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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 homestead

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 era realistic.


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 House Manor)

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 www.liwms.com/

De Smet Chamber of Comerce www.desmetsd.com/

Loftus Store /www.loftusstore.com

Depot Museum www.discoverourtown.com/SD/De-Smet/Attractions/de-smet-depot-museum-harvey-dunn-school/235629.html

Pageant Society www.desmetpageant.org

Ingalls Homestead www.ingallshomestead.com

Prairie House Manor Bed and Breakfast www.prairiehousemanor