Early last year, I learned that there was going to be a big cast reunion of the "Little House on the Prairie" television stars in Walnut Grove. Now, I'm a fair-weather fan of the show, so I keep my excitement to a minimum. But once the announcement got out online, legions of fans started chatting about how thrilled they were. How they couldn't wait until the end of July and head to Walnut Grove. For some, it probably was, where is Walnut Grove?
When I first moved here more than 15 years ago, I liked that I was in close proximity to one of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "homesites." And I wasn't too far away from another site -DeSmet, South Dakota, but it took nearly 10 years for me to get around to visiting it.
In past years, I've interviewed a few of the "Little House" TV celebs that have come through Walnut Grove - Alison Arngrim, Charlotte Stewart, Dean Butler and one of the Greenbush twins. They're all easy to talk to and genuine down-to-earth folks. And they look forward to meeting their fans, even if the last episode broadcasted 30 years ago.
A few weeks before the reunion, I would notice more and more posts on the cast reunion Facebook page I stumbled across. People from all over the globe were making plans to descend up on Walnut Grove. They were ready; they were pumped. I kept going back and forth with "should I go to Walnut Grove and check out the scene?" And on the day before this past Saturday, I figured, "why not?"
I arrived in Walnut Grove around 12:30. The first order of business was finding a place to park. I figured that I'll just park on some side street. So I'm scanning the town. It was plumb full in front of the museum. The first couple of streets were loaded. I actually only had to go up the street a little to find a spot. It wasn't too far away from where Dean Butler, Lucy Lee Flippin and the Greenbush twins were signing autographs. I thought that the first session was going to be done by the time I got there, but it wasn't. And there was still a long line waiting for those three. I snapped a few photos before moving on to the museum grounds where Charlotte Stewart, Radames Pera and Hersha Parady were. They were just finishing up when I make my way toward the autograph setup. So I go back through the museum, which was jam-packed with people, who were snapping up souvenirs and standing in line. I find Nicole, the collections manager, put out more items, chat with her a bit and ask about getting a reunion T-shirt that was specially made for the event. There was just one left. I go and look at the size, 2X. That's alright, I'll just step away from the shirt. Onto the park.
The city park was set up for the family festival with food, vendors, the stage and the autograph area for Alison Arngrim, Dan McBride and the Turnbaugh twins. It was an hour before the second autograph session was to begin and the line was already forming. Wow. So I get a couple of eggrolls and a Mountain Dew for lunch and wait around. I ran into Tom Merchant of the Westbrook newspaper as well as Troy Krause from the Redwood Falls newspaper. I chatted with Tom for a bit before Victor French's kids, Tracy and Victor Jr., took the stage to talk about their dad. Victor Jr. looks quite a bit like his dad (the beard does help) and I kind of said that out loud as he and his sister made their way to the stage. He turned to me and said yeah, or something like that and I said "I bet you get that a lot." He and his sister were fun to listen to as they regaled the crowd with little-known facts about the man who played Mr. Edwards.
While the French children were talking, the people in line for Alison et. al were waiting somewhat patiently. The Turnbaugh twins showed up a little before 1:30, the time the autograph session was to start. They were still waiting on Alison and Dan. So the twins worked the crowd a little, greeting people and posing for photos. Around 1:40, a shuttle bus pulls up and in dramatic fashion, Alison and Dan, along with Alison's husband, Bob, make their way to the canopy. The line started moving, Alison was smiling and her husband attentively doled out materials. I watched and listened before I went back to the museum to get more photos of the autograph session there. A man was interviewing a fan and her kids for what I assume is a documentary of sorts. I just started taking photos of whatever. I zoomed in on a mother and daughter wearing green T-shirts that were made for the reunion and took a few photos of them. Then it was back to the first autograph session I came upon and then to the car for home. Like a couple of women from Walnut Grove, I was only taking photos of the crowds and such.
So when I got home, I'm quickly posting the photos I took to Facebook. I'm Facebook "friends" with Dean Butler and Charlotte Stewart. I tag them and wait to see what happens. People I don't even know start "liking" my photos. Later that night, I joined the cast reunion Facebook page and posted the photos there as well. The woman who was in the green reunion shirt said that her daughter was in one of the photos and if it was OK to tag her. I said "go ahead, tag away." I figured it was her daughter because she posted her own photos on the reunion Facebook page. And even a week later, people are still sharing their experiences from Walnut Grove.
According to Amy Ankrum, director of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, more than 1,800 tickets were sold for Friday night's pageant and cast reunion program and 2,357 were sold for Saturday night. There was going to be a limit of 2,400 tickets sold for each night. Not bad. I jokingly told her that she now can wait 10 years for the next event. But some of the fans are hoping for one for the 45th anniversary. We'll see what happens.