Like millions of kids, I grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. I’d check out tattered copies of Little House in the Big Woods and The Long Winter from our small-town library, and get lost in their pages. The books had been borrowed and read so many times through the years, that the spines became worn and covers had to be repaired with clear tape.
In grade school and into junior high, my classmates and I were lucky to have teachers who were avid fans of Laura’s storytelling. Not only did they encourage us to read the books ourselves, but they often read them aloud as part of our curriculum. The best part of going back to class after lunchtime recess, was knowing that Mrs. Tavegie was going to read a couple chapters from Farmer Boy.
My parents and I watched NBC’s Little House on the Prairie every week. We’d groan and laugh at Nellie and Harriet Oleson’s bad behavior, quietly root for Laura and the Ingalls family, and reach for the Kleenex box every time Charles shed a tear. To this day, seeing Michael Landon cry turns me to a bucket of mush. We followed the show right up to the final episode. And since, the world has been treated to ten seasons and forty-plus years of reruns. Thank God for syndication.
When I first heard about the Laura Ingalls Wilder 150th Birthday celebration a couple months ago, I knew I wanted to go. I wanted to be a part of something that had not only played a part in my childhood, but had helped to shape the stories of America’s pioneers and settlers. Laura’s stories gave us a better understanding and appreciation of what life was like in the late 1800’s. Those books left an undeniable mark on our nation’s history.
Admittedly, it was more than history that lured me to De Smet. Two of the event’s speakers were cast members from the TV show; Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson) and Dean Butler (Almanzo Wilder). Last year, a friend recommended Alison’s book, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, which I read and enjoyed very much. Alison’s story is personal, brave and funny – it’s a great read.
From the stage, Alison and Dean shared behind the scenes stories and took questions from the audience, giving us insight to what life was like on the set of the television show. From their first auditions for Little House (Alison originally auditioned for the roles of Laura and Mary) to what it was like working with Michael Landon. They both spoke highly of Landon, who was undeniably the boss, but whose underlying kindness and quirky sense of humor were larger than life.
Dean believes that each actor was a bit like the character they played on the show and that Michael Landon could sense that when individuals were cast. He said, “The camera and audience know if you’re telling the truth – and Michael told the truth. He was a big-time actor, but he had a big heart.”
We also sat in on a covered wagon demonstration, and I tried to imagine what it was like traveling for days or weeks at a time on a solid wooden seat, bouncing over rocks and prairie potholes with little protection from the elements. More testament to the fact that pioneer life was hard, and people from that time were damn tough.
Walking through the historic buildings that Laura wrote about gives one a sense of time travel. After reading about it, or seeing it in pictures, you’re right there – experiencing it.
A visit to the exhibit room in the back of the gift shop is a great way to begin the tour. There, you’ll find a wealth of photos, historic documents and a wonderful collection of items that belonged to members of the Ingalls family.
The Ingalls spent many years in South Dakota. They moved to De Smet in 1879, and lived in the Surveyor’s House, which Laura wrote about in By the Shores of Silver Lake. It is the oldest home in De Smet and was moved to town in 1884. (What an undertaking that must have been!) Several families lived in the home over the years, and a variety of improvements were made. It was purchased by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historical Society in 1967 and restoration began that same year.
Laura and Carrie both attended class in the first school in De Smet. Years later, the building was converted from a classroom to a residence. You can see grooves in the floor where walls were erected, then later removed when the building was restored and moved to its current location. The long wall at the front of the room is a timeline of the building’s evolution. When converted to a home, builders simply cut through and paneled over the black boards, without removing them. Those original blackboards, where Laura chalked out lessons for her students, are still there.
The Ingalls Home and Museum (The House that Pa Built in 1887) is in its original location on Third Street. It’s a lovely house and an obvious upgrade from that first house that Laura described in Little House in the Big Woods.
These, along with many other buildings and sites in De Smet give one a glimpse into the past, and into the pages of those long-treasured books. From Clancy’s Store to Almanzo and Laura’s homestead – visit them all, including Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Site, where you can truly get a sense of what life was like on the prairie.
There is much more to experience in De Smet than what I can write about here. Visit the following websites for more historic information. Then plan a road trip to South Dakota!