Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Walnut Grove mural bridges cultures July 18, 2013

Rochester artist Greg Wimmer was commissioned to paint this mural last summer in downtown Walnut Grove.

Rochester artist Greg Wimmer was commissioned to paint this mural last summer in downtown Walnut Grove.

MY NEPHEW, ADAM KLETSCHER, who lives and teaches in Walnut Grove, told me to check out the new mural downtown when I recently visited this southwestern Minnesota community. So, after leaving the Family Festival during the town’s annual celebration of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, I stopped to photograph the 20-foot by 78-foot painting on the east side of Bubai Foods along Main Street.

Being a bit rushed, I failed to photograph the front of the building housing a combination Asian and American food market. And I didn’t have time to go inside and ask questions.

Later I connected with Terry Yang, who moved to Walnut Grove in 2001 from St. Paul, opened the Asian portion of Bubai Foods in 2003 and purchased the American foods side in 2005.

Yang is among the estimated 30 percent of Walnut Grove’s 870 residents of Hmong ethnicity. The Hmong first came to this rural area in 2000, Yang says, to settle in a quiet small town with affordable housing (“We don’t have to lock our houses or cars here,” he says) in a landscape similar to their native Laos.

Walnut Grove is now home to retired Hmong and to young people employed mostly at factories in nearby Marshall, Wabasso and Worthington.

The mural in progress. Photo courtesy of Greg Wimmer.

The mural in progress. Photo courtesy of Greg Wimmer.

It is that infusion of Laotian immigrants that figured in to the design of the community-supported mural painted last summer by Greg Wimmer of Rochester based Wimmer Illustration and Design with assistance from Adrienne Lobl. Mural sponsors included individuals, local businesses and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum.

This snippet of the mural shows Laura Ingalls Wilder as a teacher next to a Hmong woman. To the left is the log bridge spanning Plum Creek, where the Ingalls family lived in a dug out.

This snippet of the mural shows Laura Ingalls Wilder as a teacher standing next to a Hmong woman. To the left is the log bridge spanning Plum Creek, where the Ingalls family lived in a sod house.

The painting, Yang says, shows the similarities between Laos and Walnut Grove and also melds the new Hmong culture and the pioneer history of this Minnesota community. For example, Laura Ingalls and a Hmong woman stand side by side, one in a simple lace-collared prairie dress, the other in intricate and colorful traditional celebratory Hmong attire reserved for special occasions like weddings and New Year’s celebrations.

Wimmer worked with the Hmong community, integrating many of their suggestions in to the design. A log bridge spanning Plum Creek, part of an original Ingalls family mural here which had faded and was in need of repair, was incorporated in to the new work and represents the bridging of two cultures, according to the artist.

“My personal opinion is that it (the mural) makes a statement about the changes in the community without saying a word,” Wimmer says.

In the foreground a Hmong man plays a bamboo flute near a rice field as his daughter carries a basket. In the background, a pioneer  busts sod with a an ox and a plow.

In the foreground, left, a Hmong man plays a bamboo flute near a rice field as his daughter carries a basket. In the background, a pioneer busts sod with an ox and a plow.

Yang also references the connections between the two cultures via two farming scenes—of a pioneer man plowing a Minnesota field with an ox, similar to the water buffalo that work the land in Laos, and of a Hmong family near a rice field and shown with a basket for carrying harvested crops from farm to village.

Native prairie plants, like black-eyed Susan and coneflowers, are part of the painting.

Native prairie plants, like black-eyed Susan and coneflowers, are part of the painting.

One of the draws to Walnut Grove, Yang says, is the land available for Hmong to plant gardens. Laotian natives, like native Walnut Grove area residents, are connected to the land.

Yang has always felt welcome in southwestern Minnesota and appreciates the mural showcasing the changes in his community, which now includes, he says, “so many races.”

Girls in traditional Hmong dress attended the mural dedication last year.

Girls in traditional Hmong dress attended the mural dedication last year. Photo courtesy of Greg Wimmer.

FYI: Hmong dancers will be among entertainers at the Family Festival from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. this Saturday, July 20, at the Walnut Grove City Park as part of the festivities celebrating the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Click here to see the festival schedule.

And click here for more information about other events at the annual celebration.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Greg Wimmer painted this mural in nearby Marshall. Photo courtesy of Greg Wimmer.

Greg Wimmer painted this mural in nearby Marshall. Photo courtesy of Greg Wimmer.

And Wimmer painted this mural in Rapid City, South Dakota. Photo courtesy of Greg Wimmer.

And Wimmer painted this mural in Rapid City, South Dakota. Photo courtesy of Greg Wimmer.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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“Little House on the Prairie” originated as a book series, remember August 4, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:28 AM
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A Laura look-alike climbs onto a covered wagon at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant site near Walnut Grove recently.

WHENEVER THE TOPIC of “Little House on the Prairie” surfaces, folks cannot believe that I know the stories from the books and not the television show.

But years before the long-running TV series aired, in a school in a small town some 20 miles north of Walnut Grove, my teacher read, yes, read, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books to me and my classmates daily after lunch. I have fond memories of sitting there in my desk at Vesta Elementary School raptly listening to Mrs. Kotval read of the Ingalls family’s life on the prairie, my prairie.

At the time, back in the mid-1960s, I simply loved hearing the mesmerizing accounts of prairie fires and of blizzards, of fiddle-playing and of grasshopper plagues, of mean Nellie Oleson and of kind, kind Mary, Laura’s older sister. Wilder’s descriptive writing drew me in—into the dug-out, onto the seat of the covered wagon, into the country school. Simply put, I adored the Little House books.

A prairie fire scene from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, presented every July at a hillside amphitheater along the banks of Plum Creek near Walnut Grove. I've seen the pageant three times in its 33-year history.

Honestly, I don’t recall my teacher emphasizing that neighboring Walnut Grove, the Ingalls’ family home from 1874 – 1876 and from 1877- 1879, was the setting for On the Banks of Plum, Creek. Truly, what mattered most to me was the telling of a good story to which I felt connected.

You would think then, given my early exposure to the Little House books, that I would have become a devoted fan of the television series. I wasn’t. The show aired in September 1974, my first year of college. I had no time for TV then or in the years that followed.

However, I recall seeing an episode or two or three. Of those I remember only the inaccuracies of mountains in Walnut Grove and of day-trips to Mankato. Despite the producers’ clear lack of prairie-landscape and geographic-distance knowledge, they offered good, wholesome family entertainment that has endeared generations, just not me.

I remain unimpressed by the hoopla over the television series and the big to-do about those, like Michael Landon (Charles “Pa” Ingalls) and Melissa Gilbert (Laura Ingalls), who starred on the show.

It is the books, the writing of Laura Ingalls Wilder, that impress me, that take me back to elementary school days, when my teacher gave me the gift of reading.

Years later I would pass that gift along to my daughters by reading the Little House books to them. Even as preschoolers they would snuggle against me on the couch, leaning in close as page after page I read of prairie fires and of blizzards, of fiddle-playing and of grasshopper plagues, of mean Nellie Oleson and of kind, kind Mary, Laura’s older sister.

I worry that today’s generation is growing up without that intimate knowledge of Wilder’s writing, accepting instead the embellished Hollywood version of life on the prairie. Even my 8 ½ and 12-year-old nieces, who recently attended the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, “Fragments of a Dream,” in Walnut Grove with me and other family members, had not read the books. I was surprised, disappointed even.

I mourn that loss of connection to the written word, that ability to create, to envision, to perceive, yes, to imagine a scene, a setting, a place, simply through reading.

For 33 years, Walnut Grove area residents have presented the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant based on Wilder's stories. I've found the pageant to be true to the books, the acting superb, the setting beautiful.

Devoted "Little House" fans come to the pageant dressed in prairie dresses and bonnets.

Amy Van Dorsten, 15, played the coveted role of mean and spiteful Nellie Oleson in this year's pageant. My niece Cortney insisted on getting Nellie's autograph after the performance.

A covered wagon near the pageant grounds entrance provides photo ops for Little house fans like my nieces.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling