The characters we meet in our favorite childhood books continue to inspire us throughout our lives. That’s especially true for the adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Little House on the Prairie series. So I was prepared to be inspired by her home when I visited De Smet, South Dakota. What surprised me was how much more I would discover here. As a travel writer who started my writing career late in life, her books about growing up on the frontier gave me an interest in Western history.
The 1932 Little House in the Big Woods and subsequent books are still available in print, and the TV series and movies based on Little House on the Prairie have made her a familiar figure to children today. When the real Laura arrived in De Smet in 1879, she was 12, stepping from childhood to young womanhood in that era. Her Pa took a job with the railroad and the family was allowed to use a surveyor’s cabin so they could watch the company’s equipment. Laura retold this part of her life in By the Shores of Silver Lake.
Today, De Smet, population about 1,000, is all about Laura. Do what we did, and make your first stop the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. There you will spot some of your childhood favorite books around the museum, home, and grounds.The Surveyor’s House is a step back into the past. To us, it is a simple two-story with rough plank walls and primitive furnishings. The wood stove and cast iron cookware tell of a pioneer’s hard life. To young Laura, it was a mansion. It reminded me of small houses where I grew up in New Orleans. Even as a child I knew they were small and old. Roland, our guide, described her first view of this house. “Laura was so excited about moving into this house that she ran ahead of the wagon. And we can just picture that. She was so spirited. She entered the house from the back door.” Roland continued Laura’s first trip through the house. ”When she entered the main room, she said, ‘This is the biggest room I ever saw.’ ”
She and her sisters shared a large upstairs room. I would have had a hard time getting to sleep as the mattress looked lumpy and uncomfortable but if I had been a pre-teen sharing the space with my siblings it would have felt like a sleepover. That night, the family dined on the supplies left by the surveyors. She described her first meal in the house: “crackers, roasted duck, fried potatoes, peaches, and pickles.”
Out back sits the two historical schoolhouses featured in Laura’s books. The one-room schoolhouse is preserved just as it was when the Ingalls girls attended with desks and inkwells, a large wood stove, and the original blackboard. The inkwells brought back memories of learning to write with a fountain pen. I loved those pens but doubted I would have done well with a quill that I had to sharpen. I could imagine that woodstove blazing while snow swirled outside.The other schoolhouse, Brewster School replica, is where Laura worked as a teacher at the age of 16 to raise money to send Mary to the College for the Blind.
The Discovery Center across the street shows that kids in Laura’s day took hard work for granted. We were encouraged to try out the treadle sewing machines, washboards for scrubbing clothes, and many of the tasks the youngsters then learned to do at an early age. The treadle sewing machine is fun when you get the rhythm of pumping your feet to keep it sewing. Washboads are rough on the knuckles. I would have skinned and bloody hands before I got my clothes clean. Thank goodness for electric washing machines.
The railroad was a big factor in the Ingalls family’s life, so a visit to the De Smet Railroad Depot Museum is also in order. The original burned in 1905, and the current one was constructed in 1906. The artifacts and the old fire bell are still there.
As delighted as Laura was with the Surveyor’s House, Pa came to South Dakota to get land of his own. He filed a claim on a section of land, built the required cabin, and began to farm the claim. When we arrived, I spotted the covered wagon in the distance. I learned it was part of the tour and we would ride it. When I climbed aboard an actual covered wagon I felt as if I had stepped back into the old West days. The wagon bumped down the road to the old schoolhouse. (Remember no shock absorbers.) Then we were free to roam around the original homestead and visit replicas of the claim shanty, barn, and various other buildings. We got to make some simple toys that were common in Laura’s time. I opted for a little corn cob baby doll. It is just a simple corn cob draped in a piece of cotton fabric, but I kept it and it sits in my display cabinet with my other travel treasures.
We just visited for the day but you can camp there overnight in a “covered wagon” if you wish and spend more time experiencing pioneer life on the prairie. It’s a good idea to make a reservation in advance as there are only four covered wagons. They are equipped with electricity. The other camping options are a bunkhouse that sleeps six, RV, or tent camping.
The entire town revolves around Laura and downtown still looks a little like it did in her day. Some of the original buildings from Laura’s time still remain in De Smet and newer ones blend in well.
Loftus Store was where Laura and her family shopped downtown. Laura and Carrie bought Pa a pair of suspenders as a Christmas present there in Little Town on the Prairie. There are portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Loftus on display. Present day owners, Chad and Lynn Kruse, strive to keep the store looking as it did in the 1880s. Lynn said they “discovered several pairs of shoes from 130 years ago still in their original boxes in the attic.”
Prairie Manor is another original structure. Once the home of Banker Thomas Ruth, it is now a bed and breakfast. It shows a different lifestyle from that of the Ingalls family, the lifestyle of a wealthy Victorian family. It is still open to the public and renting rooms but was up for sale at the time this story was published.
During the time frame of The Long Winter, 1880-1881, Pa began establishing a store downtown. Because of the excessive cold, the family moved into the store because the home on their claim was not weatherproofed. The store burned before Pa could get it going well. Right across the street from the store was Edward H. Couse’s hardwares. During Laura’s earlier years, the town had no meeting hall or theater but every town longed for an opera house. Mr. Couse saw a good business venture and, in 1886, replaced his frame hardware store with the present-day two-story brick structure.
He kept his hardware store downstairs and outfitted the second floor as an opera house. To build the reputations of the new theater, Couse offered a free kitchen stove and cooking utensils to the first couple to be married there. You can bet he had plenty of volunteers.
Today, Ward’s Store and Bakery fills the space, a perfect place for lunch or breakfast or even just a few baked treats. They only serve breakfast and lunch. It felt as if I had just stopped in to visit some old friends rather than a conventional restaurant. I had the chicken salad, one of their special treats with fresh lettuce and tomatoes and large chunks of real white meat chicken. For dessert I splurged on the fresh-baked lemon meringue pie. (Glad I was wearing stretchy pants!) While waiting for your order, you’re free to browse around the store. Patti Ward Slater, the owner, maintains it as part restaurant and part gift shop. We convinced Patti to show us around upstairs to see many of the original architectural features of the old theater. It is now her family living quarters but you can always ask for a tour and she may be persuaded. I loved that she had kept so much of the old opera house artifacts. I thought her use of the original seats as art on a wall was brilliant. She displays the original stained glass window and many of the old images. I fell in love with the tin ceiling–it’s a work of art in itself.
One other structure that was a big part of Laura’s life was the family home where they moved after they gave up farming on the homestead. The home located in town is the only remaining home that Pa built. It’s a modest middle-class family home that serves as a repository for much of Laura’s life after the era of her books.
The local cemetery contains some of the Ingalls and Wilder family tombs. Each year in July, the Pageant Society presents one of Laura’s books. No matter when you visit, you will be drawn back to the magic of a Wilder time.