Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Time I Drove a Horse-Drawn Wagon and Other Pioneer Tales

Mama horse and her newborn foal

I was a bookish kid who was completely enthralled by The Little House on the Prairie series written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. While there was also the TV show based on the novels that depicted pioneer life, it was the books that kept drawing me in. Laura's storytelling is so vivid that my young mind was convinced it was an autobiography, not made up tales based on her childhood in the American frontier. I wanted to be just like Laura.

I remember pulling out my student atlas, flipping to the page for South Dakota and finding De Smet on the map. There it was. A tiny dot that represented the little town where the last few books of the series are set. And I'd sit there and wonder what that town looked like. When we started planning our Great Big Western USA roadtrip, I explained to my husband that De Smet was "only a four hour detour" from the Badlands/Mount Rushmore stop on our itinerary. I begged. I pleaded. I explained how we were never going to be that close to Laura's little town on the prairie. I channeled all the stubbornness that my inner-Laura could muster. So, that's how I finally found my feet firmly planted in the real life, 21st century De Smet, South Dakota. It's still a small town of only 1100 people, and a visit there is like being transported back in time.

Ingalls Homestead

My family's favorite place in De Smet is the Ingalls Homestead. This place has so many hands-on pioneer activities that you don't need to be a Little House fan to enjoy yourself. Located one mile from town, this is the actual homestead that the Ingalls family moved onto in May 1880. Back then, the USA encouraged westward expansion by offering ownership of 160 acres free to citizens as long as a person lived on it for 5 years, built a house on it and farmed part of the land. Visitors are free to wander around and explore the homestead at their own pace.

My girl takes the reins

We started our visit with a ride in the horse-drawn covered wagon out to the one room schoolhouse on the edge of the property. My childhood dream came true when the man in charge asked if anyone wanted to take the reins! My hand shot up to volunteer — no matter that everyone else raising their hand was a kid. Everyone who wanted to had a chance to take control of the pair of horses pulling us along. It was glorious to take those leather straps in hand and feel every movement of the horses' heads as we trotted along the trail. While the few minutes it took to reach the schoolhouse were quite fun, I might feel differently if it we were traveling 600 miles in it as the Ingalls family did when they moved from Wisconsin out to their little house on the prairie near Independence, Kansas.

The schoolhouse was originally built in 1889 by nearby Lake Thompson. Laura never taught here, but one of her students became one of the school's early teachers. Kids got to put on bonnets and hats, and a guide explained what school was like over a century ago. I played the role of the problem student and had to stand at the front of the classroom with my nose pressed firmly to the chalkboard.

Laura Ingalls childhood home outside, De Smet, the little town on the prairie

The other highlight of my visit to the Homestead was the replica of the Ingalls home. It was recreated based on Laura's description in her novels and the official homestead papers. Pa reported that the original 14x20 foot house was built in two stages, and then a 12x16 foot addition was later added. I walked into the house and looked around at the tiny 140 square foot portion that comprised the first stage. It was so small. I thought of how sharing one hotel room drives me a little bonkers whenever my family takes trips, and I began to be a little thankful that I wasn't just like Laura after all.

Inside the Ingalls cabin

The little house brought to life details from Laura's books. The beds were filled with dry grass, and a red and white tablecloth covered the table. A what-not shelf stands in the corner calling to mind the one that Pa built for Ma after finding out it was considered very fashionable. Unlike many places filled with antiques, visitors were welcome to touch the objects in the cabin. They didn't even mind my girl playing the pump organ similar to the one that Pa and Laura bought her sister Mary when she returned from attending the Iowa School for the Blind. Outside, you can try your hand at washing clothes in a tub with a washboard, putting them through the wringer and hanging them up to dry. Pioneer laundry day seems fun... as long as you only have to do it for a few minutes.

This Holstein calf named Bright is only a few days old. 

A hay roof barn similar to the one that Pa built was a short distance from  the house. Inside, we found a calf that had been born earlier that week, a litter of kittens and a chicken coop. You can imagine how much the kids enjoyed the barn!

A sod house hidden in the hillside

The sod house was another place on the homestead I was eager to see.  The Ingalls lived in a little dugout sod house in On the Banks of Plum Creek which takes place near Walnut Grove, Minnesota before they settle in De Smet. So although they never had a sod house on the homestead, one has been built there to give visitors an idea of what it is like. It was carved into the hillside and difficult to spot until we walked down the trail. I can definitely see its advantage if someone is short on building supplies on the treeless prairie since only the front wall had to be built. Still, it felt dark and a little claustrophobic to have to live there day in and day out.

Trying out the carriage

Pioneer modes of transportation were in one of the buildings just past the Ingalls homestead house. Hubby and I sat next to each other on the sleigh as I told him how I always thought it was so romantic that Almanzo Wilder picked up Laura each weekend from her horrid teaching job at the Brewster school so she could visit home. Hubby claims that Almanzo recognized a good opportunity to get some unchaperoned alone time with the gal he was smitten with. We also tried sitting in the carriage. While I fit in quite comfortably, hubby realized he was about a foot too tall to sit upright. I guess everything was tiny back in the pioneer days.


Outside, kids lined up to take turns riding on the ponies and driving the pony cart.

Practicing our lasso skills

Considering how difficult it was to lasso this fake cow that was not moving, I have much more respect for anyone who can lasso a running cow while riding a horse.

Twisting hay

In The Long Winter, Laura tells of the many ways the people of De Smet struggled to make it through an unusually harsh winter with little supplies since the snow kept the trains from reaching their town. After running out of coal and wood for fuel, the family resorts to twisting hay into sticks to throw on the fire. The tighter the twist, the longer the hay stick would last. My sticks were so loose that they would have gone up in a puff of smoke quickly. We also had a chance to grind seed wheat into flour with a hand-cranked coffee grinder just as the people of De Smet did when Almanzo and his friend Cap Garland rescued the town from sure starvation by risking their lives to bring in 60 bushels of seed wheat from a farmer 20 miles outside of town.

Corn cob dolls

On a merrier note, we also made corn cob dolls just as Laura and her sisters used to do. It's pretty much what it sounds like. After stripping the kernels from the cob with an old-fashioned corn sheller, a piece of calico is wrapped around the cob and tied with string. Ta-dah! This is what pioneer kids played with. No wonder Laura treasured her rag doll, Charlotte, so much.

The Surveyors House

After a few hours at the Ingalls Homestead, we headed into town for a guided tour by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society. First up was the Surveyors' House where the Ingalls family lived for the winter when they first arrived in De Smet in 1879 as described in By the Shores of Silver Lake. Unlike the houses on the homestead which are recreations, this the actual Surveyor's House that has survived more than a century since the family lived there. 

The Surveyors' House where the Ingalls family lived in 1879.

Pa worked for the railroad at the time, and the surveyor offered the house to him since the surveyor was leaving for the winter and needed someone to keep an eye on the railroad equipment.  The costumed guide knew her audience well and made sure to quote Laura's book when pointing out various parts of the house. She started by telling us of Laura's excitement in living in such a fine, large house, and I was just as enthralled by the home as Laura was. I was standing in a real house that had been home to the real Laura. Compared to the homestead half-house that they would live in next, the Surveyors' House indeed seemed enormous. 

De Smet's First Schoolhouse

Laura and her younger sister, Carrie, attended this school

The next stop on the tour is De Smet's first school. Laura and her younger sister, Carrie, attended the school until Laura left to become a teacher at the ripe age of 15 years. She would return as a student whenever she didn't have a teaching job, but Laura never did graduate from high school since she quit to marry to Almanzo. 

The Brewster School

A replica of the the Brewster School where Laura had her first teaching job sits next to the De Smet schoolhouse. 

Inside the Brewster School

This building seemed miniscule compared to the De Smet schoolhouse. Wanting to help pay for the tuition to send Mary to the School for the Blind in Iowa, Laura put up with what must have been a miserable time for her.  Away from her family for the first time, Laura lived with the Brewsters 12 miles from  De Smet. Her students were unruly, and some were taller than her. One night, she awoke to find Mrs. Brewster threatening Mr. Brewster with a knife. Apparently, living on the prairie drove some people crazy. 

The Ingalls Home

The last stop on the guided tour is the Ingalls Home and Museum. Three years after Laura and Almanzo married, Pa built a house in town and moved the rest of the family to live in De Smet. Ma, Pa and the blind Mary would live out the rest of their lives in this house. Sisters Carrie and Grace moved away for a while but returned to care for Mary after Ma died. Like the homestead house, this home also held a pump organ which visitors were welcome to play. For me, the most fascinating object in the home was the telephone which Mary used to chat with friends. Imagine a life that spans everything from traveling through the American West in a covered wagon to having electricity and using a telephone. 

The Loftus Store

The Loftus Store on the main street of De Smet

The Loftus Store on Calumet Avenue, De Smet's main thoroughfare, is one of two buildings still standing from the time of Laura's stories. She used to shop at this store and wrote of Mr.  Loftus helping to provide wheat to the people of De Smet during the Long Winter. With prairie dresses and bonnets hanging up for sale, you can almost imagine that you are back in pioneer times. You can even buy your own tiny bag of Loftus Wheat as a souvenir.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant

By the Shores of Silver Lake

Every July for the last four decades, the people of De Smet have come together to put on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant. They pick a different novel each year to feature in this family friendly, outdoor play. What a wonderful way to end our time in De Smet! After a day filled with walking in Laura's footsteps, seeing the story that I loved as a child come to life before me was a real treat. Since the rest of the family was not as well versed in Laura lore, I also hoped that it would provide a framework for where we had spent the day. 

Where to Stay

Heritage House Bed and Breakfast

We spent the night at the Heritage House Bed and Breakfast. This former bank is located on De Smet's main thoroughfare, across the street from where Pa Ingalls dry goods store used to be located. We stayed in Laura's Loft, a very spacious suite, especially in comparison to the homestead house which the Ingalls family called home for so many years. The two bedrooms and loft easily accomodated the 5 of us, and no one had to sleep in the adjacent sitting room. The included breakfast is delicious, and you'll feel extra fancy since it's served on fine china. I highly recommend this place (as long as you don't mind carrying your suitcase up a few flights of stairs).

After all these years, De Smet, South Dakota is no longer just a dot on the map or a place in my imagination. This visit is a must-see for any fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Recommended Reading

Written by a true Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, this book takes an irreverent look at one woman's spirited quest to reconnect with the Little House books that enthralled her as a child.

Published for the first time in 2014, this is Laura's original autobiography which she eventually reworked into the fictional Little House series. For anyone who, like me, wants more details about what was real and what was made up, the extensive annotations will clarify it for you. Read how events were rearranged and embellished to enhance the narrative arc of the series. Bonus: read about Pa's run in with serial killers on the prairie and the vigilante justice that ensued.

Do you have a cherished childhood role model that you've revisted as an adult?

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  1. My dream come true! I LOVED this post. . .I've loved those books and Laura's life forever. So glad you made the detour!!!

  2. Thanks, Jackie. I'm so glad to find another Little House fan out there.

  3. Wow. I knew that this place was real but I didn't realise how much there was to see and do. I too would have jumped at the chance to take the reigns of the horse drawn wagon.

  4. Ooh how fun! I loved reading the Little House on the Prairie books when I was a kid! What a dream come true to experience this! Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard! - Stumbled!

  5. Wow this would be fantastic for anyone who watched the Television program. I remember loving it as a young child. I didn't realize this place even existed! Thanks for linking with Travel Photo Thursday.

  6. Oh I am so envious! I have read and re-read the books a million times and visiting here would be a dream come true for me. On a drive through Iowa a few years ago I stopped at the Laura Ingalls Wilder site there - it was quite small and nothing like the De Smet site. But I still enjoyed it! Recently I was driving through Missouri and saw a sign for the Mansfield site - which unfortunately, I didn't have time to stop at. I'm definitely going to make it to De Smet someday!

  7. I have actually never read Little House on the Prairie. I know, it's sad. It's on my list of books to read as an adult. I didn't actually love reading until I was done with college and didn't have to read so many for school. So I'm discovering all of the treasured children's books now. I'm working through the Anne of Green Gables series currently, and I love them! #weekendwanderlust

  8. It feels so good to visit a place you have dreamed on since you were a kid. I have some of those on my bucket list. For such a small town, De Smet has tons to do. I am not sure my husband would like a four hour detour (I may have to tell him about a detour but not specify the time involved). #TPThursday

  9. I was wondering if the TV show was broadcast outside of the USA or if people outside America were familiar with the books. I'm glad to know that you got to enjoy the TV program all the way over there in Australia.

  10. If you're a fan, you definitely need to go. Then, head over to the Badlands and Mount Rushmore as long as you're "in the area."

  11. I've never read Anne of Green Gables but keep meaning to remedy that situation. Netflix now has a new show "Anne with an E" based on the books. If I ever visit Prince Edward Island, I'll definitely read it beforehand.

  12. Yes, I was very pleasantly surprised at how any activities there were and that you didn't need to be a fan to enjoy them.

  13. I totally wasn't expecting to get to drive a wagon while I was there.

  14. It's wonderful that you finally got to visit this place that you've been dreaming about for so long. I was never a great fan of "The Little House on the Prairie," but I actually didn't read the book. I just watched a few episodes from the TV series. I can see however why you were so eager to see this small town. It's quite charming. Your husband was very sweet to take you there.

  15. Looks like you really had a great time.. Good to hear that you were able to visit a place that you always dreamed of since your were a child.. I've never been to the US, but I'm hoping to visit it someday.. Thanks for introducing this place to me..
    - Maria Ingrid |

  16. Even in Australia, Little House on the Prairie was quite well known - more the TV series than the books - but I had no idea that it had any connection at all to real life.

  17. I read all the Little House books as an adult and loved them! What a treat to spend time living the dream for a day!

  18. What a great experience for you to see the books come alive. I can feel your excitement from your words :) And I love that your family seems to be enjoying it too. I never got into the books or TV show but I think this is a great historical tour too.


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