Travelling from Champaign, Illinois to Marshall, Minnesota was one long day of driving. being in the car for 11 hours straight was punishing but still interesting. The countryside had really started to transform from wild forests dotted with farmland and houses to a uniformed undulating landscape covered, as far as the eye can see, with crops of corn and cereals. The weather had thankfully settled after the most amazing lightning storms over night, the likes of I had never experienced before, the claps of lightning shook the buildings like an earthquake or a passing train!
After a well earned rest at a last minute bargain of a hotel (this one even had an indoor pool) I set off to a nearby town called Walnut Grove.
Walnut grove (as some may remember) was the childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the scene of the television series based upon her life. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a settler in the late 1800’s when the prairie was still a wild place. Trains had yet to conquer the vast expanses of wilderness and living, travelling in this time would have been a real challenge.
I was hoping that this visit would not only be entertaining but would give me an understanding of the needs of the period vehicle wise. Ok, I admit, I used to enjoy watching ‘little house’ on a sunday at grandads as a child and there was a great deal of ‘oh wow i’m actually here’ during the visit but the museum and site really hit home the isolation they endured all over the country at the time. Even timber was scarce as it either had to be hauled by horse and wagon or found locally. In this area trees are scarce and generally scrubby.
The 1st home of the Ingalls-Wilder family was a sod house, cut out of the ground to provide insulation and the walls made of turf. They would have carried everything they owned with them on a horse drawn wagon, this would then have to be put to use as a work wagon or farm wagon once they had settled… Back to the project a little here, the wagons are very basic, a pole wagon type construction underneath with straight sides and floor, there would then be a canvas sheet over the top to keep the contents safe from the elements, in the heat of the day the sides could be rolled up to let air move through. The children would often ride in the wagon on top of all the various chests of food, clothing and tools etc. If you think a road trip with kids is hard now I can imagine it was much tougher back then!
I would recommend a visit to Walnut grove, not so much to see the wagons but to develop a better understanding of what people were up against back then. There is a site just outside the town on the banks of Plum Creek where the sod house is believed to have once stood. An isolated but stunning place of calm and beauty that gives you a real taste of how wild this wilderness could really be.
Next stop Mitchell, South Dakota…