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.
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.
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.
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