Little House on Highland Lake

An interview with Melissa Gilbert

Posted 6/15/22

HIGHLAND LAKE, NY — Melissa Gilbert, most famous for her role as Laura Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie,” is now only slightly less celebrated as a Sullivan County resident, …

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Little House on Highland Lake

An interview with Melissa Gilbert


HIGHLAND LAKE, NY — Melissa Gilbert, most famous for her role as Laura Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie,” is now only slightly less celebrated as a Sullivan County resident, where she shares a humble home with her husband, actor and director Tim Busfield.

Gilbert is just out with a new book, “Back to the Prairie,” which describes their move to the country. It has just climbed onto the New York Times best sellers list. It is a genuinely friendly and smart book, funny and uplifting, but there is also very real pain and struggle in the story. The takeaway for me, however, was one of undaunted optimism. And “Back to the Prairie” has to be the greatest book about the Town of Highland, ever written.

River Reporter readers will enjoy hearing her gush about her favorite area restaurants: Back to Bakers, Castello’s, B.V.H., Henning’s Local, the Corner in Eldred, the Heron, the Laundrette and the Stickett Inn, not to mention the Barryville Farmers’ Market, where “everyone seems so happy.” But when asked which was her favorite local haunt, she politely demurred, much like the character she made so famous on “Little House.” “I don’t have a single favorite,” she told me. “They are all so different and diverse. Honestly, of all the places I’ve been up here, my favorite place is home.” Otherwise, as in her book, Gilbert is remarkably open and honest about all things, from being called a “citidiot,” to the toxic culture of Hollywood, and the challenges of living in the country.

What advice would you give to people moving up to the country for the first time from the city?

I think you have to be ready to do it. I’m hearing a lot of stories of people who moved up during the pandemic, and it didn’t really work out. We have had previous experience living with a lot of land around us. Our house in Michigan had 32 acres, with a lot of woods and wildlife. It is a gentler way of life. But it is also very rugged and requires a lot of sweat equity and work to live in a place where the wilderness is constantly encroaching and trying to take it back. You definitely have to be prepared to live this way. If you can, and are comfortable with all of that stuff, it is heaven.

How are winters for you up here?

I love the winters here. My body is better when it’s cooler. I do better in fall and winter; summer is the hardest time of year for me. I love winter up here; it is so stunningly beautiful.

There is a chapter in your book called “Life begins the day you start a garden.” What are you planting this year?

This year we are planting peonies, roses around the house, which is a first. In the garden, an assortment of herbs, a small strawberry patch, cucumbers, summer squash, heirloom tomatoes, roma tomatoes, pole beans and grapes. I planted the grapes last year, and the vines are just starting to come back now. Things are just starting to sprout now and it’s very exciting.

I found it very powerful how you celebrate women and aging—how it should be, with wisdom, strength and confidence. I recently let my hair go silver, and feel great about it. Why is it easier to age up here than in LA?

Los Angeles is an entertainment industry town. The greatest commodity, in their opinion, is youth and vitality. There is a tremendous pressure to maintain that, and for women to remain ingenues well into their 50s, which is not only unrealistic, but creates so much pressure. It’s pervasive there, and it’s on everybody’s mind. It’s no surprise why some of the most reputable and successful plastic surgeons live in Los Angeles. I get very uncomfortable with that whole culture. It comes out of Los Angeles but exists everywhere, and the messages are so destructive to young girls. I’ve made a conscious decision to be comfortable in my own skin, with who I am, at each stage of my life moving forward. I don’t want to mold myself into what people expect. I would just like to be me.

They say it takes 10 years of living in New York to be a New Yorker. How long do you have to live in Highland here to be a local?

I don’t know how long it takes to become a local. I hope that as more time goes by, people will consider us local. I have heard the expression “citidiots,” referring to people like Tim and myself, which is a delightful, derogatory phrase. It’s quite silly. I think there is room for everyone everywhere. Just as I would welcome anyone to the city, I expect to be welcomed here. That’s something I don’t understand.

Maybe “Little House on The Prairie” can bring us all back together—it crossed generations and politics and seemed to be part of the Myth of America. How does it feel to be a part of something that lives in so many hearts and minds?

There is not a day that goes by that I am not grateful that I was chosen to be a part of that show. To say that it changed my life would be a wild understatement. Whenever people recognize me and talk about the show, they do it with such love and reverence; to me that’s a blessing. It’s an extraordinary thing to be part of something that makes people feel.

You’re so open about your life in your experiences, so do you find it difficult to open up to people who may only know you as Laura Ingalls?

I don’t find it difficult at all. I’ve always been very open publicly, I have always believed in sharing, and in people sharing our experiences with one another, so that everyone can come to the realization that they are never truly alone. That’s what I feel like I’m doing when I share my stories and experiences. I think that’s an important part of being human.

In the book you talk about playing the drums that you got as a Christmas present from Tim. Are you looking for a local gig?

Haha! I am not prepared to play drums in front of others, that is for sure. That is something I do in the privacy of my own home!

Melissa Gilbert’s book “Back to the Prairie” is published by Simon and Schuster and is available at One Grand Books in Narrowsburg. She will read from her memoir and sign books at the Deep Water Literary Festival at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, June 17 at the Gloria Krause Recital Hall, 37 Main St. in Narrowsburg.

Melissa Gilbert, Laura Ingalls, Little House on the Prairie


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  • hendoman

    Great story. She is a gem. Also, her husband has been one of my favorite actors. Congratulations to them for surviving L.A.

    Sunday, January 1 Report this