Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum
In 1974, Little House on the Prairie premiered on NBC. This television program became a must-watch show in households all over the country and even today in a recent interview actress Melissa Gilbert noted a resurgence in people watching the series during the pandemic. Not long after the launch of Little House on the Prairie, in the fall of 1974, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum opened its doors.
The museum’s collections are housed in a series of interesting buildings, including an 1898 depot, a chapel, an onion-domed house, dugout display, little red schoolhouse, early settler home, and covered wagon display.
Amy Foster, director, has about 20 years of purchasing experience and in her current role she oversees operations and is responsible for purchasing merchandise for the gift shop. “I have been with the museum since April 1999. I started as the office manager and have now been the director since July 2004,” Foster said. She even grew up in Walnut Grove and as a youth, she volunteered at the museum.
The gift shop is important to this destination as it helps support the museum, providing about 70% of its income throughout the year. Merchandise is focused on pioneer-related items from the 1860’s to the 1900’s, such as bonnets, aprons, cloth dolls, doll clothes and ornaments. Traditionally, top-sellers include: Laura’s books, books related to the Ingalls family, bonnets, tin cups, slate boards and marbles. The store has experienced a slight shift in top-sellers since the pandemic. “Sweatshirts and t-shirts have been selling really well since re-opening,” she said.
“I search online, I look at ideas from museums&MORE, I attend the spring Minneapolis Gift Mart, and I listen to what the visitors are looking for,” Foster relayed about how she locates vendors and products for the store. The primary vendors Foster relies upon currently include: Harper Collins for books, Squire Boone, Aurora Plush, Warrell Candy and local vendors for the hand-crafted items.
Foster enjoys using antiques, boxes, school desks and cabinets to display merchandise. “When I started we had a very small gift store. We built a new one in 2000, and added on to it in 2013. It gives us room to have a few fun displays and cabinets to break up regular book shelves,” she said. Foster also explained at this time, she hasn’t changed the way she creates displays in light of the pandemic challenges.
And she readily shared advice when it comes to procuring product: “I’ve been lucky over the 20 years of purchasing to only have a few fails in merchandise. Sometimes you just have to give that new item a try and see if it will work.”
The pandemic impacted this museum, as it did many other cultural institutions around the globe. “We process mail orders year round, and that helped a great deal March through June. We just opened June 19 instead of our normal April 1 opening,” Foster said. “I let some of our inventory run low, as we had no idea when we would be allowed to open and to what extent. Merchandise is just arriving now and mail orders are still being placed.” She also explained that she will not attend shows the remainder of the year and purchasing for the gift store will be down from last year.
During the closure, The Laura Ingalls Wilder museum promoted more on its Facebook page. “Actress Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson from Little House) has been reading the Little House books live since the shut down began, and has been wearing and selling our bonnets, autographed,” detailed Foster. “She has sold over 200 bonnets since the end of March, and that has helped us a great deal. Many of her fans have also gone to our website to purchase other items as well. Alison has always been a huge supporter of the Laura Museums.”
The museum has reopened and masks are mandatory, yet some visitors do not want to wear them. Other COVID-19 modifications that Foster shared included the limiting of buildings open to the public due to the numerous hands-on displays in those buildings. Additionally, it had to cancel its traditional Wilder Pageant, a play which typically takes place outdoors three weekends in July. “During these weekends we make 50% of our year’s income. The pageant has been in production since 1978 and this is the first year without it due to COVID-19 … it’s going to be a very quiet and strange July for us,” Foster described.
Foster described that visitors are pleased to have the museum open again and stated a preference for smaller tourist locations, such as The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in lieu of a larger cultural institution.
Currently, the museum is revamping its website, a project already slated to occur. Foster hopes with this revamp, more gift items will be available for purchase online, along with updated descriptions on the museum buildings.
New cleaning procedures have been enacted, which include the sanitization of door handles, counters, credit card machines, and anywhere visitors may touch upon entering and exiting. And some minor changes in staff have occurred. Foster relayed some advice: “Have a discussion with your staff. See how they feel about working on the front line. I had one (staff member) that was not able to work with the public due to previous health issues, and two that assist older family members.”
Museum displays and gift shop merchandise truly reflect the history of the Ingalls Family in Walnut Grove, and the memorabilia from the television stars’ visits are part of what attracts visitors to this destination.