that were mentioned in the books and recreations of what an old kitchen, bedroom, wagon, etc would have been like.

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