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Wilder tourism withstands Highway 14 detour

WALNUT GROVE — Laura Ingalls Wilder tourism brought sizable summer crowds to Walnut Grove, even with a season-long detour on U.S. Highway 14.

Both the Wilder Museum and the nearby Walnut Grove business district saw steady daily turnouts, which peaked as usual in July during the three weeks of the annual Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant. The Minnesota Department of Transportation did suspend construction during the pageant. Performances take place at the pageant grounds near Plum Creek, about two miles west of the city limits.

The Highway 14 detour coincided with a landmark anniversary, the 45th year since the start of the Little House on the Prairie television series in 1974.

Several cast members came back for the event. Their star power helped to generate added tourism, enough to turn a detour year into one with good overall numbers.

“It helped to have a year with a special anniversary and visits from the cast,” said Doreen Osland, owner of the Fond Memories gift shop at the former creamery building in downtown Walnut Grove. “The pageant is always our busiest time of the summer.”

She said overall business activity was steady even with adjustments in daily traffic patterns. Individuals and families with plans to see Walnut Grove during a trip to southwestern Minnesota seemed to work around temporary highway closings.

“We’ve had a group of detours in the area for several years, but have still drawn people from the region and from many other locations,” Osland said. “We just had visitors stop in from Denmark. The detour was a factor that might have limited things a little this year. We’re also affected by trends in the economy.”

Wilder Museum Director Amy Foster said visitors with a special interest in Laura Ingalls Wilder tend to allow at least most of a full day to see the museum, the Ingalls family’s dugout site in rural Walnut Grove, and other local pioneer era attractions.

She said some other tourists visit especially for a pageant performance and allow a shorter amount of time in the afternoon to see Wilder sites.

“The detour affected us most with visitors who only planned a short museum tour,” Foster said. “If they planned for only an hour or a little more, they sometimes had to take more time than expected getting here. That meant they didn’t have time to see as much as they would have otherwise.”

She said the 45th anniversary, both during the pageant weeks and throughout the season, seemed to draw slightly fewer people than the 40th in 2014. The Highway 14 detour, as well as the long-term trend toward somewhat smaller but more well-read seasonal tourist audiences, could have led to limits for the 2019 volume.

“I’m satisfied with the overall week by week turnout,” Foster said. “It indicates that we’re likely to keep drawing sizable numbers in the years to come. Laura Ingalls Wilder is a well-established part of children’s literature,. Most fans of her books and the television show want to visit Walnut Grove.”

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