Ten former ‘Little House’ cast members will come together for special event
Even if the forecast calls for cloudy skies, the stars will still be out July 25-27 in Walnut Grove.
In conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the first episode of the Little House on the Prairie television series and the 40th anniversary of the Little House on the Prairie Museum in Walnut Grove, 10 former cast members of the TV show are being flown into the small town in southwestern Minnesota for a reunion and celebration.
“People interested in Laura Ingalls Wilder were coming to Walnut Grove even before the series on TV,” said Little House Museum director Amy Ankrum. “They read the Little House books and wanted to see the real Plum Creek and where the Ingalls family lived.”
But the only visible sign of the Ingalls’ dwelling in Walnut Grove is a depression in the ground that was once where their dugout home was on the banks of Plum Creek, two miles north of the city.
In 1947, the late Harold and Della Gordon purchased the 172-acre farmland where the Charles and Caroline Ingalls family once lived from 1874-76, unaware of its historical connection. But a historian retraced the landmarks mentioned in Laura’s book “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” to their property. When word got out, droves of Laura Ingalls Wilder book enthusiasts would soon be coming up their driveway and right past their home in search of those landmarks. The traffic became even heavier once the TV show debuted.
The Gordons were so overwhelmed with the many tourists knocking on their door and asking questions, that they urged the city of Walnut Grove to help. Soon after, the museum was born in 1974, the same year the television series made its television debut on NBC on Wednesday nights (it later was switched to Monday nights). The original museum, in which the Gordons were board members, was housed in the back of Bruce Thoma’s Standard gas station on Highway 14. If anything, the museum educated interested sightseers and alleviated the congestion at the Gordon home. Informational signs and storyboards were also placed at the sight of the dugout home and near other landmarks to help guide visitors.
“The room in the back of the station that the museum was in wasn’t very big,” Bruce laughed. “It was about 12 to 14 feet wide by 24 feet long. Nothing like it is today. But a lot of people came there.”
Thoma recalls some of the women in town would make bonnets and Laura Ingalls dolls to sell at the museum.
“And they museum would give away rocks from Plum Creek,” he said. “Someone would go down to the creek and get buckets of rocks and then bring them back to the museum to give away. People loved to get a rock.”
Harold and Della’s son, Stan, and his wife Hazelle, now reside on their parents’ property, and visitors still come by the thousands each summer. Although the tourists may not be able to see everything that was once there 140 years ago, they can perhaps dip a toe in Plum Creek and feel the book come alive and the memories of years gone by.
Ankrum has been with the museum for the past 14 years and has seen an abundance of expansion and improvements. “We now have eight buildings in the museum,” she said. “And we doubled the size of our gift shop in 2012. We’ve come a long way since the days in the back of a gas station.”
Walnut Grove is also home to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant that has been ongoing since 1978. This outdoor pageant with magnificent sets will have showings this summer. The 10 former cast members will make a reunion appearance on stage before the final two pageants on July 25-26. They will each tell a little about their life and their experience on the television show. Audience members will also be able to ask them questions. The reunion shows will begin at 7 p.m. and the pageant starts at 9 p.m.
All 10 of the stars will also be on hand to sign autographs each of the three days they are in Walnut Grove.
“We will have groups of them in three different locations at various times throughout the day,” said Ankrum. “That way, people won’t have to stand in line as long to get an autograph. We are planning a morning session and an afternoon session on both Friday and Saturday, and a morning session on Sunday.”
Besides items sold in the gift shop, there will be souvenirs such as photographs and books at each of the autograph locations for people to purchase and have signed.”
The museum board is also contemplating some other activities involving the stars, but hasn’t disclosed what they might be.
Five of the former cast members have made the trip to Walnut Grove before. For the other five, it will be the first time they’ve ever been to the town they only knew of from the script they read each week.
“I’ve started reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books lately,” said Lucy Lee Flippin, who played Eliza Jane Wilder, the series’ first school teacher and the sister of Laura’s husband, Almonzo. “I’ve never been to Walnut Grove before and I’m so excited about making the trip.”
Alison Arngrim, who played the spoiled brat Nellie Oleson on camera, will be making her fourth trip to Walnut Grove after making previous visits in 1992, 2010 and 2012.
“I am insanely excited,” said Arngrim. “This is going to be a major party. We’ve got some new (former cast members) coming this year, so us regulars will have to show them around.”
Besides Flippin and Arngrim, the other former cast members scheduled to participate in the reunion are: Charlotte Stewart (Miss Eva Beadle), Dean Butler (Almonzo Wilder), Hersha Parady (Alice Garvey), Radames Pera (John Sanderson Edwards), Wendi Turnbaugh Lee and Brenda Turnbaugh Weatherby (Grace Ingalls) and Sidney Robyn Greenbush and Lindsay Rachel Greenbush (Carrie Ingalls).
The museum board has had the reunion idea in the works for several years, Ankrum said.
“We were hoping to get at least eight of the cast members here for the reunion,” she said. “And we figured that if we had more than that, it was icing on the cake. This is exciting for all of us.”
Many of the former stars of the TV show have passed away, including Michael Landon (Charles Ingalls). Other living cast members either declined the invitation or were unable to attend the reunion for various reasons.
Walnut Grove is bracing itself for another summer filled with tourists from all over the United States and other countries. Each year, the community is visited by between 10,000-15,000 people. That number is likely to increase this summer with the cast reunion.
“We usually get people from between 30 and 40 different countries each summer,” said Ankrum. “The television series is still popular in a lot of countries.”
For more information on the cast reunion or other activities, visit www.walnutgrove.org.