Avoiding the craziness of flying with a family of five, the Clare family embraced the alternative craziness of driving across more than half of the U.S. It was a long haul—about 2300 miles each way— offering tons of chances to explore.
Last time, I covered the first half of the journey: western Washington state to eastern Wisconsin. After a week of visiting family it was time to head home, following the same highways but stopping at different sights.
The first stop-off was on the recommendation of my brother who, like my husband, knows FAR more about the American Civil War than I do. He pointed us to a spot off Highway 52 in Minnesota in the town of Canon Falls, where stands the only state monument honoring a Civil War veteran.*
While Minnesota isn’t the first state to come to mind when I think of Civil War history, following the attack on Fort Sumter when President Lincoln sent out a call for Union troops, the first responders to formally join up were the 1st Regiment Minnesota Volunteers. This group of Minnesotans served for three years and was at many notable battles including Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
William Colvill, who this monument recognizes, mustered Goodhue County (where I spent my childhood) and was a captain in the regiment. In 1863, he was promoted to colonel. Wounded twice, he was mustered out in 1865 with the brevet rank of brigadier general for gallant and meritorious service (as stated on his memorial.)
In particular, the memorial notes the contribution of Colvill and the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg. On the second day of the battle, with the Union Army in dire straits, they were ordered to advance and buy the Union Army time. The following quote by General Hancock, taken from the memorial, sums the situation up.
“I ordered these men to charge because I saw that I must gain five minutes time. Reinforcements were coming on the run, but I knew that before they could reach the threatened point the Confederates, unless checked, would seize the position. The charge was necessary. I was glad to find such a gallant body of men at hand willing to make the terrible sacrifice.”
The 1st Minnesota lost 82 percent of its men in the action and lost another 15 percent the following day resisting Pickett’s charge.
Though wounded, (shot twice, according to one source) Colvill survived and returned to Minnesota. Among other things, he was active in state politics including a stint as State Attorney General and in the House of Representatives.
The Canon Falls monument, perched on top of a green hill above the cemetery proper, includes the grave and bronze statue of Colvill as well as a Civil War canon, descriptive plaques, and a 1928 marker dedicated “To The Last Man,” honoring the Minnesotan outfits that served from the Civil War through the first World War. I was glad that we made the detour and took time to pay our respects.
Our next stop was inspired by events that took place just eleven years after Gettysburg. In 1874, a pioneer family moved to a makeshift house dug out of a creek bank near Walnut Grove, Minnesota. In 1937, one member of that family, Laura Ingalls Wilder, would publish a book telling stories from her childhood there entitled On the Banks of Plum Creek.
My mother read all of the “Little House” books to me so many times (upon request) that she claimed she knew them by heart. We’ve enjoyed sharing these stories with our children too, and a chance to visit Walnut Grove was too good to pass up.
Walnut Grove has several locations and events related to the “Little House” legacy. The museum consists of a gift shop at the entrance and several buildings from the era with different displays about pioneer life. Across the street is one of the store buildings that “Pa” helped build during his time there. Down the road, a local church is still using the bell that Pa helped buy with the money he intended to use to replace his broken and patched boots. And across the highway and down the road is an indent in the banks of Plum Creek—all that remains of the dugout where the Ingalls family first lived when they moved into the area.
While we didn’t take in all of the museum’s sights and we were too late in the day to get coffee and pie at “Nellie’s Café,” we had a lovely time wading around Plum Creek, squishing in the mud and watching minnows scatter away when my children tried to scoop them up, just like Laura described. We even saw some sort of crustacean waving its claws at us from a hole in the muddy bank. We wondered if it was a decendent of the old crab that Laura said chased her toes. Mercifully, we did not run into any bloodsuckers. (Apologies to anyone who hasn’t read the book—these references don’t mean much to you, I imagine! To those who have, though, you know why we left the creek smiling. 😊)
After a night in Mitchell, SD, where —alas!—we did not make it to see the World’s Only Corn Palace as the kids needed to get out of the car and there was a nice pool at the hotel, we got an early start and headed for one of my absolute favorite spots: Badlands National Park.
The Badlands take their name from the early Lakota people, as well as early French fur traders, both of whom noted that the lands were bad places to travel. It’s hard to picture how anyone could have managed to convey wagons or carts through this dry, stony, almost waterless land.
However, for the modern tourist the smooth paved roads of the driving loop make the beauty of the Badlands easily accessible. Visitors are treated to multicolored layers of rocks soaring to dramatic pinnacles, arid moonscapes to hike through, spectacular vistas on the passes from the high to the low prairie, and the opportunity to view a variety of wildlife. The name “Wonderland National Park” (which someone suggested when the land was proposed for a national park in 1922) would have fit very well.
Along with the stunning views of God’s creation, the Badlands loop boasts a very nice visitor’s center with some fascinating exhibits. A ranger met us outside with a display of bones and pelts and taught the children (and adults) about some of the native species of mammals. We also visited the Fossil Preparation Lab where we were able to see a variety of fossils that have been found in the Badlands area, and workers in the process of cleaning them up for display. It was a fascinating stop!
On a side note, Badlands does have a bit of a World War II connection. (Seriously. They’re everywhere!) 337 acres in the southern portion of the park—not on the main loop drive—along with hundreds of thousands of acres of reservation land were used as an aerial gunnery range. There is still information on the park’s website about what to do if you’re exploring the southern parts of the park and discover unexploded ordinance.
As we wound our way home and tried to encourage the minivan—now nicknamed Matilda—that she could make it back over the mountains, we planned one more stop to see some other natural wonders that you can’t exactly see out of the car window: dinosaurs!
Bozeman, Montana’s Museum of the Rockies (or the MOR) is a Smithsonian affiliate and known for its collection of dinosaur fossils, including a fully assembled T-Rex. It’s part of the “Montana Dinosaur Trail,” and was well worth a visit. “Big Mike,” a bronze cast of a Montana T-Rex found in 1988, welcomes visitors to the museum with the promise of more dinos to come.
Having visited a few museums in our time, my husband and I agreed that this one is set up exceptionally well. The Siebel Dinosaur Complex is a series of rooms that lead visitors from one group of fossil displays to the next. Each is filled with visually interesting and fascinating displays, but they really do (in my opinion) save the best for last. In the final room, the T-Rex is poised and waiting for visitors to pass beneath the jaws.** Rows of triceratops specimens line the walls with horns raised, standing guard.
The remainder of the museum contains exhibits on local Yellowstone/Northern Rockies history and a small current exhibit on the Vikings—all quite nice. While the MOR was our most expensive stop on the trip, it was one that we were glad to have made.
Still, it was high time to get home. A few more mountain ranges and a few more hours of driving— which meant leaving the open highways of South Dakota and Montana behind and hitting Washington traffic once again (sigh)—and we were home. Very happy cats and wild running blackberry vines heavy with fruit welcomed the weary travelers. We were grateful to be off the road, but grateful too for all of the memories we’d made. (Though my youngest has told us that next time we decide to drive that far, she will happily stay behind!)
Thanks so much for coming along on a bit of our journey with me! I hope you enjoyed it. Have any of you visited any of these sights? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts!
Now it’s time for me to get back to school year preparation—September 1st is coming fast! I’ve planned some future posts, however: I’ve got some summer books to share with all of you, some history (of course) and I still need to do a post on The Brothers Karamazov…maybe two. It was a long book. AND, I just got the final(?) draft of the cover for my upcoming novel release- I’m so excited to share it!
All the best!
*However, a duplicate statue can be found at the state capitol in St. Paul.
**While the majority of the T-Rex skeleton’s bones are fossil, the skull is a cast. The real skull is in the glass case pictured in the slideshow. We speculated about why they’d be kept seperetely. Perhaps weight was an issue? The 7 year old did not let me read all of the signage. 🙂