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How Melissa Gilbert is living the 1800s 'Little House on the Prairie' life in today's pandemic


Bill Keveney   | USA TODAY
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Melissa Gilbert is following in the footsteps of her TV namesake. 

During a virtual Television Critics Association panel focusing on the PBS American Masters biography "Laura Ingalls Wilder” (Dec. 29), Gilbert discussed her own experience living the farm life, but in New York's Catskill Mountains during the current pandemic rather than on the 19th century Minnesota farm of her TV series, "Little House on the Prairie."

It's dirty, demanding work and Gilbert, who played Laura Ingalls/Laura Ingalls Wilder on the TV series (1974-83) based on the books, loves it.

When she and her husband, actor-director Timothy Busfield, moved to New York City a few years ago, they bought a hunting cabin and surrounding property in the nearby Catskills. They were going to make improvements some time in the future, but COVID-19 led them to do the work sooner.

They planned "to garden and get chickens … and eventually build a barn and have horses and goats. … Then the pandemic hit and so our timeline moved up," she said during the panel, which also featured her "Little House" co-star Alison Arngrim.

According to Gilbert, "We had to (set up) the garden, build the raised boxes, plant the garden, care for the garden, build a system to water to the garden, build the security for the garden and build the chicken run, the chicken coops, raise the chickens, care for the chickens, build the electric fence around the chickens to keep the bears off the chickens." Bears?

One could get tired just from thinking about the tasks Gilbert listed, let alone doing them. But she's hardly complaining.

"I never had more fun in my life. We get up early in the morning and we’re absolutely filthy by 10 a.m. and I'm gleeful all the time," she said.

Gilbert says fans have been rewatching "Little House" during the pandemic, both for its appeal as comfort fare but also for its continuing relevance, as exemplified by Season 3's "Quarantine" and "The Wisdom of Solomon," which dealt with racism.

Arngrim, who played the delightfully villainous Nellie Oleson on "Little House," doesn't embrace the "Little House" lifestyle the way her former co-star does. 

"I'm famous for saying, 'Oh, the 1800s. No antibiotics,'" Arngrim said. "I found that it was fun to wear the costumes and live the life and eat the food and talk about all these things while we were doing the show. But I was never so happy to go home at the end of the day and come back to modern times. I personally am very glad I wasn’t born in the 1800s. I understand people's fascination with it, but I think, in reading the books, there was the reality of just how hard everything was."

Gilbert conceded one point to modern technology. "I have no desire to go back to the city, except to see my dentist every six months."