Walnut Grove, Minnesota was the real life setting for the TV series “Little House on the Prairie.” But its population and business community was eroding until Hmong refugees from Laos showed up. They received such a friendly reception in Walnut Grove others followed. Now Hmong refugees make up a third of the town’s population. And Walnut Grove is prospering and growing.
[The following is a transcript of Mary Stucky’s radio report.]
Mary Stucky: There are 22 kids in the second grade at Walnut Grove elementary school and the school day starts here like it has for generations.
Kids: “I pledge allegiance to the flag…”
Mary Stucky: Outside the flat farm country of southwestern Minnesota stretches to the horizon. Germans and Scandinavians first settled here in the late 1800s. But look at the children in this class, and —-along with all the blond hair and blue eyes—-you’ll see more than half the faces are of Asian descent. Teacher Monica Otto says the kids don’t seem to notice.
Monica Otto: “They make that choice of being friends.”
Mary Stucky: Just a few years ago, there weren’t enough second graders to fill a classroom here and this school’s future was in doubt. The town’s population had dwindled to a less than 600, due largely to a stagnant farm economy. About that time, Harry Yang started looking for a new home for his family. Yang is from Laos—and belongs to an ethnic group called the Hmong. They fought for the United States during the Vietnam War. When Laos fell to the communists, Yang and his family, along with thousands of other Hmong, fled the country.
Harry Yang: “Then we decide that the only choice, we escape. That was very bad. My mother lost there and my sister. During the time we cross the Mekong River they didn’t show up. So we didn’t know what happened to them and never found out.”
Mary Stucky: Yang and his surviving family eventually came to the United States through an official refugee program. He settled in St Paul but had his doubts about life in the city.
Harry Yang: “When the children, like my son and daughter, they had a lot of problems in the city. And they still very young and the gangs come to get them very easy. I feel very bad about it.”
Mary Stucky: Yang asked his oldest daughter for advice.
Harry Yang: “She knew Walnut Grove from the “Little House on the Prairie. She knew that story. So she said that might be a good place.”
Mary Stucky: So Harry Yang got out a map and drove the 160 miles to Walnut Grove.
He liked what he saw…a quiet, safe town with cheap houses and low skilled factory jobs nearby. But Yang wasn’t sure whether he and his family would be accepted in a town where people had no experience of racial or cultural diversity. And so it was a bold, even courageous step when…Yang moved to Walnut Grove with his wife and five children. That was five years ago. Yang and his family began to attend the town potlucks in the park.
Harry Yang: “You have to have people gathering in the park, meet each other and talk. It’s not always that people will welcome you. Still some people dislike each other. But if more people welcome, then that’s the best.”
Mary Stucky: And Yang says most people were welcoming. Word got around to the Hmong community in St Paul and elsewhere. As more and more Hmong moved to Walnut Grove, school enrollment soared and the housing market picked up. Now there are more than 350 Hmong residents in Walnut Grove, a third of the town’s population.
They include school bus driver Neng Yang. He navigates the country roads each morning, picking up kids from around Walnut Grove. Many of them are Hmong.
Neng Yang was living in Sacramento California when he heard about Walnut Grove from a friend in Minnesota.
Neng Yang: “And he said you should check it out. It’s a very beautiful town. My first year here I don’t want to stay here because it’s very cold.”
Mary Stucky: But the other aspects of small town life appealed to Yang, who is the father of six.
Neng Yang: “This is a small town, very good raising your family here.”
Mary Stucky: There are TWO grocery stories on Main Street now..both owned by Harry Yang. There’s the grocery that’s been here for generations, which Yang bought a few years ago, and –next door—this new Asian market the shelves here stocked with pickled fish sauce, coconut milk, egg roll wrappers and, of course, enormous bags of rice.
Harry Yang: “It is 100 pounds, we have 50 pounds and 25 pounds.”
Mary Stucky: You won’t find any Hmong food at the café in town…at least not yet. Here it’s strictly lemon meringue pie and fried potatoes. Carol Johnson owns the café and says it’s taken a while to get used to the town’s new residents and what struck many townspeople as unusual cultural traditions.
Carol Johnson: “You know, you just can’t raise chickens in your home. And that’s what some of them were doing, they were raising their chickens in the basement or whatever and that’s not acceptable.”
Mary Stucky: But Johnson says it wasn’t a big deal once the Hmong understood the local rules. She says most residents of Walnut Grove are appreciative that the Homng have helped rejuvenate the town. People in town often donate furniture and housewares…even winter coats to Hmong families. The Hmong, like the residents of Walnut Grove, are an agricultural people…and people in Walnut Grove say that creates a natural bond.
In fact, it is the children who seem best at bridging the two cultures.
Teacher: “Pick a partner and in 10 minutes we’ll do partner spelling practice.”
Mary Stucky: Back in second grade, teacher Monica Ottos says her top two students are…..Mandy Yang and Jacob Otto, who happens to be her son.
Monica Otto: “The little Swedish boy Jacob with the Hmong girl Mandy. They’re just wonderful together. They really are.”
Mary Stucky: The kids pair up to quiz each other on their spelling. In general the Hmong students are doing well in school. Harry Yang says his kids have been free of the sort of trouble he feared in the city. And that’s why the Hmong have moved to Walnut Grove in the first place.
Harry Yang: “They are very happy because they can take care of their families now. We hope for our children. We always say that.”
Mary Stucky: And that hope has been bringing people to Walnut Grove for more than one hundred years, from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Harry Yang.
This story was produced with support from the Minneapolis Foundation.