De Smet, South Dakota: A Family Visit to the Little House on the Prairie
by Vicky Schippers
Let’s say you are the mother of school age children, and your children are as enamored of the classic “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, as you were yourself at their age.
I am going to point you toward a destination that will make your kids’ eyes sparkle – and yours too, Dad. It’s a town called De Smet, in eastern South Dakota, where Laura lived as a girl and young woman.
De Smet is the setting for Laura’s last six Little House books. Today the town sits on a small slice of prairie that looks much as it did when Pa Ingalls brought his family there in 1879. This part of South Dakota is marked by small undulating hills that are creased by glacial lakes. An enormous sky, with rapidly changing cloud formations, hugs the land. And the air smells clean as fresh laundry.
The Two of Us – A Love Affair
My love affair with Laura goes back to my childhood in the 1950s when children’s lives were not scheduled as they are today. Her books opened my eyes to pioneer days in a way no textbook ever could.
I shivered as I pictured the wolves that looked like shaggy dogs outside her modest log house in Wisconsin, wolves that could eat little girls. I relaxed as I imagined Pa’s fiddle tunes in the background making me feel cozy and safe as I drifted off to sleep.
I shuddered at the thought of swarms of grasshoppers, crunching under my feet during blistering summers. And I could almost taste the sweet maple sugar Pa tapped from maple trees in early spring. So it was with pleasure that a family gathering in South Dakota last summer brought me close enough to De Smet to allow for a visit.
De Smet Goes Public
All during the 1940s and 1950s, visitors found their way to De Smet without help from travel guides. They poked around on their own, looking for Little House points of interest. In 1957, the town fathers realized that Laura’s fans were actually making pilgrimages to De Smet, and they formally established the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, which today owns the two existing Ingalls family homes.
The Society hosts tours of these houses, runs a gift shop and a Discover Laura Center, and provides a self-guided tour sheet so that visitors can walk and drive on their own to many different well-marked sites that Laura wrote about.
Although the Memorial Society is open year-round for tours, summer is the best time to visit De Smet, especially during the last three weekends in July when a Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant is held outdoors on the prairie grasses in the evening. This summer, the pageant will reenact “These Happy Golden Years.”
Something for Everyone
My tour began at the Memorial Society’s headquarters on the corner of Olivet Avenue and First Street in De Smet. Here there is a gift shop with something for everyone, including period dolls, clothes and replicas of the McDuffie Reader that Laura would have used, plus lots of other pioneer paraphernalia.
Next to the gift shop is the Surveyors’ House, which was originally located on Silver Lake — the one Laura wrote about in By the Shores of Silver Lake — and dates to 1879. Pa came to De Smet to work on the railroad and then sent for his family.
The Ingalls all lived in the Surveyors’ House for five months before moving to a homestead of their own. The house is decorated, as it was that winter long ago, with an original dresser that Pa built.
Discover Laura Center
Across the street from the Surveyors’ House is the Discover Laura Center. This is a hands-on place where your family can see what it was like to live without electricity, phones or television.
Here you and your youngsters can pretend to be back in Laura’s time, helping to pack up a covered wagon for your next move west, dressing up in pioneer clothes, cooking with “old” utensils and attending a one-room school. And just for the record, the boys I observed enjoyed it as much as their sisters.
A guide dressed as a pioneer woman will accompany you to the original Ingalls’ house that Pa built in 1887. The house is a small white two-story frame that today looks just as it did back then with both original and replicated furnishings.
Among the original items are old photos, letters, utensils, and jewelry. Any Laura buff will be especially fascinated with large storyboards depicting what happened to the key characters in her books after she stopped writing about them.
A Harsh Life
Our guide explained that Laura and Almanzo had a daughter Rose, who became an author before her mother did. In fact, it was Rose who encouraged Laura to begin writing her Little House books, the first of which was published when she was 65.
I asked the guide about the fierce winters and the insect plagues that Laura described. She explained that in Laura’s time, because there were no fertilizers or irrigation systems, farmers were at the mercy of nature.
She recounted how the early settlers would attach a rope from their homes to their barns in winter so that if a blizzard blew in and blinded them, they could find their way home and not freeze to death two feet from their front door.
Several of the kids in my group said, “No way!”
“Believe it,” the guide answered.
Families can walk and drive to other places important in the Little House books including the site where Laura and her husband Almanzo moved after their marriage and where their daughter Rose was born, the twin lakes of Henry and Thompson where Laura and Almanzo took buggy rides, and the De Smet Cemetery where all the Ingalls except Laura, Almanzo and Rose are buried. One of the side benefits of visiting De Smet is the opportunity your kids have to run around.
De Smet Extras
In addition to the Memorial Society’s offerings, there are other ways to participate in the “Laura” experience in De Smet. The Ingalls Homestead is a local business with replicated pioneer buildings like a prairie school and learning center where visitors can learn how to make rope, shell corn, and grind wheat as well as enjoy covered wagon rides. However, the Ingalls Homestead is only open in the summer.
Just a short drive from De Smet in Mitchell, South Dakota, is the Corn Palace, which bills itself as “the only corn palace in the world.” It hosts a giant festival at the end of August, but with its fantastical onion domes and minarets, it’s worth a drive just for its architecture. Also nearby is the Jerauld County Pioneer Museum in Wessington Springs, for those of you who didn’t get enough pioneering in De Smet.
Food and Lodging
Although DeSmet is small, it offers good, if plain, family accommodations. The De Smet Super Deluxe Inn & Suites, the Cottage Inn Motel and the Prairie House Manor Bed & Breakfast are all comfortable and affordable.
Families can also camp at the SPOT RV Park. There is no elegant food; simple and inexpensive best describes it. The Oxbow Restaurant serves meals all day; the Country View is at the country club and open to the public.
A Cyclonic Close
De Smet is less than an hour’s drive from the Sioux Falls airport and between 100 and 200 miles from those in Des Moines, Omaha and Minneapolis – a piece of cake weekend destination for any Laura-loving family in the Midwest.
And being on the prairie, you may have an experience you never counted on. I had just checked in to the De Smet Super Deluxe Inn & Suites and opened my window to sniff the clean prairie air and watch clouds scud across the sky, when an alarm sounded.
I checked my watch. Nope, it couldn’t be the noon or 6 p.m. whistle. But its shrieking continued until suddenly the sky blackened, the wind picked up and enormous hailstones, some as big as grapefruits, rained down.
The siren and hail continued for 20 minutes then abated and just like that, the sun reappeared. Curious, I went to the front desk and asked about the siren.
The manager said, “There are cyclones touching down all over the area. We’re lucky. It seems De Smet was spared.”
I asked, “Is this a common occurrence here in the summer?”
“Oh no,” he answered. “The last time it happened was five years ago.”
So nature remains untamed. It seemed fitting to me that my visit to Laura’s prairie in De Smet ended with a taste of its caprice, something Laura understood and respected, something that profoundly shaped her life.
Vicky Schippers is a retired financial and grant writer. She writes for a number of newspapers including The Christian Science Monito. In addition to freelance writing, she works as a volunteer tutor and doula.
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