SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — "Little House on the Prairie" ended its nine-season run with a bang in 1984.


Director and star Michael Landon insisted that the facades created for the fictional version of Walnut Grove, Minnesota — and planted on a film ranch in Simi Valley, California, about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles — be destroyed should the show get canceled. He did not want them used in any future production, according to multiple accounts.

So in the series' final episode, after its ninth season, the town members decide to blow up all the businesses to save their town from a developer who bought the land from the federal government without their knowledge. The rolling hills at the Big Sky Ranch continued to serve as the backdrop for other productions, but few remnants remained of one of America's most beloved and long-running series.

That is, until this past weekend. For the first time since the series concluded, its stars and fans got the chance to trek to the filming spot in Simi Valley for the largest gathering of "bonnet heads" to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the series' pilot premiere on March 30, 1974.

A multigenerational legacy

Prairie dresses, bonnets, suspenders and cowboy boots dotted a park in Simi Valley as people of all ages from across the country — and even worldwide — met to bond over their favorite show during the three-day event. Some traveled from as far as Poland and Japan to see the "prairie" where the series was filmed.

Some shed tears as they saw the fictional Walnut Grove's fields, complete with mock-ups of the building facades in the places where they once stood. Others cried as they met some of the people who brought the stories of the Ingalls family, based on the "Little House" children's book series written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, to life. The reunion marked the largest gathering of surviving "Little House" actors in 20 years, and 18,000 people bought tickets to the event, organizers said.

One fan, Cindy Gulick, of California, said during her career as a nurse near Simi Valley, she would turn patients' televisions on to "Little House on the Prairie" as it aired at 4 p.m. She would call it "happy hour."

"It'd make the patients feel good inside, so they would heal better," Gulick recalled.

She said a patient's gender or age didn't matter — they each expressed that it uplifted them in a difficult time. The retired nurse's daughter, Melissa, said she saw the show's values reflected in her mom, "especially how to be a good wife and mother."

Shara Doucharet learned about the reunion on social media while on a trip to LA from her home country of France. She said she grew up watching the series dubbed in French.

"It was one of the shows that you can watch with every member of the family. Because you know, like my grandparents, you could not watch something where they kiss or there's too much. It's perfect for family time. ... It's still on right now (in France). People are still watching it," she said.

She said the show gave her insight into how people used to live. Her grandma even had an iron like the one "Ma" Caroline Ingalls uses, she remembered.

Erin Clabeau-Ly joined others who dressed up as their favorite characters as she sported golden ringlets with bows in the style of Nellie Oleson, Laura Ingalls' nemesis.

"I grew up watching the show, and I have watched it always, and I introduced it to my daughter, and she loves it," said Clabeau-Ly, who waited in line with her 10-year-old daughter to meet and take a photo with Nellie actress Alison Arngrim. "We have our favorite episodes. You know, we stay up late on school nights when we're not supposed to be to watch 'Little House.'"

She called the reunion a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

John Tolson, Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce's director of marketing and business development, said "everyone's got a story" about "Little House on the Prairie." Locals recall being extras on the set or their relatives working on the set. Nonlocals remember what the show meant to them as children.

More than 20 countries, and five continents, were represented at the reunion.

Recreating Walnut Grove of 'Little House'

"On a regular basis, all year long, we have people from out of the area coming. 'Can I see the tree from the "Little House on the Prairie?"'" Tolson said.

The Big Sky Ranch is private property, so he said the chamber decided to look into planning an event there with the actors. The chamber and an actor from the series visited the ranch about five years ago, and a family of "Little House" fans happened to be visiting it with permission from its manager.

"We had a mom, dad, and a 13-year-old from Iowa, and they were on the property ... . And we come up with an actor, and all three of them started crying. A 13-year-old who never was even alive when it was aired," Tolson recalled.

"It was a recipe that goes, 'Wait a second, there's something here,'" he said. "It was the start of what's magic here today."

Ten actors helped with the planning, and "fanatics who know every bit of detail on every single episode" helped with recreating the interior sets. Others helped place the building facades at their correct locations in Big Sky Ranch. Three actors toured the sets for the first time a few days before the reunion started on Friday "and they started crying because of how realistic it is. It brought them back to where they were 50 years ago, 40 years ago," Tolson said.

Attendees at the reunion could take a bus tour of the Big Sky Ranch and see the facades, as well as the set recreations set up in a community center at the reunion headquarters. The actors participated in panels and meet-and-greets with fans.

Patrick Labyorteaux, who played Andy Garvey — Laura's best friend and son of Merlin Olsen's character Jonathan Garvey — said that despite the town of Simi Valley being "completely different" than it was in the '70s, the ranch where the show filmed remains "exactly the same."

"It's been a real, literal homecoming," Labyorteaux told of the reunion. "Seeing all the people is really fun, because it is the people I grew up with."

The people of Walnut Grove

"So many people ... have come up to me who have survived terrible trauma as children, whether it was abuse, neglect, or any number of horrible things. And they have said to me 'Little House' was either an escape or a place they wished they could be," said Melissa Gilbert, who starred as Laura, during a panel.

"It was a savior for a lot of people. It really was," she said, explaining the show's impact.

When asked whether she would be open to returning to play the character should an opportunity arise to tell the story of Ingalls Wilder writing and publishing her books in her 60s, she said she would — the actress will turn 60 this year, she said.

"Never say never. As long as I could play her at this age," Gilbert said.

Stars also shared stories of many cast members who have passed away.

Katherine MacGregor, who played town gossip and Nellie's mother Harriet Oleson, apparently had a heart of gold, according to Arngrim. The actress died in 2018 at 93 years old.

"She adored us children and would take us all to the movies, but always like something totally inappropriate like 'Young Frankenstein' or 'Jaws,' and we couldn't buy any, 'Don't buy none of that candy at the concession stand. It'll rot your teeth,'" Arngrim recalled during a panel, speaking in an impression of MacGregor.

After "Little House" wrapped, MacGregor noticed a man in her apartment building who was ill from AIDS during the 1980s.

"She saw that he was coming and going from doctors' appointments. She goes and knocks on this guy's door. She does not know him. He's like ... 'Mrs. Oleson's at my door,'" Arngrim said.

"I'm seeing you don't have anybody coming over. I will come over and cook all of your meals and clean your apartment and drive you to all your medical appointments," Arngrim says MacGregor told the man. "And he's like, 'I don't know who you are, but OK.'"

The actress took care of the neighbor until his death, Arngrim said, and then did so again for another man "without just even talking about it or anything, or asking for anything in return, because she was Katherine MacGregor."

Karen Grassle, who portrayed Caroline Ingalls, said during a panel she recently found out "what Ma means to people" as she started to attend fan events. She said she didn't realize the impact of her work. Her mother influenced the way she played her role, Grassle said.

"I was writing in my journal this morning, and I wrote, 'I always wanted Emmys. These are my Emmys,'" Grassle said of the fans' response.

Jonathan Gilbert, who played class clown Willie Oleson, quit acting after the series and stayed out of the public eye. He prompted delight when he unexpectedly showed up at the reunion, his first public appearance in decades — and the first time his cast mates said they'd seen him in many years.

“Really, at the end of the day, there’s nothing better than acting with the ‘Little House’ cast. Of all the things, that one feels most like living, which was odd because I spent the whole time after ‘Little House’ trying to figure how to live. And what I didn’t realize until this week is that I was already home,” Jonathan Gilbert said.