For the people of De Smet, S.D., bringing to life the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder is a labor of love. As the setting for four of Wilder’s books about prairie life, The Little Town on the Prairie, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter and These Happy Golden Years, the small town relishes in preserving, promoting and passing on the pioneer lifestyle illustrated by the beloved author.
Visitors travel from across the globe to the wind-swept prairie of eastern South Dakota to walk on the same floor where Laura danced while her father played the fiddle. Schoolchildren run through the natural grasses of the Ingalls Homestead and picnic in the shade beneath the cottonwood trees Charles “Pa” Ingalls planted. Tourists from New York, Japan and Australia sit on blankets below a star-filled Dakota sky and watch local actors perform These Happy Golden Years.
Forming the memorial society
When Aubrey Sherwood, Alice Kirchmeier and Vera McCaskell formed the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society in 1957, they wanted a way to honor their friend Laura Ingalls Wilder.
“The first thing the society wanted to do was highlight the sites in De Smet that Laura mentions in the books,” said Cheryl Palmlund, executive director of the society. “They had no real budget or specific plan, but they loved Laura’s books and De Smet.”
The society slowly began recognizing the buildings in town referenced in the Little House books, and they also began collecting Ingalls’ family belongings. By 1972, as funding, involvement and community support grew, the organization had acquired the Surveyor’s House and the “House that Pa built,” as well as hundreds of original Ingalls effects.
In April, the memorial society added another irreplaceable building to the historical collection, when the first school Laura and her sister Carrie attended was deconstructed and refurbished to its original dimensions.
“It had been a home for years, marked only with a plaque on the wall,” Palmlund said. “When the opportunity arose for us to refurbish it and add it to the other original pieces, we were absolutely thrilled.”
The organization currently maintains more than 2,000 items, including the gravesites of Laura’s parents and three sisters. It gives thousands of tours of the buildings, conducts community outreach and operates on a substantial budget.
When summer ushers in tourist season, the organization that began over a cup of coffee becomes one of De Smet’s largest employers. Three friends’ desire to honor a local hero has grown into an internationally recognized organization preserving Wilder’s literary contributions and teaching new generations about the struggles and joys of pioneering life.
Taking a tour
Dressed in a floor-length prairie dress and cotton bonnet reminiscent of the 1880s, a new tour guide will begin her casual presentation. The midday sun fills the small front room of the famed Surveyor’s House, and the old, wooden floor creaks beneath the weight of the group. The guide reminds the tourists how excited Laura and her family were to call the building home for the coming Dakota winter. Then someone will turn away from the crowd.
“The first time it happens, everyone thinks, ‘Oh no, I have completely bored them already,’” Palmlund said. “Then you realize they are crying. People just cannot believe they are standing in the house Laura wrote about. It happens all the time. Every guide has a story.”
The tour guides are the heartbeat of the memorial society. They are the purveyors of the message and the public face of the organization. In 2006, nearly 30,000 people took a tour led by one of the society’s exceptional guides.
Each guide, often a local high school girl, dresses in traditional pioneer garb, complete with bonnet, braids and ribbons. It’s the guides who learn the history of Laura and her family, not just in De Smet, but also in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Kansas. They debunk tourist questions about the long-running television series, which was set in Walnut Grove, Minn., and they offer insight into Laura’s many books.
With tours varying from local children to families vacationing from foreign countries, each guide tells Laura’s tales with a smile and a good helping of classic Midwestern charm.
“Being a tour guide is really an incredible job,” Palmlund said.
Having been an active guide for 11 years, Palmlund still opens the buildings after hours and on special occasions. She tells stories of three, sometimes four generations, visiting the town together, each equally excited to see for themselves what they had imagined for years.
“It’s so fun to see the faces of a grandmother and her granddaughter light up as they recall Laura’s stories of these places,” Palmlund said, “or a father and son pretend to play the fiddle together like Laura’s father did.”
Field trips are fun
The town of De Smet has become a popular destination for school field trips. Palmlund said they average 500 to 700 students a week in April and May. Many schools bring a bus every year.
Karen Jaskulka, a third-grade schoolteacher from Florence, S.D., has used the town as a teaching guide for the past decade. Students read the books in class, and then celebrate spring with a field trip to De Smet.
“The kids absolutely love it,” she said. “It’s one thing for a child to read a book and imagine the setting and the surroundings. But to have them do that – visualize what Laura saw – and then be able to show them, I mean have them stand in the same space she so clearly described, that is special. The town really does a great job with all of this.”
Jaskulka lets her students pick their level of involvement. Some years, students read only one or two of Wilder’s books. Last year, however, her class read the entire series.
“They couldn’t get enough,” she said. “The girls love the books because, in some ways, they can relate to the stories of a young girl growing up on the South Dakota prairie. The boys always seem to be drawn to the adventure.”
For their trip, Jaskulka encourages her students to dress the part. Girls braid their hair and don long dresses, while the boys sport suspenders, button-down shirts and straw hats. Many of the kids wear their own boots.
“Anything they can do to enhance the event is certainly encouraged. I think that by wearing the clothing of the period, it really helps the kids appreciate the entire experience,” Jaskulka said.
Celebrating the prairie Laura Ingalls Wilder called home has become a way of life for Tim Sullivan, who, along with his wife, Joan, and their four children, came to De Smet from Iowa, and now owns the land Charles Ingalls homesteaded.
“When the opportunity to purchase the land came about, we had been looking for acreage to work as a family,” Sullivan said. “The fact
that this land has so much history and can be used as a teaching tool is really fantastic.”
The 157-acre spread is a sea of native tall grass. As guests wade through the waist-high field, the warm summer breeze sends sparse clouds overhead.
“This is the same wide-open prairie Laura and her family lived on more than a hundred years ago,” Sullivan said. “The view of the town has grown a bit, but other than that, we are in the middle of the same Ingalls homestead. We get visitors from cities across the globe that can’t believe the sky can be so big or so blue.”
The land features an 1880s-style home, a hay-roof barn, a dugout home and covered wagons. Though the buildings are not the originals, they match the description in Charles Ingalls’ homestead papers and sit on the original locations. The Prairie Learning Center provides “living-history lessons about homesteading and making it on the open land,” Sullivan said.
Like the tours in town, Sullivan hosts thousands of schoolchildren every year.
“We get a few busloads every day,” he said. “That is one of the great joys; helping these kids realize that pioneers paid for their land with hard work and strength. We make it a point to have these kids get hands-on experience.”
While one group is learning how to make hay twists, another is working on corncob dolls – a favorite souvenir. As one group makes a rope from baler twine, another group grinds wheat.
“Most of the kids that visit are from rural areas, but they had no idea how hard the homesteaders worked in Laura’s time,” Sullivan said. “I think they gain a new appreciation for the lifestyle and the books.”
As dusk falls on the natural amphitheater south of town, a crowd of thousands gathers to sit in lawn chairs and on blankets. This happens the third weekend in July, when the annual L.I.W. Pageant – De Smet’s dramatic outdoor play – begins. A flock of geese flies overhead, and a slight breeze helps keep the mosquitoes away. The heat of the midsummer day has given way to the cool of the prairie night. Countless stars shine above, and the play begins.
The people of De Smet come together for three weekends every summer and produce an outdoor drama based on one of Wilder’s books. More than 200 locals volunteer to park cars, take tickets, work concessions, clean trash, answer questions and most of all, act in the production. Though professionals are paid very little to produce and direct the performances, the vast majority of actors, and all of the volunteers, are local citizens, and Tim Sullivan serves as the Pageant Board President.
“When you think about how many people in this community make it a point to volunteer out here every summer, it is amazing,” he said. “The community really makes it a point to put on a show for people who travel great distances to be here. This town is proud of its past. Anyone who visits can see that.”
Palmlund, who also serves on the Pageant Board, agrees with Sullivan.
“The homestead and pageant and Memorial Society are all successful because people make it a point to travel to our little town on the prairie. But without the people of De Smet and their support, none of this would be possible,” she said. “I think Laura would be proud.”