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American Road Trip Adventure: Day 4 (Part One)

I've just returned from a long road trip. I was traveling to a conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, and we made it a family vacation, to show our son more of this big, amazing country. I blogged from the road, but I didn't want to advertise to every burglar on the internet that our house was empty, so I've waited until now to start posting the entries.



SATURDAY, AUGUST 17 (Part One):
Brookings to De Smet, South Dakota
42 miles


P1110573 LIW Historical Hwy, croppedFor me, this was one of the most eagerly anticipated days of the journey, my long-awaited chance to indulge my Inner Laura Geek.
Little Town
We packed up early and left our hotel in Brookings to make the short drive to De Smet, South Dakota, known to millions of fans as Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little Town on the Prairie." De Smet and the area around it were the setting of five of Laura's books: By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years. By the way, that's Laura in the profile picture, above.

One of my goals in life is to visit all of the Laura sites -- not just where Laura lived during her childhood as part of the pioneering Ingalls family, but also the places she lived during her adult life, married to Almanzo Wilder. I had seen the "Little House" site in the Big Woods of Wisconsin; the "Little House on the Prairie" site near Independence, Kansas; the Mansfield, Missouri, home she shared with her husband after they gave up on homesteading in South Dakota; and the hotel in Burr Oak, the town in northeastern Iowa she and her family ran for more than a year when Laura was nine and ten years old -- a period she never wrote about in her books, I've even been to Spring Valley, Minnesota, where Laura, Almanzo, and daughter Rose stayed with Almanzo's parents for a while after their house outside De Smet burned down. But I had never yet visited De Smet, where so much of Laura's story took place.

So when we decided to take the northern route to Salt Lake City on this trip -- driving through South Dakota -- I knew I had to take the opportunity to visit the Little Town.
P1110580 & 619 Surveyors' House & desk rocking, edited
We spent a half day in De Smet, and I loved every minute. We toured the actual Surveyor's House where Laura and her family lived for a winter near Silver Lake -- and where Laura and her Ma and sisters operated a de facto boarding house when spring began and settlers rushed in to grab homestead land along the railroad line. The cottage has been moved closer to town, but it still looks very much like it did in Laura's day, and it's easy to imagine her running ahead of her family to be the first one to explore their their new home, as she described many years later in By the Shores of Silver Lake. The Surveyor's House is the small white cottage in the picture to the right.

We saw the schoolhouse where Laura became the bane of teacher Eliza Jane Wilder's existence, and where Laura and her younger sister Carrie were sent home in disgrace for rocking a desk. I've always wished I could have seen the look on Eliza Jane's face a few years later, when her brother Almanzo broke the news that he was engaged to marry the student who had caused her so much grief!

For the benefit of tourists like us, the bolts had been loosened on one of the reproduction desks. To Jon Morgan's delight, the tour guide told him he could rock the desk, just like Laura. And just like Laura, he rocked it hard enough to pop out one of those loose bolts.

We toured another schoolhouse, a reproduction of Laura's first schoolhouse. This was the Brewster school where she taught five students (three of whom were older than she was) in her very first teaching job, when she was fifteen years old. The actual school was in a settlement twelve miles from town, and its exact location is unknown. Laura found that teaching had its rewards, but she was desperately unhappy living with a dysfunctional local family. She refused to give up; her teaching job was helping to keep her sister Mary in a college for the blind. But what really kept her going was Almanzo Wilder, who drove his horses and sledge through the bitter cold each Friday to bring her home to De Smet for the weekend. I loved standing in the schoolhouse, imagining the relief she felt each week when she heard deliverance in the the jingling of Almanzo's sleighbells.
P1110651 & 682 Ma & Pa's house, Laura & Almanzo's marker
Soon after Laura married Almanzo, Ma and Pa moved with their other three daughters to a new house in town, the house where Ma, Pa, and Mary lived for the rest of their lives. (Sisters Carrie and Grace eventually married and moved out.) (It's the gray house to the left.) Some of the Ingalls' possessions are on display there, including beadwork done by Mary after she learned how at school.

We rode out to Laura and Almanzo's homestead and tree-claim sites, where only a historic marker stands to spotlight the locations where they faced such heartache in their first four years of marriage: crops ruined by weather and grasshoppers, a son who died in infancy, an illness that left Almanzo with a permanent limp, and the disastrous fire that burned down their home and dashed their last hopes of making it as homesteaders on the South Dakota prairie.

We wandered through the small downtown area to read (and snarf) historical markers that pointed out the locations of various buildings Laura described in her books. Some of the stores she shopped at are still in operation! That includes the shop of Mr. Loftus. During the Long Winter of 1880-81, after Almanzo and Cap Garland risked their lives out on the prairie to find and bring in the wheat that kept the town alive, Mr. Loftus ended up selling that wheat in this same store for exactly what he paid Almanzo and Cap for it. We shopped in Loftus's store too, but wheat is no longer among the merchandise.

We saw the cemetery where many members of the Ingalls family (but not Laura) are buried. Below right is the grave marker for Laura's older sister Mary.

We ended our visit with a stop at Charles and Caroline Ingalls' homestead site. The exact location of the house is unknown, but records do exist of the plot of land Laura's father laid clam to. All sorts of pioneer-themed activities are offered there for tourists: covered wagon rides and such. Visitors can also see reproductions of Pa's claim shanty and a dugout like the one the family called home for a time at Walnut Grove, Minnesota. But all that seemed too much like a Laura Ingalls Wilder Theme Park. So we just read the historic marker and the information at the visitors center, browsed the books in the shop, and climbed an observation tower to look out over the land where Pa and Laura brought in the hay that helped the family survive the Long Winter. There are more lines of trees between fields now, but the land is still used for farming, and I think Laura would probably still recognize this place. Below left is a shot that shows part of Pa's homestead plot, with the reproduction of his claim shanty.

And then we climbed back into the car for the drive to Rapid City. But our adventures for the day were about to get cornier.
P1110742 & 694 homestead & mary's grave 50%