“Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.” This is the first line of the first book in what became know as the Little House on the Prairie series. If you were ever a fan of the books or the 1970s TV series, you probably know that they were based loosely on the real-life story of the author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her family and depict their lives as homesteaders in the American midwest. That means that the places described in the stories were real, and you can visit many of the Little House on the Prairie locations today.
Before I go on, I should point out that this article started several years ago when I was part of a short-lived podcast series. One of our interviewees was Deb Thompson of justshortofcrazy.com, who told us about her experience following the historical footsteps of Laura Ingalls Wilder. This article expands on that conversation.
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Laura Ingalls Wilder sites
The following list of Little House on the Prairie sites reflects the chronology of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life. But first, here’s a map with all of the sites marked on it. Don’t be fooled by how near some of them seem to be: visiting all of them would mean a lot of driving! Best to pick and choose which ones are most appealing and convenient to your other planned destinations.
1. Pepin, Wisconsin: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birthplace
This is the place where Laura was born, and it counts as a Little House on the Prairie location because it is where she later set Little House in the Big Woods. Here you can visit a replica of the log cabin where she was born in 1867. The museum includes things like period clothing and tools to give an impression of what life was like for frontier settlers. Children will enjoy the period school room, as well as the covered wagon.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum: 306 Third Street (Hwy. 35), Pepin, Wisconsin. Museum open daily 10:00-17:00 from May to mid-October. For the rest of October, they are open only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday 10:00-17:00. Closed November-April. Adults $5, children $2. The log cabin is open all the time and all year, but the access road is not plowed. Website.
2. Independence, Kansas
Laura and her family moved to Independence in 1868 or 1869, but didn’t stay long before moving back to Wisconsin. They had unintentionally settled on the Osage Reservation and received an order from the government to move out about a year later. Nevertheless, with a little artistic license making her older than she in fact was, she set Little House on the Prairie there.
At the Little House on the Prairie Museum in Independence, you can view a replica of the log cabin Laura lived in for that one year and where her younger sister, Carrie, was born. There’s also an original 1871 schoolhouse and an 1885 post office that have been moved to the site. You can even see the actual well that Pa (Charles Ingalls) dug by hand.
Little House on the Prairie Museum: 2507 CR3000, Independence, Kansas. Follow the billboards from Hwy. 75. Open daily March 15-November 1 10:00-17:00. Closed the rest of the year. Admission: Adults $3, children $1. Website.
3. Walnut Grove, Minnesota: A dugout and a TV series
Walnut Grove is where Laura set her book, On the Banks of Plum Creek, and where Laura lived with her family in a dugout from 1874-1876. A dugout was a house dug into the ground rather than sitting on top of it, with a roof made of beams and sod.
Walnut Grove is also where most of the tv series is set. In real life, the Ingalls family’s stay in Walnut Grove wasn’t very successful. After their third crop failure, they gave up homesteading and moved to Iowa. You can visit the site of the dugout, but the dugout itself isn’t there anymore: only a depression in the ground and an informational sign mark the spot where it was.
Dugout site: 13501 County Road 5, Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Open during daylight May-October. Admission $7 per car.
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove doesn’t seem to hold much in its collection that is directly linked to the author except for some historical documents and a quilt. It’s more of a “settlers on the prairie” museum than anything else, with a doll collection, displays about covered wagons, and several historical buildings. They also house memorabilia from the Little House on the Prairie tv series.
If you visit in July, don’t miss the Wilder Pageant, an outdoor drama based on the books.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum: 330 8th Street, Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Open in March Monday-Friday 10:00-16:00; in April and October open Monday-Saturday 10:00-16:00 and Sunday 12:00-16:00; May and September open Monday-Saturday 10:00-17:00 and Sunday 12:00-17:00; June-August open daily 10:00-18:00. Admission: Adults $10, Children 5-12 $4. Website.
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About 20 minutes’ drive straight east of Walnut Grove, outside of Sanborn, Minnesota, you’ll find Sod House on the Prairie. It’s not a Little House on the Prairie location, but this little private museum has a collection of replica sod houses that you can explore, set in several acres of restored prairie. It might be worth the stop just to imagine what the prairie once looked and felt like, and how the Ingalls family lived in their dugout in Walnut Grove.
Sod House on the Prairie: one mile east of the junction of Highways 71 and 14. Open daily in daylight hours except that it’s closed in the winter. Admission: $4 for age 7 and up. Pay at the farmhouse, cash only. Website.
4. Burr Oak, Iowa
After they lived in Walnut Grove, the Ingalls family moved briefly to Lake City, Minnesota, and then lived for a short time with relatives in South Troy, Minnesota. Laura’s baby brother, Freddie, died, after which they moved to Burr Oak, Iowa, and then back to Walnut Grove.
In Burr Oak, Charles (a.k.a. Pa) helped manage the Masters Hotel, now the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum. A guided tour tells about that one year when Laura and her family lived in the hotel before moving back to Walnut Grove. She didn’t set any of her books in the Masters Hotel, perhaps because the memories were less idyllic: failed crops and the death of her little brother.
The hotel can only be visited via a guided tour. You can sign up for a tour at the Visitor’s Center, across the street from the hotel. The Visitor’s Center is also a historic place: a former bank building, where you can see the original vault and learn about the building’s history.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Park & Museum: 3603 236th Avenue, Burr Oak, Iowa. Open in May Monday-Saturday 10:00-16:00 and Sunday 12:00-16:00; June-August Monday-Saturday 9d:00-17:00 and Sunday 12:00-16:00; September to mid-October Thursday-Saturday 10:00-16:00. Closed all winter. Admission: Adults $8, children 6-17 $6. Website.
5. De Smet, South Dakota: 4 books and a marriage
The family moved back to Walnut Grove, but only for a couple of years. Their next stop was De Smet, South Dakota. This is where Laura set By the Shores of Silver Lake and then The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years.
De Smet’s museum, called Ingalls Homestead, focuses on actively learning about the pioneer days, offering experiences like riding a covered wagon, attending a lesson in a one-room school house, making a corncob doll, or washing laundry by hand using a washboard. You can also spend the night in a covered wagon.
The homestead includes a number of replica buildings: a dugout, a claim shanty, a barn, a church, a school – all matching the period portrayed in the books. You can even see the surviving cottonwood trees that “Pa” planted on the homestead.
Ingalls Homestead: 20812 Homestead Road, De Smet, South Dakota. Hours vary, but in the summer it’s generally daily from 9:00-19:00. Check their website. Admission: $15 (+tax) for 5 and up. Valid for all activities.
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes Tour is worth taking as well. It allows you to see inside two of the homes in De Smet where the Ingalls family lived. One is called the Surveyor’s House and was the family’s home while Charles Ingalls worked for the railroad. Laura described it in By the Shores of Silver Lake. Later, they moved to the home that Charles built for his wife, Caroline, in 1887-89, also on the tour. By this time, Laura had married Almanzo Wilder and moved out. The tour also includes the schoolhouse that Laura and her little sister, Carrie, attended.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes Tour: Buy tickets at 104 Olivet Avenue, De Smet, South Dakota. Open September-April, Monday-Friday 9:00-16:00, with tours at 10:00 and 14:00; May Monday-Saturday 9:00-16:00, but the tours are often taken by school fieldtrips so call ahead, June-August Monday-Saturday 9:00-17:30 and Sunday 11:00-17:30. Admission: Adults $14, children 6-12 $7. Website.
Other Laura Ingalls Wilder-related things to see in De Smet include the Loftus Store at 205 Calumet Avenue SW, which appears in The Long Winter and is now a gift shop. You can also visit the Ingalls family grave site at De Smet Cemetery outside of town on 208th Street (turn south from route 14 onto 432nd Avenue to the corner with 208th Street).
Almanzo Wilder’s homestead claim, where he and Laura spent their early married life, is north of De Smet on Highway 25. Today none of the structures survive, though, and there’s nothing to see but an informational marker and some fields.
If you’re not going to camp in a covered wagon at the Ingalls Homestead, book this hotel in De Smet.
6. Spring Valley, Minnesota
Things did not go smoothly in Laura and Almanzo’s early married life near De Smet: a series of events – failed crops, a barn fire, a bout of diphtheria, the loss of an infant child, and a house fire – led them to move away temporarily. Their first stop was Spring Valley, where Almanzo’s family lived. They stayed for less than a year in 1890-91.
The church where the Wilder family worshipped, the Spring Valley Methodist Church, still stands and today houses a small museum. While the church has some Wilder family-related items, it is more about Spring Valley history in general. Besides the church, you can tour the 1865 Washburn-Zittleman House
Spring Valley Museum: 221 West Courtland Street, Spring Valley, Minnesota. Open daily 10:00-16:00 in June-August and only on weekends in September and October. Admission to the church: Adults $7, Children 6-17 $2. Admission to all buildings: Adults $10, children 6-17 $3. Website.
7. Mansfield, Missouri: The last (and longest) Little House on the Prairie location
Next, Laura and Almanzo took a trip to Florida to consider moving there, but instead returned to De Smet. Within a few years, Laura, Almanzo and their daughter Rose had settled in Mansfield for good. It’s not a Little House on the Prairie site, as such, since none of her stories are set here. It’s important to her story, though, because it’s where she wrote the books. She didn’t even start writing them until she was 65 years old.
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum includes two different houses: a farmhouse that Laura and her husband lived in for many years, and a more modern house that their daughter Rose gave them later. Laura wrote the first four books at the newer home, but then moved back to the farmhouse.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum: 3060 Highway A, Mansfield, Missouri. Open March 1-November 15, Monday-Saturday 9:00-17:00. Admission: Adults $15, children 6-17 $7. Website.
Laura Ingalls Wilder died in 1957, which means she lived in Mansfield for more than 60 years. The last of the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites is, of course, where she was buried: Mansfield Cemetery. She was laid to rest next to Almanzo, who died before her in 1949.
Mansfield Cemetery: 200 N Lincoln St, Mansfield.
Have you ever built your travel plans around an author or a book? Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear your ideas!