On the Banks of Plum Creek

After spending an hour or so going through the Walnut Grove Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, we got directions to the dugout site which is described in On the Banks of Plum Creek. It’s located less than 2 miles north of town on a piece of private property that the family has opened up to tourist for a nominal fee paid on the honor system. The story goes that the family purchased the land in the late 1940s and, when improving the property, took down an old dilapidated building that may have been the house that Pa built with lumber he got on credit. Not long after that Little House illustrator Garth Williams came through in search of the Ingall’s house and old dugout site. (See The Walnut Grove Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder for more detailed information.)

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

If you can read the sign you can see it’s reported to be location of the dugout ruins, spring, big rock, tablelands and plum thicket. I was most excited to see the dugout ruins though I was also really curious about the tablelands and the big rock.

After entering the property, you drive back on a gravel road a little ways to the creek. There is a circular area to park your vehicle and the site is well marked and has a number of informational plaques. The closest landmark is the big rock which is disappointing since they aren’t really sure if it is THE big rock described in On the Banks of Plum Creek in addition to it being mostly buried under thick layer of dirt and, when we visited, completely submerged in the creek.

To get to the dugout, you cross a small bridge and walk up a steep embankment.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

The dugout site is marked with a massive sign which only serves to dwarf the small depression in the top of the creek bank that is the dugout ruins.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

While the book makes the dugout seem idyllic, we learned when examining the dugout replica at the museum that it was tiny, dark, leaked water and I can only imagine was full of bugs. Dugouts were meant to be temporary housing and not built to last. No wonder Pa decided to build the house before the first wheat crop. No wonder Laura went on and on about china doorknobs and “boughten” doors on hinges and glass windows.

As a mother of three small children who has just experienced her first Minnesota winter (which was incredibly mild even) I can’t imagine being shut up inside such a tiny, dark space for a long Minnesota winter especially with little kids. Hats off to Ma for her masterful mothering coping skills. Of course I can’t imagine if I pulled out my button collection and said, “Hey boys! I have a very special activity for you today! We are going to PUT BUTTONS ON A STRING” that it would have quite the appeal that it did to Laura and Mary.

There are two short walking trails around the main sites. After you walk up to the dugout site, you’re on the higher land where presumably the Ingalls wagon rolled up in the opening paragraphs of On the Banks of Plum Creek. The land is vast and beautiful and nothing but fields. We walked around looking for the tableland. There wasn’t a “tableland” exactly like there was described in the book. From walking around the property you could imagine how the creek over time could flood and form different landmarks like the tableland. This is the best picture I could get of the difference between the high and lowlands near the creek.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

I can’t tell a plum tree from any other kind of tree so I’m assuming that the short trees clustered along the creek were the plum thicket. I do know what a willow tree looks like but didn’t see a single one on the property. They have a spring marked at the site though in The Walnut Grove Story they quote Laura Ingalls Wilder saying that she made up the spring because she was almost certain they drank water straight from the creek without boiling it and didn’t want it to sound like they were a “dirty” family since “we were not.”

Before we headed east on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway 14, we drove back through Walnut Grove looking for the church bell that Pa gave the three precious dollars that he had saved up to buy desperately needed new boots for.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

It’s now housed in the English Lutheran Church. I never really understood why Pa would make such a sacrifice for a bell. I did a quick Google search hoping I would hit on a pithy article that explained the significant social and practical needs that a church bell met in fronteer American towns in the 1870s. I got: to tell time and make community announcements like “PRAIRIE FIRE THREE O’CLOCK.” Which, ok, but really? Your toes freezing off vs knowing what time church starts? But then, there it is almost 140 years later.

If you missed the rest of the pilgrimage:

The Wilder Life

Little House in the Big Woods

Walnut Grove



Filed under little minivan on the prairie, Minnesota Nice

2 responses to “On the Banks of Plum Creek

  1. Nate and Molly

    Did you remember all the details and quotes from the books or did you walk around with them as reference guides? ;)

    • Carrying around a copy would have been helpful! We did read the first two chapters of On the Banks of Plum Creek on the way to Walnut Grove. Though most of the above was from memory. I’ve read the book at least 11 times over the past 23 years, and re-read it again last fall when we got to Minnesota.

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