Mary Jo Dathe, director of the Spring Valley Historical Society, stands near a stained-glass window at the Methodist Church Museum in Spring Valley. The society operates the museum, which is the site of the community's connection with the Laura Ingalls Wilder family. Laura and her husband, Almanzo, lived with his parents in Spring Valley 100 years ago. SPRING VALLEY -- What started out as a small reunion of relatives of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband, Almanzo, has turned into a celebration some believe may draw thousands of visitors to Spring Valley this summer.
The celebration of the 100th anniversary of the year the couple stayed in Spring Valley is being planned by the Spring Valley Community Historical Society for July 14 and 15, said the society's director, Mary Jo Dathe.
Planning for the event began last year when an Ingalls relative who was living in Ostrander suggested the society commemorate the anniversary with a reunion of relatives, Dathe said. The event was later publicized in Minnesota tourism information and then picked up by AAA Magazine, a publication with a circulation of 2 million.
Publication in the AAA literature was a coup in itself, but when the publication printed an incorrect phone number and then agreed to reprint the correct information in its next issue, along with a picture of the Spring Valley site as a way of making amends, the exposure suddenly grew even larger, Dathe said.
James and Angeline Wilder, the parents of Almanzo Wilder and five other children came to Spring Valley in 1870 to visit Angeline's brother, George Day, an early pioneer on land on the northwest corner of Spring Valley.
When Day died in 1873, the Wilders bought his farm and moved to Spring Valley from Malone, N.Y., remaining in Spring Valley until 1898. A barn remains on the site where the family lived.
The Wilders were active members of Spring Valley's Methodist church, a building that is now restored as the Methodist Church Museum. The Wilders attended the church and were among contributors to the building fund. Built in 1876, the Victorian-Gothic style church has a vaulted ceiling and free-standing arches. Five matching pairs of stained-glass windows, made in Italy in 1715, line the sanctuary. Another window includes more than 5,000 pieces of glass.
Almanzo and three siblings left the family home in Spring Valley to homestead near DeSmet in Dakota Territory. There, Almanzo met and married Laura Ingalls, and their daughter, Rose Wilder, was born. The couple returned to stay with his parents from 1890 to 1891 while Almanzo recuperated from diptheria and stroke paralysis. During that time, the couple also attended the Methodist church.
Rose Wilder Lane, herself a well-known popular author and world traveler, encouraged her mother to write her life story. Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing her ``Little House'' series at age 65. The first book was published in 1932.
``We have more here than on most Wilder sites,'' Dathe said.
While Laura and Almanzo lived in Spring Valley, the railroad was built through town, cutting through the east edge of the Wilder farm. The Ringling Brothers Circus came to town in the 1890s and a grandstand and stables were used for horse racing from 1870 until 1894 when the structures were destroyed by a tornado. Various artifacts from area churches that are no longer standing are housed in the upper level of the church museum.
In the lower level is an 1874 fire wagon, a 150-year-old loom, items from a cigar factory that operated in the city from 1887 until 1922, items from old-time kitchens and country stores and a display of Conley brothers cameras.
Fred and Kerry Conley of Spring Valley founded the Conley Camera Co. in 1899 at the same time a former Spring Valley resident and friend, Richard Sears, was building the Sears, Roebuck and Co. empire.
Sears bought his cameras from a small East Coast firm, but the Eastman Co. of Rochester, N.Y. (now Eastman Kodak) was developing a monopoly in the camera business that drove Sears' supplier out of business.
Sears contracted with the Conley brothers to make the cameras and later advised them to move the firm to Rochester with the hope that if the cameras were advertised as ``Made in Rochester'' consumers would buy them thinking they were from the large New York manufacturer.
The brothers took his shrewd marketing advice and moved the firm.
The church museum is open Monday through Saturday in June, July and August from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. It is open on Sundays from June through October from 2 to 4 p.m. It is open by appointment for groups in May, September and October.
Dathe is encouraging area residents to visit the site prior to the mid-July reunion because of the crowds that are expected.
The reunion will include bus tours, slide shows, self-guided walking tours of the historic downtown area and a Sunday night ice cream social with live music.p