- Historic Sites
Toward The Little House
A LIFELONG FASCINATION with the stories of a famous pioneering family finally drove the writer to South Dakota in hopes of better understanding the prairie life Laura Ingalls Wilder lived there and later gave to the world.
April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
Always having lived in the Northeast, I am familiar with cities, suburbs, hills, and beaches but not with vast expanses of land. I had to see the prairie. I did not want to go alone, but no else was interested until at a family gathering in May 1994 my sister-in-law Jane asked me where I was going that summer. “Maybe the Cape,” I answered. “Actually, I’d really like to go to South Dakota, but none of my friends want to go.”
“I’ll do it,” she said. Jane was the last person I would have thought of going on a trip with. She leads a very busy life with my brother and their children, and her reaction to the one Little House book she had read was that it was “cutesy.” However, she is always ready for adventure, and we get along well. She was the perfect choice. She even promised to read another one of the books.
We made our plans. We would see two of the four areas Laura wrote about. Our focus would be on De Smet, South Dakota, the setting for the latter half of the Little House series. We would also see Plum Creek, in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where Pa raised a fabulous wheat crop when the girls were still small, only to have it destroyed by grasshoppers.
Jane and I flew to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on a Friday in late August and started out. The land at first seemed flat, but then we noticed that it had continuous rises and swells, just as Laura said. There were few trees, but at intervals lines of cottonwoods with puffy little green leaves rose against the overcast sky.
At the junction with Route 14—the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway—we turned west toward De Smet. We drove through Brookings, the site of the first railroad camp the Ingallses lived in, and then through Volga, where Pa went in a futile attempt to clear the railroad tracks during the hard winter. We went by the twin lakes, Henry and Preston, where Laura and Almanzo took their Sunday buggy rides. We passed crops of wheat, alfalfa, and soy. The prairie on both sides of us stretched to the horizon. The road went straight on and on as far west as west could be. We were in Ingalls country . . . sort of.
We were, of course, traveling on blacktop in a rental car, passing gas stations and convenience stores. When a boy in a pickup threw some paper out the window, I remembered that when Ma wrote to her relatives back East, she used both sides of the paper and then turned the paper crosswise to write in the margins.
Our first sight of De Smet was unimpressive. Victorian houses stood next to 1920s-style bungalows, which stood next to raised ranch houses with plastic play equipment in the yard. “I can’t quite make out the historic district,” I said to Jane. I knew, though, that De Smet had never been a picturesque town. During its first few years it had been a collection of shacks, shanties, and stores with false fronts. Not until a few of the merchants painted their buildings did the place look likely to stick.
We spent the rest of that afternoon just seeing De Smet, as did some thirty other people attracted by the Little House books. At the town museum we saw farm equipment, clothes, school report cards, and other items from early days. Then we had dinner at the Oxbow, a family restaurant where we would eat all our meals in De Smet.
The town still follows the grid pattern of its original layout. The tracks and the grain elevator bound De Smet to the north, with Calumet Avenue (Main Street fn the books) running perpendicular. Calumet Avenue was four blocks long in the 1880s; now it is five. Most of the original buildings are gone, but you can still stand on the corner of Second Street where the Ingallses’ house was and look across Calumet to where Fuller’s hardware store, Bradley’s drugstore, and Power’s tailor shop used to be. (Even though I had never been there before, I felt a little like Rip Van Winkle.) Distances are short. The depot, which Laura described as the last outpost of town before the open prairie, is just on the other side of First Street.
I remembered Laura’s depiction of the mixed character of frontier De Smet. She wrote of the quickness with which the settlers opened a school, established churches, and formed a literary society. However, she also remarked on the more raffish goings-on at the two saloons and mentioned one murder of a homesteader.
I told Jane how the town had been almost blotted out by the hard winter of 1880-81. The storms started with an October blizzard and grew increasingly ferocious. The fledgling merchants carried only two weeks’ worth of stock, supposedly enough if the every-other-day train to De Smet was delayed. By December the blizzards were virtually continuous. With no warning all train service to Dakota Territory stopped. Soon the only fuel in town was hay, which had to be twisted into sticks to burn, and the only foodstuff was raw seed wheat, which people ground in their coffee mills to bake into bread. The trains did not come again until mid-May.