September 17th, 2012


Midwest Mosey, July 21: Pipestone and Walnut Grove

Saturday, July 21

Lori: I'd been waiting for July 21 since we moved this trip up from August to July. Today I would see the Walnut Grove Little House Pageant!!!

I should explain. I am a lifelong avid reader, and growing up, the "Little House on the Prairie" books were some of my very favorites. I was a huge fan -- I read all the books multiple times, I watched the TV show, and I was even Laura for Halloween one year. I apologize in advance -- this part of the trip report is heavy on the experiences, and light on the food. Sorry, it just wasn't the focus that day.

We started our day at Lange's Cafe.
Lange's Cafe
Lange's Cafe

The Langes are very proud of their Roadfood listings -- the lobby is decorated with three Roadfood posters, and they mention the listing on their pie menu also.

Sadly, they were already out of caramel rolls around 9:00 am on Saturday. No real surprise, but we were sorry to have missed them. Ralph had the stuffed hash browns, which were quite good. The potatoes were soft on the top and crispy on the bottom, They were stuffed with ham and cheese, and made a great breakfast. I had the strawberry waffle, which was a little crisp for my tastes, but the fresh strawberries and cream topping were delicious, as was the excellent bacon on the side.
Ralph: The stuffed hash browns started off very greasy, but then improved a bit.
Stuffed Hash Browns Strawberry waffle

Lori: Of course, we couldn't leave without sampling one of Lange's legendary pies. We tried their take on sour cream raisin. It was superb, with a darker cream and a winy tang that came from plenty of raisins. The crust wasn't as good as those at the Farmer's Kitchen, but it was a great piece of pie.
Sour Cream Raisin Pie at Lange's

We next visited Pipestone National Monument, a sacred place to Native Americans because a soft red stone called "pipestone" is mined there. Pipestone is carved into pipes used for prayer -- many believe that when you pray with the pipe, the smoke carries the prayer to the Great Spirit. I definitely felt much like I do when visiting a beautiful church as we walked the trail though the national park. Even if you are not at all a spiritual person, Pipestone is a place of quiet natural beauty. The prairie tallgrass that once covered the Midwest is preserved here, and there is a short walking trail that winds through prairie, rock formations and waterfalls. It was a peaceful, beautiful place, and we were glad to have visited it.

Untitled Pipestone National Monument Pipestone National Monument Pipestone National Monument
Pipestone National Monument Pipestone National Monument Pipestone National Monument Pipestone National Monument
Pipestone National Monument Pipestone National Monument Pipestone National Monument Pipestone National Monument

We next went on to Walnut Grove, the town closest to the setting of Laura Ingalls Wilder's third book, On the Banks of Plum Creek. We started out in the very crowded Laura Ingalls Wilder museum and gift shop. The museum has one room with period artifacts and replicas that relate to the books, and gives a timeline of the family's time living in the area. The other room is filled with memorabilia related to the television show, which was set in Walnut Grove, MN. The museum also has a complex of replica and actual period buildings filled with antiques not necessarily related to pioneer life, but certainly life as it was in Walnut Grove in times past. Some of the rooms in "Grandma's House" (a Victorian-looking house) were a real hodgepodge of antiques. Most interestingly, they had a sod house replica. The Ingalls family lived in a sod house when they first came to Plum Creek, and they are tiny. It is really hard to imagine two adults sharing this space, let alone two adults and three children.
Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove

Our lunch was some unmemorable fair food at the small festival set up in a park near the museum. The festival was small but nice -- there were some good crafters and several food vendors. We were surprised to find two bubble tea booths -- it turns out that Walnut Grove has 250 Hmong immigrants. These immigrants came to Walnut Grove in need of a place to call home, and the town seems to have welcomed them with open arms. There is even a mural on one building that pictures idyllic scenes of prairie life but has added a large figure of a prairie girl arm in arm with a Hmong girl. Here is a link to a photo of it posted by Adrienne Lobl, who assisted the mural's creator, Greg Wimmer.

Bubble tea at Wilder Festival

Ralph: I had the advantage of Lori for food, because we had a slice of pie left from the Farmer's Kitchen and she was hesitant to eat it.
Caramel Apple Pie from Farmer's Kitchen

It was fascinating to realize that small-town America really can be a place where you can get bubble tea with your funnel cake. Lori later found this article which implies that the original reason the Hmong moved to Walnut Grove was the way it was portrayed on the TV show.

Lori: Next, we took the bus tour. We boarded a school bus and one of the pageant's actresses gave us a tour of spots mentioned in the book, including hearing the church bell that Pa Ingalls went without new boots to help purchase, approximate locations of landmarks in the book, and a visit to Plum Creek and the site of the dugout house the family first lived in. It was an interesting way to spend an hour, although it included a lot of "well, we think it was about here."
Dugout home site

Next, we attended a "pageant supper" at St. Olaf Lutheran Church. Several community groups and churches each take a turn providing a pageant supper which is likely a wonderful fundraiser for them. Certainly, the dining room was packed, and the food was excellent. We had hot turkey and gravy sandwiches, fruit cups, cole slaw and sour cream and raisin pie. Ralph was sorry that there was no hot dish on the menu, but otherwise it was great. Everything tasted home-cooked and while nothing was a standout, all the food was very good, and cheerfully served by the parishioners.

Ralph: I'm really glad we went to the Lutheran church supper; it was so much like the mental image I'd formed from years of listening to A Prairie Home Companion that it gave me that odd sensation of finding something to be more stereotypical than I expect.
Pageant supper Sour Cream Raisin Pie, St. Olaf's

Lori: Finally it was time for the pageant. It takes place in an outdoor "natural amphitheater," which is to say that they've built an outdoor stage at the bottom of a hill. It's a good set-uo for the purpose, with sections of reserved chairs and space behind these seats for blankets and lawn chairs. Every reserved seat was taken, it was a sold-out crowd, which is apparently the norm. Ralph figured out that there were more people in the reserved seats than the population of Walnut Grove, MN -- a fact also referred to by the emcee for the evening. The hillside seating was filled also -- this pageant attracts an amazing number of visitors! As the crowd filtered in, we were entertained by the "Pageant Singers," a group of locals who aren't in the production, they just entertain while folks are taking their seats.

Next, we got a real treat. Alison Arngrim, the actress who portrayed Nellie Oleson was making appearances that day, and she gave a short presentation about her life on the "Little House" show. Alison has gone on to become a successful stand-up comedian and author, and she was really hysterical to listen to.

Finally, twilight came and the pageant, "The Fragments of a Dream," began. I first saw the covered wagon start making its way through the field behind the stage while Alison Arngrim was finishing speaking. I know it's just a horse-drawn wagon with a canvas top, but to me it was a magical sight! The pageant is good, and uses music, cute children, live animals and a few neat effects, like building a church onstage and a prairie fire. It is based on the books, but is not word-for-word faithful to them -- they drew on local history also, making it an unusual piece. All of the performers are locals, and while it's pretty off-Broadway, the heart and spirit everyone involved puts into the pageant just glows.
Wilder Pageant

As the first act wound down (there are two acts), we started to see ominous flashes of lightning from far off. They came closer and closer during intermission, and the intermission was prolonged by these weather worries. While we were sorry to wait, everyone was extremely kind and friendly, and we enjoyed chatting with the semi-locals. Finally, at 10:40 pm they announced that weather was on its way, and they'd decide whether or not they could do the second act around 11 pm. This was a problem for us, because our B&B for the night was about an hour away, and they were already staying up late to check us in. We ended up deciding to leave because we felt fairly certain the pageant wasn't going to go on, and we could make the drive dry or wet! I deeply regret missing the second act, but it was the right decision given the weather. And, given that we'd been driving through so many drought-stricken areas on this trip, we really just hoped that places that needed rain got some.

We then drove through some pretty spectacular prairie storms and dramatic lightning to New Ulm, MN, where we would be staying at the Deutsch Strasse Bed and Breakfast. Our host, Gary, let us in, and we pretty much fell into bed after a long and fun day.

Ralph: The open prairie made the lightning storm really spectacular. We could see dazzling chains stretching across half the sky. We didn't actually get much rain, but we hope that others did.