Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Walnut Grove offers a kid-friendly festival at annual “Little House” celebration July 17, 2013

Pioneer prairie attire is the dress code of the day for all ages.

Pioneer prairie attire is the dress code of the day for all ages.

THE FAMILY FESTIVAL in Walnut Grove is exactly what you would expect—an event filled with family-friendly activities during the community’s annual celebration of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Arts and crafts. Book signings. Pony rides. Laura and Nellie Look-A-Like Contests. Entertainment.

Showing Mom her art.

Showing Mom her art.

Tagging along with my 9-year-old niece, who traveled to southwestern Minnesota with her parents from Grand Forks, North Dakota, for the weekend event, I delighted in all this small town offers to families via the festival. Lots of busy and happy kids here. I’ve forgotten, though, just how quickly elementary aged youth can dart from one activity to the next.

My niece keeps a tight grip on her Laura doll while sifting through corn.

My niece keeps a tight grip on her Laura doll while sifting through corn.

And Beth did just that, with me there to hold her camera and Gatorade, but, thankfully, not her Laura doll, while I also juggled my 35 mm Canon DSLR camera and an over-sized bag. It’s not easy taking photos with your hands full and a mobile niece to watch. I shot at least a few frames one-handed.

Kids, including my niece, right, dig for objects in a tub of corn.

Kids, including my niece, right, dig for objects in a tub of corn.

I managed while observing Beth sift through tubs of corn and soybeans to find hidden objects and then weave among craft stands that held her interest, but not for long. She fingered merchandise at one booth then zoomed to another.

Creating seed art.

Creating seed art.

Earlier she’d created seed art, a craft I remember from my elementary school art days, days in which my teacher read the entire Little House book series to me and my classmates through the course of a school year. I attended school in Vesta, only 25 miles north of Walnut Grove, practically in the backyard of Plum Creek. To this day, the Little House books, and Wilder’s descriptive writing of the prairie landscape (she was the “eyes” for her blind sister, Mary) in the Minnesota-set volumes, remain among my favorite books. I once even penned a poem, “Prairie Sisters,” about my connection to the Little House books and the Ingalls sisters. (See poem at the end of this post.)

Most of the kids' activities are centered in the park shelter.

Most of the kids’ activities are centered in the park shelter.

But back to that Family Festival in Walnut Grove. Before my arrival, my niece punched a horse design onto leather at one of the many activity stations centered in and near a shelter at the city park. This festival is definitely a hands-on experience any kid, and parent, can appreciate.

The pony ride.

The pony ride.

I hoped Beth would ride a pony at the pony ride, but she didn’t follow my hint while under my supervision, opting instead to participate in the Laura Look-A-Like Contest. (You can read about that competition by clicking here.) And that was OK.

All of you parents and grandparents out there with children who are Little House fans, you have two more weekends to wend your way to Walnut Grove for a variety of activities, including the Family Festival from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Saturday, July 20 and 27, in the one-block square city park.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Leather art.

Leather art.

Craft demonstrations, like spinning, are part of the festivities.

Craft demonstrations, like spinning, are part of the festivities.

Tools and materials for crafting beautiful wooden spoons.

Tools and materials for crafting beautiful wooden spoons.

FYI: Click here to learn more about Little House themed events in Walnut Grove during the next two weekends.

AND HERE’S MY PROMISED POEM, published in 2000 in Poetic Strokes, A Regional Anthology of Poetry from Southeastern Minnesota:

Prairie Sisters

Laura and Mary splashed their way into my heart
as my fourth grade teacher waded into Plum Creek.
I felt the words sliding across my bare feet,
sticking to me like bloodsuckers between toes.

Prairie sisters, Laura and Mary, and me,
children of the wind and sky, we three.
The words swept me away from the brick walls
of school and of desks in orderly rows.

Across the rich, black soil, heavy with a farmer’s dream,
to Walnut Grove, twenty-five miles south and west,
I joined my prairie sisters on the banks of Plum Creek,
at home with the sweet scent of dark earth.

Together we turned the pages of our lives,
each day a new chapter, a new adventure.
Nellie Oleson, grasshoppers by the millions,
fire wheels and blinding, closed-in blizzards.

Years apart, yet years so close.
Prairie sisters, Laura and Mary, and me.
Rooted to a land that reaches into the soul,
bound forever by words in a book.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Celebrating Laura Ingalls Wilder with a Laura Look-A-Like contest & more in Walnut Grove July 16, 2013

The prairie attire of girls entered in the Laura Look-A-Like Contest in Walnut Grove.

The prairie attire of girls entered in the Laura Look-A-Like Contest in Walnut Grove.

CALICO SKIRTS SKIM bare legs. Bonnets brush braids. Charlotte rag dolls tuck into crooks of arms and lunch pails dangle from clenched hands.

Each contestant was asked where she had traveled from, whether she'd visited other "Laura" sites and whether she'd attended the "Wilder Pageant" before drawing a question from a lunch pail.

Each contestant is asked where she traveled from, whether she’s visited other “Laura” sites and whether she’s attended the “Wilder Pageant.” Then each drew a Little House-related question from a lunch pail.

And Laura look-a-likes step up to the microphone during the Laura Look-A-Like Contest Saturday afternoon in Walnut Grove, the southwestern Minnesota childhood home of author Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I am in the city park with my husband and mother to meet my brother-in-law, sister-in-law and their 9-year-old daughter who have driven from North Dakota for this weekend celebration of all things Little House.

My niece's entry number. No, there were not 57 contestants. This is just the identifying number tag she was handed after I paid a $5 entry free and she registered.

My niece’s entry number. No, there were not 57 contestants. This is just the identifying number tag she was handed after I paid a $5 entry free and she registered.

At the last minute, my niece decides to enter the Laura competition and she scrambles to complete an entry form while the other girls are already answering questions about themselves and the Little House books.

My niece considers her randomly drawn question: What's another name for a leech? She got a little help with the answer.

My niece considers her randomly drawn question: What’s another name for a leech? She gets a little help with the answer.

Soon Beth joins the other Lauras on the grass, eventually taking her place in line to move up to the mic. I can sense her nervousness. She momentarily forgets that she lives near Grand Forks and that she’s seen the Wilder Pageant, an outdoor production featuring snippets from the Little House books, the previous evening. She hesitates again after pulling her question—What’s another name for leeches?—from a lunch bucket. (Bloodsuckers would be the answer.)

Pure Laura with bonnets, braids and prairie dresses.

Laura contestants with bonnets, braids and prairie dresses.

I am incredibly proud of Beth for joining the fun. And fun it is to see all of these 8 to 12-year-olds who have journeyed to the prairie from all parts of the country because they appreciate the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Four of the finalists in the Laura Look-A-Like contest. the fifth finalist was found shortly after I took this photo.

Four of the finalists in the Laura Look-A-Like contest. The fifth finalist was found shortly after I took this photo.

Beth doesn’t win the contest and, because of another commitment, we must leave before the top five finalists begin presenting a skit.

The Laura Look-A-Like contestants gather for a group shot in the park.

The Laura Look-A-Like contestants gather for a group shot in the park.

But my niece gathers with the other Lauras next to a brick building as the official photographer, along with a contingent of adoring parents, grandparents and at least one proud aunt, photograph the Laura look-a-likes.

If the contestants were chosen solely on which most resembled my image of Laura, it would have been this contestant.

If the contestants were chosen solely on which most resembled my image of Laura, it would have been this girl. She possesses that “look” which seems most like the Laura I imagine from the books.

FYI: Walnut Grove’s annual July celebration of all things Little House continues two more weekends, July 19-20 and July 26-27. The Laura-Nellie Look-A-Like Contest is part of the Family Festival, set again for 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. on Saturdays, July 20 and 27, in the city park. The Look-A-Like Contest starts at 3 p.m. with prizes based on overall appearance and knowledge of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Nellie Oleson, Laura’s nemesis.

The Family Festival features an abundance of activities for kids, plus music, re-enactments, arts and crafts, demonstrations of old-time activities, author visits, pony rides and more. I’d highly recommend attending. I’ll show you additional fest images tomorrow.

Other attractions in Walnut Grove include the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, several shops and a mural.

About a mile north of town, visitors can see the site of the Ingalls’ family dug-out along the banks of Plum Creek.

But the highlight for most is the Wilder Pageant, performed Friday and Saturday evenings, beginning at 9 p.m., in an outdoor amphitheater just outside of town. I’ve seen this locally-produced show, which features a horse-pulled covered wagon, a prairie fire and more, several times. It’s outstanding. Four more performances are set for July 19, 20, 26 and 27. I’d recommend reservations. If you are traveling from afar, be aware that you likely will have to travel some distance to find a hotel room. Walnut Grove does not have a hotel and the nearest one in Lamberton is likely already booked. There’s camping at Plum Creek Park, a Redwood County park near the pageant site. But this fills quickly, especially on pageant weekends. Reservations are recommended.

Click here to read more details about the Little House celebration in Walnut Grove.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Far fewer girls competed in the Nellie Oleson Look-A-Like contest. Clearly, few want to role play the mean Nellie. But look how these girls played the haughty role to the hilt.

Far fewer girls competed in the Nellie Oleson Look-A-Like contest. Clearly, few want to role play the mean Nellie. But look how these girls played the haughty Nellie to the hilt as a group photo was taken.

Take two of the Nellie Look-A-Likes.

Take two of the Nellie look-a-likes.

What grandpas won't do for their granddaughters.

What grandpa won’t do for his granddaughter.

Lots of families watched the Laura and Nellie contests and spent hours at the kid-oriented Family Festival in the park.

Lots of families watched the Laura and Nellie contests and spent hours at the kid-oriented Family Festival in the park.

Too young for the Look-A-Like contest, but still outfitted in prairie girl clothing.

Too young for the Look-A-Like Contest, but still outfitted in prairie girl clothing.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling