Author of many books, Walnut Grove historian Dan Peterson lives in house full of artifacts

Photo by Mike Lamb Walnut Grove historian Dan Peterson has written numerous books.

A walk through Dan Peterson’s home is like jumping through a Walnut Grove time warp

“Everything in the house is historical,” he said, leading a tour that started in his dining room, continued into his basement and then through his living room and porch.

Civil War pieces, pottery pieces, tobacco paraphernalia, filing cabinets filled with obituaries going back 50 to 60 years. You can sift through old newspaper clippings, year books, land records, church records.

“This is all Walnut Grove stuff. Everything form banks to uniforms, liquor bottles that I salvaged under the basements of old saloons,” he said.

And if you sit down at his dining room table he will share stories involving the old saloons going back in time from Laura Ingalls Wilder times and later.

“A fun one,” Peterson said, pointing to one of the books he has authored that are stacked up at the edge of the table.

” ‘Wet or Dry, the Temperance Movement to Prohibition.’ Alcohol was a huge factor in Walnut Grove history. In the old days, the town — the men of course — voted in the townships individually whether they would allow the sale of liquor or not. So it could change every year. So if the town decided to go dry, I’m running the saloon, well, OK, I guess I have to have a grocery store,” Peterson said.

He described how the town went “wet” again in 1902.

“All of sudden we had five saloons on Main Street,” Peterson said.

He went on telling how the well digger’s wife got fed up with her husband going to town on Sunday to gamble and drink. The saloon keeper wasn’t following the rules, including no alcohol on Sunday. She dropped her kids off and grabbed her husband’s pistol and rode her pony to the saloon and held up everybody at gunpoint. She chopped up the billiards tables.

“If something doesn’t change, something worse is going to happen,” Peterson said about what the wife said.

And something did happen, according to Peterson’s story. A mysterious fire broke out and ended up burning up the whole south side of Main Street. Apparently, that led to stricter building codes and pledges by the youth to avoid drinking.

“When I hear someone say, ‘man, history is so boring,’ … well you must have just had a boring teacher, because it’s nothing but the stories of life,” Peterson said.

Peterson actually taught history for years at the Walnut Grove school until he got sick and ended up on disability. Today, when his health allows it, he spends time sharing his knowledge of Walnut Grove — and the region — with library audiences and anywhere else he’s invited to give lectures.

And then there’s all the books.

“I grew up here,” he said. “Obviously, I love history. I was a history teacher. So I had always been collecting Walnut Grove information. The last history of Walnut Grove was done in 1916. So it’s been awhile. There was a lot to tell.”

“I started out doing a business story. There was a lady here in town that owned the variety store at the time. Unfortunately, three of the owners all developed cancer and died. They worked there. It used to be the funeral home. Makes you wonder if there was some connection to embalming. She had put together a simple two-page thing starting with Main Street and that got me started.”

He next did a chronicle of Walnut Grove Station.

He held up another book.

“This is kind of the Walnut Grove bible up to 2022. It has the history of everything from the city dump to you name it. Every teacher who taught or coached,” Peterson said.

Another book on the stack is a two-volume history of Walnut Grove history.

“So that’s history. From the town team to high school,” he said.

Later, he formed a close relationship to the Hmong population in Walnut Grove though teaching their students in his class. He interviewed all their families about the Vietnam War and experiences in refugee camps. The result was another book.

“And so I recorded that because they didn’t tell their kids a lot of the stories they told me. And I’m glad I did this one now because it’s something to know because many of them have passed away.” he said.

He also authored a bunch of more smaller books, including stories of Laura Ingalls. Pouring over Laura’s personal writing, the book is tells more of the adult version of events, rather than previous accounts geared toward middle school students. It’s called “Pioneer Girl.”

Peterson’s interest in history goes back to his grandpa.

“History is just a story of people’s lives. My grandpa was a great story teller. I was growing up listening to him. He could remember all these things that his dad and his grandpa told him and passed them along.”


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