MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Prairie Coteau

Little pageants on the prairie

A scrappy pioneer family is brought to life each year in two towns that played a prominent role in the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

It's morning in the Little Town on the Prairie, and we're thumbing through the guest book at the Prairie House Manor B&B.

"I can't believe we are in the 'Little Town' where Laura grew up,'' one woman wrote. "This is truly a dream come true,'' wrote another.

So many little girls, so many dreams. When Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her nine books about growing up on the American frontier of the 1870s and 1880s, she had no idea her idealized portrait of pioneer life would be such powerful medicine to so many.

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Pipestone pilgrimage

For centuries, the quarries have been a sacred spot in this southwest Minnesota town.

It's easy to see why the Plains Indians saw the Great Spirit at work in a far corner of Minnesota.

Amid an ocean of tall grass, a fractured pile of hard red rock suddenly erupts from the sod. It's Sioux quartzite, once sand at the edge of a red ocean, cooked and pressed into marble-like stone over a billion years.

Beneath the quartzite is a thin seam of a softer stone, a red, hardened clay that's barely harder than a fingernail.

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Little sod house on the prairie

A re-created pioneer home shows that life on the frontier wasn't quite as romantic as we think it was.

Sometimes, it comes as a shock to tourists, especially those who grew up watching the TV show "Little House on the Prairie,'' that life on the frontier wasn't all that fun.

Twenty miles east of Walnut Grove, the late Stan McCone always told it as it was. A farmer, he'd heard stories about the early sod houses. None remained, so he decided to build one of his own, using an old sod cutter.

"There were 13 sod houses in this neighborhood, and those are just the ones we know about,'' he said. "But with all those, there's zero recollection of them, and I know why — because of all the buried children alongside them. They had such hardship.''

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Drama on the Prairie Coteau

At Minnesota's Blue Mounds, the shifting beauty of the prairie has a showcase.

In the land of 10,000 lakes, prairie often is dismissed as, well, dull.

But in the farthest corner of Minnesota, a dramatic patch of terrain offers more spectacle than an Imax show.

I stood atop Blue Mounds one afternoon in June, watching as bolts of lightening rocketed earthward from a leaden, wraparound sky.

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Road trip: Southwest Minnesota

In the middle of the prairie, blood-red rock splits the sod, holding meaning far beyond the picturesque.

In the southwest corner of the state, the prairie hardly looks like typical Minnesota vacation land.

Instead of lakes, fractured red quartzite erupts from the earth, and wind towers pop up on the horizon like giant black daisies. Herds of bison graze in fields, and yellow blooms cover prickly pear cactus.

This was the spiritual center of the universe for indigenous people on the prairie, and it exerts a pull on others, too.

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Written in stone

In southwest Minnesota, the Jeffers Petroglyphs tell a dramatic but mysterious story.

In the middle of farm fields, on a slab of the same Sioux quartzite that pops out of the sod farther west at Pipestone and Blue Mound, the story of an ancient people is written with nearly 2,000 characters.

They’re dramatic characters — serpents of the underworld, and thunderbirds who shoot lightening bolts from their eyes.

There are buffalos and stick figures and atlatls, a spear-throwing device, but no bow and arrows, which began to replace the atlatl 1,000 years ago.

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Posse on the prairie

In Madelia, the Jesse James Gang met its match again.

In September 1876, a vicious gang of outlaws came up against some ordinary Minnesotans.

The outlaws came out on the short end. Twice.

The Civil War ended more than a decade before the James-Younger Gang rode into Minnesota. But it was far from over in Missouri, devastated by guerrilla warfare and still simmering with resentment.

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