March 30, 2024

The Little House on the Prairie TV Series Converted This California Cattle Ranch Into Walnut Grove

Last weekend, I returned to Simi Valley, California—and the Big Sky movie ranch—to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Little House on the Prairie television series. 

Since my sister and I were allowed to watch pretty much all the TV wanted—but weren't allowed to do much else, especially out in the "real world"—my memories of the show, and the books, have informed some of my adult travels and adventures. 

I still haven't made it to South Dakota, Kansas, or Missouri. And even though I've already crossed Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa off my list (as well as Malone, New York, home of the Almanzo Wilder Farm), it feels like I'm always trying to get back to the prairie. 

That happened—at least, in a Hollywood magic kind of way—this past weekend during the Little House festival, which included meet and greets and photo ops with most of the living stars of the show, as well as a bus tour of the old filming location from the 1970s and '80s.

But it almost didn't.

At first, I'd only bought a single-day ticket for Saturday of the three-day festival—and then as more and more stars got confirmed (including Melissa Gilbert, who never does these things), and panels got scheduled, I started to worry I wouldn't have enough time. So I upgraded to a weekend pass, knowing I probably wouldn't be able to break away from work for the Friday but having the peace of mind that I'd get all day Saturday and Sunday. 

I arrived under threatening skies—and, soon, rain—on Saturday morning around 10 a.m., not having to wait in a long entry line because I had a multi-day pass. I enjoyed the festival atmosphere for a bit (stay tuned for my blog post on that) before ambling over to the bus tour check-in. 

The morning rain had canceled all the buses that morning until at least 2 p.m.—and when I returned at 2 to try to ride standby later that day, the bad news was that the roads were still too muddy and unsafe, though the rain had ceased. 

That meant returning the next morning, Sunday, by 7:30 a.m. to try to squeeze an empty seat out of one of the buses that day, which would start running at 8 a.m. But that meant counting on the fact that a Sunday bus ticketholder might not show up, or turn up late, since all the spots for the tour had sold out in advance months before. 

After waiting in line for over three hours, I asked one of the event organizers what to do so as not to miss my professional photos with Melissa Gilbert (Laura Ingalls) and Dean Butler (Almanzo Wilder), which I'd also paid for in advance and whose time slots were narrow and immoveable. "You won't make it," the organizer said. "Go over there now and enjoy yourself."

Here's the only thing that made it work out in the end: The people behind me in line agreed to save my place and let me come back three hours later, without having to start over again at the back of the line.

Upon my return, we only had to wait about another 20 or 30 minutes before we found ourselves on a bus, everyone cheering, "We made it!" 

Sure, I'd been to Big Sky Ranch once before—but that was eight years ago, and this year, the festival had erected smaller-scale, painted façades to replicate the original sets, in the exact places where they once stood.

We all screamed when we saw the Ingalls' homestead appear from behind the craggy oak trees—much as it was shown on the small screen in the series.

Plum Creek is gone—it was manmade for the series anyway, since there's no natural water source on the ranch—but I half-expected Jack the family dog to come barreling out of the house towards our bus. 

The barn was there, too, as though Mary hadn't nearly burned it down in the 1974 episode "The Award."

The actual Minnesota prairie is pretty flat—but Big Sky Ranch, and therefore the TV version of Walnut Grove/Hero Township, is in the Simi Hills of Southern California. So it's relatively mountainous. 

But those winding dirt roads look as though they could lead the ghost carriage of Doc Baker or the Ingalls' team of horses, Pat and Patty, right into town. 

Perhaps some of the old wagon roads are now overgrown, their wheel ruts filled in. 

But the grass is tall, and blows in the breeze as though ripped from the landscape of the Midwest. It was particularly green last weekend, too—though in the series, a keen eye can detect when SoCal was in drought and the entire prairie turned dry and brown. 

We could really picture the Garvey House and precisely where it once stood...
...the hill that James and Cassandra's parents' wagon tragically tumbled down...

...the blind school (which also stood in for Mr. Pike's "Haunted House" in season 1)...

...and the real-life mud pit (in reality, a duck pond and cattle pasture) where Laura and Nellie had it out in the 1979 episode "Back to School" (the cinnamon chicken episode where they fight over Almanzo, one of my faves).

In town, there was the Feed & Seed (whose owner Liam O'Neil was only seen in one episode, "Harvest of Friends in the first season, and then never again)...

...the mercantile, owned by Nels and Harriet Oleson who lived on the property with their children Nellie and Willie...
...the school/church (which also served as a hospital for typhus patients in Season 1's "Plague" episode)...

...and Nellie's Restaurant and Hotel, which was established in season 6.

Remember the hill that Nellie came crashing down in a wheelchair after being pushed by Laura? It's still there, but the pond and the bridge are gone. 

The road in front of Hanson's Lumber Mill was washed out during our tour, as it might've been during one of the many storms that plagued Walnut Grove.  

But we got to see the façade of the bank, built in season 2 when Charles Ingalls tried to get a loan from banker Ebenezer Sprague. 

As we headed back out of town, past the old sweetheart tree (which still stands), the skies began threatening again. 

And as we passed charred trees, some burned in wildfires in the early 2000s (including a 2003 brusher that took down a replica that had been built of the Ingalls homestead, as well as other "Little House" buildings that had survived the dynamiting of Walnut Grove at the end of the series).

We were hearing thunder and seeing lightning—the very thing that sparked those destructive wildfires I just mentioned—as we headed back towards the festival grounds. But we had one more stop to make. 

It was "the hill"—definitely the most famous hillside in all of the Little House on the Prairie TV series, featured in the opening credits of every season, 1974-1983. 

You know, the one the girls are running down...

...led by Laura in a red prairie dress... Ma and Pa watched on from the covered wagon atop the hill above?
That same one that Carrie came tumbling down every week (reportedly because the actress, one of the Greenbush twins, was wearing her shoes on the wrong feet. She really fell, and they kept the take.

From the bottom of that hill, you can also see the tree that Pa fell out of while trying to loosen an entangled kite and broke his arm in season 1 ("Harvest of Friends"). 

From afar, it looks like a screengrab from the show. It was the end of the bus tour, and it was the moment that was most difficult to differentiate reality from fantasy. 

You can watch my video (shot mostly out of the bus window) in the player above. It still feels like a dream. 

Big Sky Ranch is NOT normally open to the public and is a secure site that is patrolled and monitored. Don't just show up there hoping to get in.

If you missed the bus tour—whether because you didn't get to go to the festival at all or because your bus was canceled or because you didn't get a bus ticket—you can sign up to express interest in a future public bus tour hosted by Big Sky Ranch, which now owns the façades and plans to keep them up for a while.

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