- 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
That hard winter was talked about in De Smet for as long as there were people alive who had experienced it, much as people in London today still talk about living through the blitz. The Long Winter (renamed from The Hard Winter because the publisher thought children would shy away from anything hard) is, in my view, Wilder’s best book and a great American novel.
FLANKED BY WILLOWS, Plum Creek sparkles and gently babbles. I could imagine Laura and Mary, seven and nine, wading here.
Saturday the sky was blue. The morning was, as Pa might say, a fine, large one. At eight-thirty we were walking up the prairie rise where the Ingalls homestead claim used to be. An obscure family had lived here briefly more than a hundred years ago. Now Jane and I, who lead lives that would be utterly unimaginable to the Ingallses, were here because they had been. The shanty is gone, but the five cottonwoods that Pa planted around it stand tall. “Isn’t it incredible?” Jane said. “The family has no descendants, but the trees go on.” I looked at her. She was supposed to provide the comic relief while I saw import in everything.
We stayed and stayed on the rise. It was a glorious spot. The prairie, green and gentle, swept out before us for miles in every direction. I was used to looking up to see the sky; here you could gaze straight ahead and see it. I understood why for a brief time Pa had thought that with hard work the family could “live like kings” on the prairie.
The Ingallses knew, though, that the prairie was changeable. It could be “hateful.” A child could get lost on it. And the stillness, so peaceful in summer when the pioneers usually saw it first, could turn sinister. As Laura wrote about winter, “everything was still. . . . It was stronger than any sound. The silence was no sound, no movement, no thing, that was its terror.”
Most of the farms we had driven past had irrigation systems, reminding us that this part of the country is subject to drought. Pa had succeeded as a farmer in Wisconsin, but he apparently never brought in a good crop on the prairie. However, unlike many homesteaders, the Ingallses did stay long enough to gain legal title to the land.
When we saw other people approaching, we left the homestead and went to the surveyors’ house, where the Ingallses lived for a few months before the founding of De Smet and which is the only house that Laura wrote about that still exists. It was exciting to step through the door into the cheerful room where Pa had played his fiddle and Laura and Carrie had danced polkas. The house is exactly as Laura described it except for one thing: This “big” house is very small. How Ma and Laura ever fixed meals in the tiny pantry for fifteen or twenty boarders during the spring rush is totally beyond me. It made me wonder just how little the other houses had been. “Pioneer Girl” contains a detail about the dugout on Plum Creek that was omitted from the published books; it was “only a little bigger than the wagon.”
Our next stop was the De Smet library, where there is a display of the girls’ schoolbooks and a Bible in Braille that Mary subscribed to. I told Jane that when the Ingallses moved from place to place, they usually left their homemade furniture behind but took their books, which included works by Shakespeare, Pope, and George Eliot.
Ma, who came from a background of education and achievement, encouraged her daughters to have aspirations. As recounted in the books, Mary (with assistance from Dakota Territory) attended the Iowa College for the Blind, where she majored in music. Grace went to a local Congregational college and then taught for several years. The most conventionally successful of the sisters before Laura wrote the books was Carrie, who learned all about running a newspaper when after high school she got a job as a typesetter for the De Smet News and then established local papers in various towns in South Dakota at the turn of the century. Laura, the child who seemed to bear the brunt of the family’s economic problems, had the least schooling of the four sisters.
After lunch at the Oxbow we headed north to the site of Laura and Almanzo’s homestead. The view here is not as spectacular as the view from the Ingalls claim, but there is still an impressive sweep to the land. Here the couple tried for several years to harvest wheat, but the prairie thwarted them just as it had Pa. In 1894 they left the plains permanently to farm in the Missouri Ozarks, an area with agricultural conditions somewhat akin to those of the Wisconsin woods.
A marker at the site quotes Laura in The Long Winter : “No one who has not homesteaded can understand the fascination and terror of it.” This made me think of her reaction to a premature frost: “Every tiniest thing glittered rosy towards the sun and pale blue toward the sky and all along every blade of grass ran rainbow sparkles. Laura . . . knew that the bitter frost had killed the hay and the garden. . . . It would leave every living green thing dead. But the frost was beautiful.”