‘Little House on the Prairie’: Why Melissa Gilbert Put Off Seeing the Real-Life Walnut Grove Until She Was an Adult

Melissa Gilbert, to this day, is best known for her role as Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie. When she was 44, Gilbert was cast in Little House on the Prairie: The Musical at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. This time around, she was playing Ma. During the run of the show, Gilbert and the child actors decided to visit Walnut Grove, where the real Laura Ingalls grew up. Gilbert had never been before.

Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls Wilder, holding her baby, on the set of 'Little House on the Prairie.'
Melissa Gilbert | NBCU Photo Bank

Melissa Gilbert finally visits the home of Laura Ingalls

Gilbert and the children of the musical (Kara Lindsay, who played Laura, Jenn Gambatese, who played Mary, and Kevin Massey, who played Almanzo) hopped in a car and drove five hours to visit Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and De Smet, South Dakota.

Gilbert had had other opportunities to visit where the real Laura grew up, but she’d always turned them down. This time was different.

“Despite numerous invitations, I had not visited either place,” Gilbert wrote in her 2009 memoir, Prairie Tale. “The timing finally felt right now that I was old enough to appreciate it.”

Walnut Grove

When Gilbert and the children arrived in Walnut Grove they went straight to the museum.

“One display included the fireplace mantel from the set of the TV series,” wrote Gilbert. “When no one was looking, I smelled it to see if it still contained any of the familiar scents from the set. It didn’t, but memories of my girlhood flooded my heart and mind.”

After the museum, the group headed to Nellie’s Café for lunch and then took a stroll along Plumb Creek.

How Melissa Gilbert felt touching Laura Ingalls’ nightgown

In De Smet, the group took a tour of the town.

“We walked through the house Pa built, where I marveled at the cabinets he had made for Ma, and then we were ushered into the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum, where our guide opened a vault containing the most special items,” wrote Gilbert. “She pulled out a nightgown and several handkerchiefs.”


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They had belonged to Laura. Gilbert asked if she could touch the nightgown and she was allowed. The moment stuck with Gilbert for years.

“I climbed into bed late that night, exhausted but unable to fall asleep,” wrote Gilbert. “I kept thinking about the flood of memories I had experienced after touching Laura’s nightgown and handkerchief. While my fingers ran over the cotton fabric, I relived everything from my first audition for Little House to the present: happiness, sadness, heartbreak, and love. For someone who grew up not being allowed to feel anything, I now felt so much.”