Whether you grew up on the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or the television show Michael Landon brought to fame, it seems the majority of Americans have some impression of the Little House on the Prairie series. To this day, for many of us, when you mention the show, we immediately think of Melissa Gilbert running down the hill in the opening credits. Not on purpose mind you, the image simply pops into our heads having seen so many episodes of the television show which ran from 1974 to 1983, and is still in reruns.
On a recent trip I had the chance to do a little sight seeing, which included the ‘original Prairie’, as I nicknamed it, in the form of the Ingalls’ homestead outside of DeSmet, South Dakota. Down a dirt and gravel road, off the beaten path as one might say, this trip into the past is a nice detour for anyone who grew up on the show or books.
The site is filled with a sense of history, not just of one famliy, but of our country, and the pioneers who made their way west. Michael Landon, Melissa Gilbert, and the entire cast of Little House on the Prairie brought to life a time from days gone by and reminded folks that a simpler time was also a tough and deadly time. The characters dealt with storms, the dangers of digging wells, and all of the everyday details of life in 1800s frontier America.
There has been conversation over the years about how much of a contribution Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane made to the writing of the books so many have fallen in love with, and after reading a letter Rose wrote to her mother, posted online by Slate.com, I can not help but think Rose (who was a talented writer of magazine articles in her own right) may well have served as a very important editor in her mother’s works. Many of Rose Wilder Lane’s papers are in the Hoover Presidential Library and I suspect would offer fascinating reading to those interested in this aspect of the story.
Walnut Grove may have been the primary location of the Little House on the Prairie television series that so many people watched and fell and love with, but the Ingalls’ family had a far more complex story than life in one little town. Many will remember images of the family in a covered wagon trudging through snow… not surprising given ‘Ma Ingalls’ was born in Wisconsin, and Pa Ingalls’ was born in New York (as was Almonzo).
My trip to DeSmet reminded me of how much I had enjoyed my time spent on the Prairie as a child, albeit just as a visitor to the land made real thanks to the creators of a television show. In the ’70s and ’80s Television was a great land of escapism, with a dash of hope and lessons in it. Pa Ingalls was a role-model to so many, and it was no wonder an entire generation wanted Michael Landon for their father.
Michael Landon, Jr. is now directing movies that frequently end up on Hallmark channel… with his flair for capturing wagon trains on screen one can only imagine his memories of growing up as a real life son of Pa Ingalls’.
There is talk of a Little House on the Prairie movie being made, and having seen several made for tv movies directed by Michael Landon, Jr., I hope he has been considered for the role of director. For some of us it will be hard to see other faces in the iconic roles of the Ingalls’ family, but I hope another generation gets a fresh look at what life was like when the west was being settled, when fields were being cleared by hard back-breaking labor, and families pulled together – along with their communities to face obstacles many find hard to imagine in the modern day.
For those who want to read more about Rose Wilder Lane and her mother Laura Ingalls Wilder’s continuing collaboration, William T. Anderson has written a fantastic article for South Dakota State Historical Society available here.