There is a lot of activity going on at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Tourist Center in Walnut Grove. The facility is gearing up for yet another summer tourist season, and it has some exciting new additions for patrons to take in. The museum has purchased the Masters Hotel building adjacent to the museum. The hotel was built somewhere around 1876.
Laura Ingalls writes about her experiences working there in her autobiographical book “Pioneer Girl.” According to information from the museum, this piece of Laura’s history is little known, because it was not mentioned in the Little House stories.
“The autobiography, pointedly not written for children, languished from the time it was written,” said Joel McKinney, collections manager at the museum. “About nine years ago the South Dakota State Historical Society hired Pamela Smith-Hill, an historian from the University of Missouri, to research the autobiography. Six years later they published the heavily annotated ‘Pioneer Girl’ for the first time. The sales have been phenomenal.”
It seems Laura’s family spent a year in Burr Oak, Iowa, only to return to Walnut Grove. Having already sold the Plum Creek property where the now-famous dugout was located, Charles Ingalls bought a lot behind the hotel from William J. Masters and built a small house for his family.
Due to the close proximity, Laura found employment at the hotel setting tables, washing dishes, folding laundry and babysitting the Masters’ granddaughter.
When Charles left Walnut Grove, he sold the house and lot back to Masters. Charles was an accomplished carpenter, and it is possible he worked on the Masters Hotel building.
“The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum has been interested in the Masters Hotel building since we learned decades ago of the connection to Laura,” said McKinney. “The owner passed away last fall, and while we had been in informal negotiations we had no contract. We were able to purchase the building and land from his daughter – who has been most supportive – and we took possession last September.”
“We intend to restore the Masters Hotel and use it as a museum, but the renovations will take years,” McKinney added. “We are accepting donations and volunteer labor. Meanwhile, I’m putting a display in the glassed porch, so people can become familiar with the text and artifacts from this little known time in Laura’s life.”
In addition to purchasing the Masters Hotel, the museum has also purchased the old lumberyard building just to the east of the museum gift store. While no firm plans are in place for utilizing the new space, there are some ideas.
One possible use is to reconfigure the west end of the lumberyard to mimic the schoolhouse from the “Little House on the Prairie” television show. The building easily divides into four separate rooms, and the yard could add room for events and family picnics.
For now, the building is being used for storing items donated to the Ingalls Museum from the Wabasso Historical Society.
McKinney commented that it is important to know that small town historical societies are having a really tough time. Minnesota is the only state that has a historical society in every county, but the towns are struggling to find funding and volunteers to stay open.
Several years ago Vesta’s museum closed for good and donated its artifacts to the Ingalls Museum. Wabasso suffered a similar fate.
“They are wonderful, dedicated people who just couldn’t stretch far enough to keep going,” McKinney said.
The collection (from Wabasso) was first offered to Redwood County, but they declined.
“When I came on board here they had offered it to us, but we had no way to deal with the volume of cases and artifacts. Then the 1890s lumberyard next door came up for sale and we bought it,” McKinney continued. “That meant that we had storage and staging space, and we accepted the collection from Wabasso.”
McKinney commented the donation of the Wabasso items will allow the museum to represent a much broader and more complete history of not just Walnut Grove and Laura Ingalls Wilder, but of the whole county.
“It is a very impressive set of artifacts from the 1870s to the 1950s, and we are happy to accept both the artifacts and the responsibility to house and display Wabasso’s history. While the entire collection has not yet been cataloged, we have integrated many artifacts into our displays and all are noted as having come from Wabasso," he said.