|Laura Ingalls Wilder from the
portrait at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historical Society
Walk on the Wilder Side
Article and photos by Kathleen Walls
No 20th century author has done more to
bring frontier life to the forefront than Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her
Little House on the Prairie series did more than enchant young
people with her adventures as a child growing up on the American frontier.
It inspired one of the most popular television family shows of all time.
Little House on the Prairie ran for almost a decade. It also gave
children and the young at heart of several other countries a touch of
frontier life with the Japanese program, Laura, The Prairie Girl
and the UK series, Jackanory.
The 2005 ABC
five-hour (six-episode) miniseries Little House on the Prairie as
well as two made for television movies follow teenage Laura in De Smet,
South Dakota and Laura and Almanzo's marriage and their married life and the
character of Wilder's young daughter, Rose.
|Roland discusses Surveyers' House
Laura's books which made their debut
in 1932 with Little House in the Big Woods and continued
with seven additional books are still popular and in print today. So
what could be more fun as well as enlightening than a trip to the town
where Laura grew from a child to adulthood, De Smet, South Dakota.
It's truly a voyage in time.
I began my voyage with a visit to the
Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. Our docent, Roland Ryzstrom, was
knowledgeable and passionate about Laura. First stop, the museum featuring
memorabilia about Laura, the books, the artists who did the illustrations
and people in Laura's life.
Next we stepped back to 1879. Laura is
now 12, no longer a child in that era and not quite a young woman. Laura
wrote about this period in By the Shores of the Silver Lake. Pa
had been given a job by the railroad and after a short time of living in a
tiny shanty, he is offered the use of the surveyors cabin in exchange for
watching the equipment.
|Exterior of Surveyers' House
We view her new home, the small
railroad surveyors cabin, through Laura's eyes. To her it is "a two
story mansion." The main room of the house was "The biggest room I ever
saw." She gazes into the downstairs bedroom where Ma and Pa would
sleep. She ran up the stairs to the room she would share with her
sisters, Mary and Carrie, and saw it was "even bigger." This room
boasts a chest of drawers built by Pa. When she opened the pantry, she
was spellbound. It was filled with food. For a child used to hardship
and scanty food all her life this must have seemed like a miracle. The
surveyors had left their food stock for the Ingalls to eat over the
winter. Laura described their first dinner from that pantry: "crackers,
roasted duck, fried potatoes, peaches and pickles."
In later years publishers would question
how Laura could remember all the details from her childhood. The answer is
that Laura would have described it all in detail for her older sister,
Mary, aged 14 and recently blinded by a bout of scarlet fever. Pa had told
Laura she would "have to be Mary's eyes."
|De Smet First School
Just behind the cabin you can visit
two historical school houses featured in Laura's books. The first
school of De Smet was where Laura and Carrie attended. The schools in
the process of being restored, There is the original blackboard. It
is being left covered with the wallpaper used by the people who used
the old school as a home until the Society bought it and began
restoration. What a thrill it will be when the old paper is removed.
Who knows what is still on that hidden blackboard. Perhaps some of
Laura's own writing. Laura wrote about the school in the book,
The Long Winter.
|Interior of Brewster School
The other is a replica of the Brewster
School where Laura taught to raise money to help send Mary to College
for the Blind.
Across the street is the Discovery
Center. Here kids can experiment with tasks common in Laura's time: sewing
on an old treadle machine, sharpening knives, doing laundry and other
activities Laura would have taken for granted.
|Lunch at Wards
Much of downtown De Smet is preserved
much as it was in Laura's time. During the events of The Long
Winter , 1880-1881, the Ingalls moved into Pa's store downtown as
the claim shanty was not weatherproofed. The store is no longer there
but it was across the street from Ward's Store and Bakery. This is a
wonderful place to have lunch or one of their bakery treats. I had a
Chicken Pecan Wrap which was excellent. The place is part restaurant
and part gift shop and wholly interesting. It once housed the local
Opera House upstairs and we prevailed on the owner, Patty, to show it
to us. It is now her family living quarters but she had retained many
of the best architectural features of the old theater.
|Display at Loftus Store
The Loftus Store, where Laura
and her family shopped is just down the street. The owners, Chad
and Lynn Kruse, have maintained it much as it looked in the 1880s.
Lynn told me they "discovered several pairs of shoes from 130
years ago still in their original boxes in the store attic."
Those who have read Little Town on
the Prairie will remember this is where Laura and Carrie bought a
Christmas present of a pair of suspenders for Pa. In honor of this, the
store is giving visitors a free pair of twin suspenders.
The De Smet Depot Museum offers a
glimpse of what a railway station looked like in Laura's time.
Laura loved the little cabin but Pa
wanted land of his own and filed a claim on a section of nearby land.
Today, replicas of the claim shanty, barn, old school and various other
buildings are preserved by Ann Lesch and her family and workers.
|A covered wagon stops at the old school
You can visit for the day, camp
there or even rent a "covered wagon" style RV for an extended stay.
The opportunities to experience prairie life are endless. I was able
to drive a covered wagon, make a rope and a corn cob doll. There is an
old fashioned wringer washing machine that makes you appreciate the
advances in household inventions. Pony rides thrill the younger
visitors. Learn to make hay twists, what the Ingalls and other
families used for heat in their fireplaces during the long winter.
Seeing all the household artifacts in the shanty and the barn made the
|RVs prairie style at the Homestead
For me the thrill is the many
historical opportunities. Although classified as fiction, Laura's books
are a pretty accurate depiction of life in the late 1800. Marian Cramer
is a teacher and historian who spends her summer months being the school
teacher at Ingalls Homestead, Here she brings to life the educational
experience Laura and her sisters experienced. As a historian and author
she can tell you many fascinating facts about life on the prairie.
|Banker Ruth's Parlor (AKA Priarie
You can get a glimpse of what life
was like in that time for the upper classes with a visit to Banker
Ruth's home. It has been converted into the Prairie House Manor Bed
and Breakfast. Banker Ruth had the financial wealth to furnish his
home with all the style and frills common to the Victorian era in more
developed towns. The current owners, Andy and Jenny Todd, are
maintaining that feeling as they restore the home.
|The only remainding home Pa built
Last stop on this voyage of discovery
is the only remaining home Pa ever built, the home in town where the
Ingalls moved after they gave up farming on the homestead. Here you see
a modest middle-class family home and learn what happened to the
Ingalls' family after the time frame of Laura's books.
If you visit in July, each year the
Pageant Society presents one of Laura's books. In 2013, it will be
Little Town on the Prairie.
A visit to De Smet is an experience that
will be enjoyed by young and old alike. For Laura fans it is a must. For
those who did not read the books, it will make you head for your nearest
library or bookstore to relive Laura's life after the visit.
For more info:
Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society
De Smet Chamber of Comerce
Loftus Store /www.loftusstore.com
Prairie House Manor Bed and Breakfast