Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Improvements to part of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway April 21, 2022

U.S. Highway 14 west of New Ulm in southwestern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

IF YOU’RE A FAN of the “Little House on the Prairie” television series, you will recognize these town names: Walnut Grove. Sleepy Eye. Mankato. In the TV version, the Charles and Caroline Ingalls family lived in Walnut Grove, but also traveled to Sleepy Eye and Mankato. In her books, Laura Ingalls Wilder doesn’t write about journeying to either town from Walnut Grove. Hollywood added its creative perspective, including a setting that is not exactly accurate in its depiction of the prairie. I know this area well. My hometown of Vesta lies 20 miles north of Walnut Grove on the mostly flat prairie of big sky and wide open spaces.

Heavy traffic on U.S. Highway 14 between Nicollet and North Mankato in March 2013, before that section of two-lane expanded to four-lane. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2013)

The trip back to Redwood County from my Faribault home takes me along U.S. Highway 14, also known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway. That road passes through Mankato and Sleepy Eye and many other communities into the heart of rural Minnesota, along a particularly dangerous stretch of roadway. Highway 14 has/had a reputation for above average deadly crashes. That’s no surprise given the narrow lanes carrying heavy traffic volumes.

West of Nicollet, signage warns drivers that Highway 14 goes back to two-lane. It’s at this point where the current four-lane expansion begins to New Ulm. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo December 2016)

But that is all changing. Several days ago, government officials and others gathered for a ceremonial event to kick off a two-year road construction project that will replace 12 miles of two-lane roadway between Nicollet and New Ulm with a four-lane road. It’s about time. This is the last stretch of two-lane converting to four-lane from Rochester to New Ulm.

Westbound on Highway 14 heading to Nicollet from Mankato. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2016)

I don’t get back to southwestern Minnesota all that often anymore, just for the occasional funeral or family gathering. But I’m thankful that come October 2023, the drive between Nicollet and New Ulm will be easier, safer, faster. Just like it is now between Mankato and Nicollet.

Once west of New Ulm, Highway 14 will remain the same. Narrow. Well-traveled. Not particularly safe. But for today, I’m grateful for the improvements to 12 miles of a route the Ingalls family didn’t follow, but which many fans of “Little House on the Prairie” travel today en route to Walnut Grove.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


9 Responses to “Improvements to part of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway”

  1. beth Says:

    ah, interesting –

  2. Boy has this been a long time coming indeed. We have family in Redwood County (Sleepy Eye). I enjoyed traveling there as a kid for the bigger family reunion. When I moved out West and people found out where I moved from they were like that is some flat farm land out there. Apparently you have never been. MN has a very diverse landscape with many bodies of water as well as diversity in people, cultures, food, etc. From the South to the Central to the North and everywhere in between it has it beauty and charm and then some. Happy Day – Enjoy 🙂

  3. While you are rejoicing this upgrade folks in our area are lamenting the three round abouts that are being installed in our little town. :-). No one seems to understand how to drive using them so it is a bit frustrating. They had better get with it or they won’t go anywhere anymore. 🙂

    • Oh, round abouts…wherever they are installed, they seem to draw the ire of many motorists. With the exception of several multi-laned round abouts by Oshkosh, WI., I’ve found them to be a safety improvement to roadways, making traffic move smoothly. Even highway 14 at its intersection with highway 15 near New Ulm features a round about. That intersection is much safer now. I hope the good folks in your community figure them out soon.

  4. Ohhhh, the days of wagon and cart and two lane highways in Minnesota are coming to an end.🥲

    • Laughing, Paula. Still plenty of two-lane highways/county roads and gravel roads in Minnesota.

      • Had to laugh also at this reply. Yup, Carlton Country still has plenty of dirt roads, two lanes (according to the Hubby, no one drives on them), and now round a bouts in Moose Lake 😳! How modern!!!! Almost 21st century.😂 People for the last two years have gone on and on about it when I am home. I have to contain my yawning. Nothing new to me. Europe is full of round a bouts and I have driven them since the 1990’s when I was first stationed here. 😂

      • Nothing seems to raise angst and disdain as much as those roundabouts.

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