Like me, my sisters are fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Laura’s stories shaped our understanding of the prairie landscape on which we make our homes. This past weekend, my sister, Beckie, and I made the journey to De Smet, S.D., a place, to her friends’ amusement, on Beckie’s bucket list.
I’ve been there, but it has been more than 20 years, and I was more than willing to return for a more extended visit. Readers of this blog will recall that I’ve written about Mrs. A.J. Wilder on several other occasions.
I hereby testify that De Smet is one of the most beautiful and well-cared for cities on the prairie — indeed, in the United States. The folks in this community display great civic pride at every turn, and a plethora of helpful information for visitors is on the webpage. We were mightily impressed.
We arrived in the early afternoon after a pleasant drive on prairie blue highways and immediately went to the Visitors Center to sign up for the guided tour. The center is located in a beautiful Victorian-era house with three important buildings on the property — the original Surveyors’ House and the schoolhouse that Laura and Carrie attended, as well as a replica of the Webster School, the last school in which Laura taught before she was married. The grounds are filled with amusing items and were bustling with young families eager to make their own Laura memories, some in period dress.
We started in the Surveyors’ House, the house in which the Ingalls family lived in the first winter after they arrived in (then) Dakota Territory. The following spring, Charles Ingalls, the patriarch, became one of De Smet’s founders.
Somewhere I have a photo (probably in their scrapbooks) of me with my daughters, standing in front of this building all those years ago.
Next was the interior of the De Smet school, where we all sat in the old school desks, complete with slates and such. I had a little fun with my slate and my sister played along.
Our tour guide bore an uncanny and pleasant resemblance to Laura herself and did a most excellent job.
The final stop on the guided tour was the house Pa Ingalls built after Laura was married, where after his death, Ma and Mary took in boarders until Ma’s death, in order to make ends meet.
When we toured the exhibits in the Visitors Center, we acquired new nuggets of knowledge. We were particularly thrilled to view the “Big Green Book,” the animal storybook the Ingalls family owned. There is no photography allowed within the exhibit. Be sure to budget time to read every single word on the displays.
Next it was our chance to make the driving tour of the town and surrounding areas, completing our checklist of Ingalls sites, beginning with a drive north of town to the site of the farm on which the newlywed Laura and Almanzo made their home, where their daughter, Rose, was born.
Onward we went to the area just south of town, past the site on which the annual LIW pageant is held each summer (we just missed out on that), to the Charles and Caroline Ingalls homestead site, all along sharing with each other our personal recollections of the stories from the books. Five of the cottonwood trees that they planted still stand and it is, for many of us, a deeply spiritual and peaceful place. The first time I was there, I gathered some twigs and kept those for a very long time.
Finally, we headed to the cemetery, where many of the family members are buried along with other notable members of De Smet from Laura’s time. Many of the markers have been replaced and are thus more readable than Pa’s (below).
We checked into our lodgings, a bed and breakfast located in the former banker’s home, two houses down from the aforementioned Ingalls home. Although we had considered lodging at the Ingalls Homestead, The Prairie Manor was a very pleasant place to stay and a better choice for us this time. We were in the Japanese Garden Room on the main floor.
After dining at the Country Club, we strolled around the town, walking past the park in which the Father De Smet statue pays tribute to his influence on prairie life and on to the Ingalls’ original church.
Other places we stopped along the way included the site of the town of Manchester, where Laura’s sister, Grace, settled with her husband, notable because in recent memory the town was completely destroyed by a tornado, followed by a stop in a nearby prairie town in which our Norwegian ancestors settled in the early 20th century prior to their arrival in southwestern North Dakota and southeastern Montana, fellow pioneers who might have known the Ingalls family.
Our final hearty laugh of the trip was a drive-by of the International Vinegar Museum. We had just missed the community Vinegar Festival by one day. Who knew?
Our only regret was that we had not thought to bring along our sunbonnets. (I have one made by my Ma Crook, my great-grandmother, to shield my Aunt Frances’ head oh so many years ago.) Maybe we will take these on our next journey down Laura’s memory lanes. How lucky am I to have a sister who enjoys doing these activities with me? Danged lucky.