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Chasing Laura, Part Two

October 22, 2010

Today was the big day. Daughter and I stayed at a hotel in Brookings, SD, which is about 40 minutes from De Smet. In hindsight I’m glad we did this. Upon arriving in De Smet, food and hotel options were pretty limited. Plus we really enjoyed seeing Secretariat last night, which I would highly recommend if you haven’t seen it already.

We arrived in De Smet and drove first to the LIW Gift Shop, which is where you sign up for the tour. (Why do all tours start in gift shops?) We had 45 minutes to kill before the tour started up, so the guide gave us a map to go out and see the De Smet Cemetery, which is where the Ingalls clan, minus Laura and Almanzo, are buried. The cemetery was only about five miles from town, and was in a very peaceful spot. The map they gave us really helped us find the graves quickly, as it’s not a small cemetery. The Ingalls graves were all together at the back of the cemetery in a little roped-off area. Grace and her husband were by themselves a little ways over. All of the markers were newer except for Charles’, which was weather-worn and original. The map also helped us locate other famous De Smet settlers’ graves from Laura’s books. We got to see where the Boasts, Rev Brown and his wife, and Gerald Fuller were buried too. It was really cool.

We made it back in time for the Tour, which took us first into the Surveyor’s House. Those of you who’ve read On The Shores of Silver Lake will recognize the Surveyor’s House as the place where Pa and his family spent their first winter in De Smet before it was even De Smet, thanks to the railroad guys who needed someone to watch their tools all winter. The tour guide we had was wonderful. She reviewed the many moves the Ingalls family made, some of which aren’t included in any of Laura’s books. The Surveyor’s House was small by our modern standards, but must have been like a mansion to Laura and her family, who were used to tiny log cabins and dugouts. We learned there that Laura and Ma were only 4’11”, and that Pa was only 5’2″. All the cupboards and shelves in the Surveyor’s House and in the Ingalls house we saw later on the tour were built specially so Ma would be able to reach everything, which was hilarious. The guide took us into another room in the house that had a square of blue tape on the ground, about 8’x10′, and had us all crowd into the square before telling us that the area we were standing in was the typical size of a claim shanty. There were six growups including me and my daughter on the tour, and elbow room was definitely at a premium. Which led me to an interesting question: How the hell did the Ingalls family stay for months at a time in a house that was slightly bigger than my queen size bed, and not kill each other? It’s worth thinking about. They also had some examples of twisted hay sticks to see, which Laura and Pa spent the whole Long Winter twisting out back to keep the family warm. Back in the day there were no trees on the prairie, so once the lumber ran out at the lumber yard, that was all they had. The guide told us it took 12 sticks of hay just to make a kettle boil. This also led to an interesting question: How many sticks did it take to keep the family from getting hypothermia on a daily basis? And did Laura and Pa have time to do anything else BUT twist hay?

So we loved the Surveyor’s House. We were unable to go upstairs, but the tour company had arranged a mirror that was set at an angle so we could see what it looked like upstairs. We also finally got to see what a “whatnot” looked like. Aves and I have been mulling that one over for months. We also learned that the Surveyor’s House had been moved to this location from its original location out by Silver Lake, when the Ingalls stayed there. Sadly we could take no pictures inside. ūüė¶

Next on the tour was a typical one-room schoolhouse, similar to Laura’s Brewster School from These Happy Golden Years. One thing that was really cool was to see the actual McGuffey readers they used in school. I flipped through the Fifth Reader, which is the one Laura was using in school in Little Town on the Prairie, and found¬†excerpts from classic¬†literature, the Bible, famous speeches, etc. that the kids would be reading before they could go on to the next book.¬†I could see why people were so well-read back then. Nowadays if you get a kid to finish one of the Twilight books, it’s a miracle. I was also excited to see what a pioneer blackboard was like. From what I read in These Happy Golden Years, blackboards were just that…boards painted black. The one in the schoolhouse we saw today was a black-painted board…and the chalk worked great. The schoolroom was COLD, even though it was about 60 degrees outside. There was a stove in there,¬†and¬†I wondered during the sub-zero months how much heat one of those cast-iron stoves would have¬†put out. Probably the smaller the school, the more heat there would be.

The last building at the tour site was the First School of De Smet, where Laura and Carrie attended school. This was a larger building that was pretty beat-up on the inside. The society has not decided whether or not they are going to raise the money to renovate it at the moment, because the cost would be substantial. They have some idea of where the blackboards were, and had actually located some items hidden in the walls of the schoolhouse, which was a little bit Ghost Adventures for my taste.

For the next and last stop, we had to drive in a caravan over to the Ingalls House, which is a house Charles built for his family about five blocks away. The drive took us through downtown De Smet, and although none of the original town buildings except the Lofthus store are still there, you could see what it might have been like. We were able to see a photograph of Pa’s store building, where the family lived during The Long Winter, but the building itself was gone. That was the only downer of the whole tour for me, was that so many of the original buildings I wanted to see had either burned down, been torn down, or no longer existed. I know we’re talking about shanties and other inconsequential buildings from 100+ years ago, but still, if the Ingalls House made it, why couldn’t the rest of them?

Anyway, the Ingalls house was awesome. We got to see the bedroom where Pa died, and the tour guide gave us the inside skinny on the lives of the rest of the Ingalls clan after Laura and Almanzo moved to Mansfield. Carrie was the one that surprised me the most. She¬†held down her own claim in Colorado, and she married the man who named Mount Rushmore, David Swanzey. She also worked at the newspaper. She seemed so sickly and frail through most of the books, I was surprised that she became so hardy in later life. The house has gone through some reconstruction and restoration, but was really nice for a house that Pa built by hand, and must have felt like a castle after that claim shanty! There were five bedrooms, three on the top floor and two on the main floor, and they were all a good size. There was also a parlor, kitchen and entrance hall. Each of the bedrooms held items that belonged to Laura’s sisters. We were able to touch some Braille things and see an embossed Bible of Mary’s, look at Rose Wilder Lane’s books and office furniture, see Carrie’s jewelry, and Grace’s books. You really felt as if you were in a house with the Ingalls family.

De Smet more than made up for the cheesiness of the Walnut Grove stop from Thursday. Everything felt authentic and the tour guide we had was great. It was a long trip home, over a very vast, immense, endless prairie, but it was awesome to see views that Laura and her family probably saw every day while out there. Get out there if you can!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Jillian permalink
    October 24, 2010 12:03 am

    Really interesting!! I look forward to reading about all these De Smet places, as I get there in the books.

    So sad, that you were in the room where Charles died. But really cool to hear that Laura and Caroline were an inch shorter than me!

    Thanks for sharing all this! I loved reading it. ūüėÄ

  2. October 28, 2010 12:49 pm

    What a wonderful trip and such good memories with your daughter. I love those books and read them all with my kids; many years ago.

  3. October 29, 2010 1:09 am

    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts on your “Chasing Laura” trip. That’s a part of the country I’ve only ever been to in books, but it sounds like a really interesting and fun trip. I know whenever I go someplace I’ve read about (or read about someplace I’ve already been) it really brings the book to life.

  4. November 27, 2010 4:16 am

    I can’t wait to visit these two homes of Laura’s. I am hoping to go in the summer of 2011. Loved your posts on your trip. I am speaking at the Brookdale Library on Thursday to librarians. I will be on a book blogger panel and I am really excited. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving.

  5. March 19, 2011 1:25 pm

    Very interesting. I also “drag” my family to historical places I either read about or heard about. So far, believe it or not, they’ve been having a great time most of our trips (I have a wife, boy(3) and daughter(6) ). I also make sure they know the context of our trip so they know what they see.

    • March 29, 2011 8:52 pm

      My daughter is a good sport, and seems to really like museums and history, so I lucked out. ūüôā


  1. Review #17 – By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls¬†Wilder « A Room of One's Own

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