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Mother and daughter painting an environmental mural together
Rachael Walker
Book Life
Rachael Walker

There’s No Little House, But We Dig Plum Creek

Even though we spent a good bit of time at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum (opens in a new window), we still had a long sunny afternoon to enjoy in Walnut Grove. Since we’d sampled the Walnut Grove Bar & Grill for dinner and were not in any kind of hurry to go back, we thought we’d give the other restaurant in town — Nellie’s Café — a try. But it was closed. We decided to make do with what we had in the ice chest and enjoy a picnic lunch along the banks of Plum Creek.

The Ingalls’ dugout site (opens in a new window) on the banks of Plum Creek is located on a farm owned by the Gordon family. About a mile and a half north of Walnut Grove, there’s a sign for the turnoff to the dugout site. Down the gravel driveway past the farmhouse and barn, we deposited $5 in a box and drove on to a small parking area. There was only one other car in the lot, so we had our choice of the three picnic tables and sat down to enjoy our lunch, swatting mosquitoes between bites.

Plum Creek dugout sign

Other than the bugs, the setting was serene. The Gordon’s have done a really lovely job maintaining this historic piece of property by not doing much at all. The dugout site remains as it was when the Gordon family bought the farm in 1947. There are a couple of trails, signs to point out features connected to the Ingalls’ time here and some interesting information about the restoration of prairie grasses and flowers. Given this minimalist approach, it was easy to imagine that Laura might appear on the path at any moment.

After lunch, we marched the kids across the creek bridge to checkout the dugout site, but like Laura, they were more interested in the creek itself. I left Breece, Avery and mom sitting on the creek bank and wandered away to listen to the rushing water and watch the prairie grasses.

Picnic at Plum Creek

Plum Creek was the first place on our journey I felt I was with Laura. Not Laura Ingalls Wilder the author, but Laura from the books I loved. There was a big rock and a creek and muddy creek banks, and a hill and plum trees and it was perfect because I could see it and imagine how Laura saw it as she described it in On the Banks of Plum Creek. I could see how such a place would make you want to run wild and I could see how it could stay with you forever.

I had come on this trip looking to learn more about Laura Ingalls Wilder and get a taste of her real life experiences. Walking through the prairie grasses above Plum Creek, I found what I’d really been looking for — the chance to delight once again in the fiction that Laura Ingalls Wilder created.

On my solitary stroll, I thought about how Laura’s fiction is often presented to young readers as the true story of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life — which leaves many with the impression that it is an unvarnished account. I think that is a disservice to Wilder — as an author and a pioneer. It also wrongs readers, who should get to enjoy Wilder’s fiction as fiction, but also be encouraged to think critically and dig into the historical facts.

This “Little Journey” has me doing both and it is refreshing to once again appreciate Laura’s stories as stories. Her fictionalized past is just as fascinating to me as her real life. Here on the banks of Plum Creek I delighted in the real place where the real Laura lived, but also discovered my way back to one of my favorite characters.

We all left Plum Creek with a little mud on our shoes and clothes and a new appreciation and respect for everyday folks like the Gordons who help keep history alive. As we left the farm to head to De Smet, South Dakota, Avery noted there might not have been much to see — like a house or stuff that was Laura’s — but Plum Creek was a really fun place to just be.

On the Banks of Plum Creek

About the Author

Join children’s literacy consultant Rachael Walker and many of the authors, parents, and educators she’s met and worked with to talk about how books have changed their lives, how to bring books to life for young readers, and how to enrich kids’ lives with good books. 

Publication Date
October 8, 2014