Actress Melissa Gilbert spent the last few years living a life that would have felt familiar, at least in some ways, to her most famous character, Little House on the Prairie's Laura Ingalls Wilder, who grew up in the late 1800s. It happened after she and her husband, actor Timothy Busfield, found a place in the Catskill Mountains that needed serious renovations — more than they expected — on a "very, very strict budget," and they ended up having to stay in it longer than expected, as the COVID-19 pandemic exploded.
"I knew it didn't have any heat. We knew the plumbing was questionable, that we would have to do all this stuff. It was when we walked inside that I realized, 'Oh my gosh,'" Gilbert, whose new book is Back to the Prairie: A Home Remade, a Life Rediscovered, tells Yahoo Entertainment. "There were books and toys and rotting deer heads on the walls and too much furniture and beer steins everywhere."
With some upgrades, the couple moved from New York City into their new house around the holidays in 2019. Lockdowns began the following March, and, like most everyone, Gilbert was holed up indefinitely.
"When life becomes about toilet paper, suddenly manicures don't matter. Fancy parties don't matter and driving the right car doesn't matter," she says. "And, literally, nothing matters except for survival and the survival of your loved ones."
The couple, who married in 2013, leaned into their circumstances and the fantasies they had long had of raising chickens and growing a garden. After all, Gilbert and Busfield had lived away from Hollywood before, when they lived in his native Michigan after they first got together; She was looking forward to ditching a place where, she says, the "external mattered more than the internal," and she faced the pressures of aging in the spotlight.
And Gilbert, who starred in Little House from 1974 to 1983, had, in some ways, long been preparing for living in nature. According to her own calculations, she lived an "outdoor life" playing Wilder from ages 9 to 19.
"I actually feel like Little House on the Prairie was sort of the bait that kind of... opened my eyes to what could be. You know, I would be on the set, especially when we were outdoors, with the chickens and then the frogs and the pond and horses and cows, and everybody had their dogs with them," she says. "And there were a lot of other kids to play with, but I was outside in Simi Valley [California] on the ranch and always dusty, always dirty, but just gleeful and happy."
She details the ultimately rewarding experience of living in her house and the truths she found in her new book and on her website, ModernPrairie.com.
"We had an absolute blast. And that's a lot of what I write about in this book, about the DIY aspect of it," says Gilbert, who's now 58. "And just... the joy that I felt that summer and have felt in summers since doing these projects, just being out and being sticky with sunscreen and bug spray and dirt under my fingernails."
Gilbert is as unequivocally enthusiastic about her reimagined life in nature as she is about her days on her hit family show. Almost half a century later, she's grateful. Incredibly grateful.
"I have to say with 100 percent conviction, that one of the greatest gifts of my life was being cast on Little House on the Prairie," she says. "I got to grow up on a set with an incredible cast and crew. Everyone there is like a second family to me."
Gilbert says she would consider future projects, too, but not just anything can motivate her to leave her rustic home.
Back to the Prairie: A Home Remade, a Life Rediscovered is available now.
— Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by Jimmie Rhee