WALNUT GROVE - It’s been 45 years since a freckle-faced, pig-tailed little girl bounded down a grassy hill with her sisters in a now all-too-familiar introduction to the television series “Little House on the Prairie.”
Though the show aired for just nine seasons - 210 episodes - its syndication continues to generate new fans from across the country and around the world.
This summer, several of the characters that brought the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder to life on our television screens will be visiting the real Walnut Grove in southwest Minnesota. They will be speaking in the city park, signing autographs and taking part in the festivities that surround the community’s annual Wilder Pageant, “Fragments of A Dream.”
The “Little House” cast reunion is slated for July 11-14, and according to Amy Foster, director of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, four contracts with cast members have already been signed. She is hopeful contracts will be finalized by the end of this month with up to six additional cast members from the show.
She won’t be releasing the names of the visiting actors and actresses until all of the contracts are finalized.
Over the years, many of the cast members have visited Walnut Grove during the festival - with the exception of Melissa Gilbert, who portrayed Laura Ingalls.
“She did surprise us a few years ago when she was in the Twin Cities for the Little House musical,” said Foster.
During the July 11-14 cast reunion, much like the 40th anniversary celebration five years ago, Foster said the special guests will have speaking engagements in the city park, where they will talk about being on the cast together and what they’ve done since the series ended. Autograph sessions are planned at different times during the day on Friday and Saturday. Cast members who have written books will have them available for sale during the festival as well.
“At some time during the weekend we’ll have a photo opportunity event with the full cast,” Foster said, adding that people will be able to step in to have their picture taken with the group.
The cast reunions in Walnut Grove generate a lot of interest from fans around the world. Foster said that five years ago, a woman flew in from Jamaica to meet the cast members, get autographs and attend the outdoor pageant, and flew back home the next day.
“We get people from everywhere for this event,” Foster added.
While visitors flock to Walnut Grove to see the cast members and attend the Wilder Pageant along the banks of Plum Creek, other popular stops include the Ingalls dugout site north of town, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and gift shop.
While the museum is closed during the winter months, Foster said some renovations are now taking place. When it reopens April 1, visitors will be able to view several new pieces from the “Little House on the Prairie” television series.
“We were able to purchase some special items for the museum, including the fiddle that Michael Landon used on the Little House set,” Foster said. The fiddle, along with the hat, shirt and boots worn by Mr. Edwards (Victor French), and a complete cast and crew photo taken after the final episode was filmed - complete with several autographs around the frame - all had belonged to Melissa Gilbert, who sold them at auction.
“We’re still waiting for some of those items to arrive from the auction house,” Foster said.
In addition to adding the memorabilia to the museum’s display, there are also special television displays that will open at the museum this summer.
The museum will remain open through the end of October. During the cast reunion weekend, it will have extended hours from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. An onsite gift shop is open year round.
Cast tryouts for the 2019 pageant are planned April 12-13 at Trinity Lutheran Church, Walnut Grove, and tickets for any of the 2019 pageant weekends are already available for purchase online at walnutgrove.org or by calling the ticket office toll-free at 1-888-859-3102 or locally at (507) 859-2174.
Flooding last summer at the pageant grounds caused significant damage, with nearly six feet of water covering the pageant stage. Foster said repairs are still in progress.