By Per Peterson
Surrounded by mud and muck, how can the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant site appear to be as clean as it’s ever been? Bill Richards said it’s the positive attitude and hard work of volunteers, and cast and crew members that worked hard to not only clean up the site after the flood, but prepare it for the future.
“That’s the plan,” said Richards, technical advisor for the pageant. “We see that we can make it happen. It’s been a lot more work than usual, but you have to have a certain kind of attitude. You can be realistic, but you’ve gotta remain upbeat.”
The grounds took a beating during the July 3 flood, and so did the pageant’s bottom line — so much so in fact that for the first time, it’s making a public appeal for some help.
A GoFundMe page has been set up to help raise funds to restore the pageant site.
“Area communities really have done more than their fair share,” Richards said. “We want to reach out to people across the country, and some are starting to contribute.”
Richards said the pageant has given the public the opportunity to donate through a website link in the past, but has never made a public appeal.
“There was a time when we were short and took out a loan around $15,000 from the bank on a handshake and good faith but that was also a long time ago,” Richards said. “We have been able to give some cash back to the community through scholarships and donations to groups like the firemen, Family Festival and EMT and Development Association when we had dollars.”
According to a recent news release, the Wilder Pageant Committee has set a goal of $30,000 to “continue telling the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder.”
The pageant’s opening week this year was shut down because of the flood, and because of that and subsequent smaller crowds, the pageant is down about $40,000. Losing gate proceeds from opening weekend notwithstanding, it was free advertising lost that hurt even more.
“Our crowd size was about half the normal crowd we’ve averaged over the last couple of years,” he said. “I’m shooting from the hip on that, but I think I’m pretty close. If you don’t get that first weekend in, you lose that word-of-mouth, which is huge for the second and third weeks.”
Richards said the first weekend usually draws the smallest crowd, while the second and third weekend runs are the biggest. Not the case this year.
“That word-of-mouth is worth more than any advertisement we’ve got,” he said.
“That’s a huge part of our advertising — word-of-mouth,” said Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum Director Amy Foster. “You get here, you bring home a brochure, you say to your neighbors, ‘That was really fun, you should try it sometime.’”
Foster called the decline in museum traffic this summer “huge. We’d be lucky if we made half of what we normally do,” she said. “It’s very down. It’s going to be a tight winter.”
The flood resulted in plenty of damage. The pageant site lost a lot of gravel — they’ve brought in three or four trucks of new gravel already to replace what was there before. A couple of back-stage buildings were shut down because the floor boards came up and have been overcome by mold and mildew, and lots of costumes and shoes were lost.
“I was down there (Monday) feeding the cow and I could see in the sunlight a piece of the set all the way across Lake Laura,” Richards said.
The 2019 Wilder Pageant dates are: July 5-6, July 12-13 and July 19-20.