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Wilder Museum in WG lands ‘Little House’ artifacts

WALNUT GROVE — Three highly prized collectors items from the “Little House on the Prairie” television series have permanent homes in Walnut Grove thanks to successful bidding in online auctions.

The Wilder Museum of Walnut Grove purchased a cast photo signed by the cast and owned by actress Melissa Gilbert (who played Laura) for $1,200, according to the Associated Press. The item was one of about 200 sold through an online auction that concluded this month.

The auction was the second of two organized to sell items owned by Gilbert. She and her husband, Emmy Award winning actor Timothy Busfield, relocated last year from their home near Livingston, Mich. to New York City.

Wilder Museum Collection Manager Joel McKinney said the museum carefully tracks items that come up for sale or auction using keyword searches such as Laura Ingalls Wilder and Little House on the Prairie.

“We’re interested in anything related to the Ingalls family or the TV show,” McKinney said. “Online auctions expand our purchasing possibilities. Our supporters have been generous by donating money for auction bids.”

This month’s auction generated about 58,000 views and more than 300 bids. The photo sold for slightly more than sheet music signed by David Rose, who wrote the “Little House on the Prairie” theme song and other music for the show.

McKinney said the Wilder Museum previously purchased two other major auction items. One was the mock-up fiddle used by Michael Landon, who portrayed Charles Ingalls. The other was clothing worn by Victor French when he co-starred as Mr. Edwards, a close friend of the Ingalls family.

The purchases are being added to the museum’s collection prior to the 45th anniversary of the “Little House on the Prairie” series premiere in 1974. The 40th anniversary event in 2014 attracted 11 cast members.

“The timing of the auctions was perfect for us,” McKinney said. “We’re expecting another strong turnout of cast members. It will most likely be a year where we have a higher than average number of TV show fans.”

The Wilder Museum became a national and sometimes international tourist attraction in the 1970s after Little House on the Prairie premiered. The show was set in Walnut Grove, which corresponds to how the community was the setting for “On the Banks of Plum Creek.” The book was one in a series written by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Although yearly attendance dropped as expected after 1982, when the series ended its run, the Wilder Museum has still continued to draw sizable yearly tourism. The three-weekend Wilder Pageant in July is the highlight of each summer season.

Museums in southwestern Minnesota often take part in co-promotion to encourage first-time visitors to make stops at other museums locations within short driving distances.

“I’m happy to hear about their auction acquisitions,” said Jon Wendorff, President of the Wheels Across the Prairie Museum on the west side of Tracy. “It’s good to make them available for local communities, schools, youth groups and visitors.”

Wendorff also frequently looks for items on eBay and other web sites with a particular interest in anything tied to the Tracy area of Lyon, Murray and Redwood counties. Wheels Across the Prairie is about seven miles west of Walnut Grove.

“If something shows up and it’s affordable, I’ll buy it to donate to the museum,” Wendorff said. “It’s a good way to add items to the collection.”

South of the Lyon-Murray County line, museum attendees can visit both the End-O-Line railroad museum in Currie near the eastern shore of Lake Shetek and then the Murray County Museum in Slayton.

Rose Schmit, site manager and collections manager at both locations, said all museums in the local area add up to an overall opportunity to learn about many different historical subjects.

“We aren’t competitors,” Schmit said. “All museums tell a story and they’re all different. We promote each other whenever there’s a chance. If one museum adds to its collection, we all benefit.”

Schmit is a graduate of Marshall High School in 2014 and Southwest Minnesota State University in 2018. Her childhood included opportunities to enjoy “Little House” books. She read some of the popular “Little House” children’s book series and has traveled to the Wilder Pageant as part of a Girl Scouts chapter.

“My family even named a dog Almanzo (Laura’s future husband played by Dean Butler),” she said. “The Ingalls family continues to be popular. When people think about rural Minnesotan, they often remember Laura.”

Jim Gagner, principal of West Side Elementary School in Marshall, said Laura Ingalls Wilder still draws interest among grade school children 45 years after Little House on the Prairie premiered.

“We have the books in our library collection and students enjoy them,” Gagner said. “Most of their interest is based on the books. Many of them haven’t seen the TV show, but the books are popular choices.”

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