The girls were three, six, and nine–all sunburned shoulders and knobby knees, pink barrettes and flipflops. The oldest two, I learned as we stood waiting for the De Smet tour to begin, were home-schooled and they obviously knew Laura’s books. As we moved to the Surveyor’s
house they listened to the docent–and didn’t touch!–trying to stand still and pay attention, which was difficult considering what they probably wanted was to try on the gingham bonnets in the gift store. These were Laura fans–even Dad asked questions about the Ingalls family which was sweet because most of the men I saw over the two Laura days lagged behind their wives and children, suffering silently. The family was chatty and interested in history–enough so we could have side conversations about the Homestead Act and exchange documentary recommendations (Dad’s was The Men Who Built America). The little one’s middle name? Ingalls.
Over brunch before I left, friend Denice and I wondered just how many kids read the Little House books today. She had tried the Little House in the Big Woods with her young library visitors at school just a few years ago–and they were bored. (And this is a children’s book lover who can make any book come alive!) I asked an interpreter on the homestead which visitors knew better: the television series or the books? Her reply–that it seemed nearly everyone had read at least one or two of the books–made me feel better. But still, at one stop on my trip I heard a young girl ask her dad, “How did Mary get her sight back?” Dad’s reply? “I think she was hit by lightening.” Ugh.
De Smet is just over the border in the southeast corner of South Dakota. My first stop was easy to find off Route 14, also known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Highway. The Ingall’s Homestead is a private operation located on a the Ingalls’ original Dakota Territory homestead. My heart sank when I saw the homestead grounds had been mowed low because I had expected the exhibits to be settled in the tall grasses of the prairie. But maybe American tourists would think that wild prairie looked unkempt? Neglected? But nevermind. My disappointment was short lived–I had reservations to spend the night in a covered wagon on the property. Although modeled on a sheepherders wagon, the four little wagons scattered on the hillside made a pretty picture. After the Homestead closed, it was only us campers, the birds, and the ground squirrels. I was content to just sit. The wagon was cozy, my sleeping bag comfy, and I fell asleep to the smell of woodsmoke from other campers’ fires.
While the buildings are not original to the Ingalls, the family who owns and runs the property built Ma’s little house to scale and situated it where Charles Ingalls built it–a few of his original cottonwoods are still standing, and, of course, in the distance is the slough Laura worried about in The Long Winter. (I also learned that the word ‘slough’ is pronounced ‘slew’ to rhyme with ‘blue’–fifty years pronouncing it wrong!) The rest of the buildings on the homestead are meant to give visitors a glimpse of life during the late nineteenth century. There’s a barn with a hay roof like Pa’s, a stable, a schoolhouse, and cash crop fields. This is the first of Laura’s sites I visited that had meaningful hands-on activities for kids: making cob dolls, lassoing a “cow”, driving a pony cart, and riding in a covered wagon. If I was eight I would have been in heaven.
I found the real deal in De Smet on a tour run by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society. Finally–the buildings and artifacts had some historical provenance. The docent was knowledgeable–I pegged Randall right away for a high school history teacher– and I was right! He told the Ingalls story, but also put the family’s life in context, making homesteading, the impact of the railroad, and westward expansion easy to understand. The tour included the surveyor’s house, the school house Laura attended, Ma and Pa’s house in town, and the Brewster School where Laura taught for a short time. The gift store also included an exhibit room with some of Mary’s beaded work, one of Carrie’s dresses, a real pig’s bladder “balloon”, and some documents signed by Charles Ingalls when he was justice of the peace. It was the most museum-like experience I’ve had on my Laura adventures so far.
At the end of my time in De Smet, I drove to the cemetery on the edge of town to visit the family plot. Caroline, Mary, Carrie, and baby Charles are buried alongside Pa, whose marker is the only original. I stood in the shade of trees planted a century and a half ago, the sun was bright and warm–and I thought about an ordinary little girl’s story (written for the first time when she was very near my age) that continues to touch hearts and minds so many years later. Her story hasn’t ended.
I think that’s what drives me to visit the Little Houses. I’m once again the eight-year-old who read the Laura books and wished my daddy played the fiddle, I could spend New Years with the Boasts, slide on Silver Lake–and she still lives somewhere deep inside the woman I am today.