I have a confession to make; I was 50 before I read the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I can hear the collective gasp of all the shocked women that are currently reading this post….blasphemy, I KNOW! In my defense, when I was about the age when all the other little girls were madly absorbing these books, playing "Holly Hobbie" dress up and dreaming about being Laura, my local librarian marched me over to the adult section of the town’s public library and handed me an Agatha Christie novel. I never stepped foot in the children’s section of the library again.
When I look back, I’m really not sure what I was doing when the television series came out because I didn’t watch that either. Oh, I saw an episode or two but without the background of the books; I just really didn’t get it. Maybe, it was just too “girly” for me; I hated pink, didn’t play with dolls and was the only girl in my neighborhood with a complete football uniform, shoulder pads and all.
Needless to say, my husband was more than a bit skeptical when I tossed out the idea of driving up to DeSmet, South Dakota, for a “Little House on the Prairie” weekend.
Five of the nine Little House books were based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life while she was living in DeSmet, South Dakota. She and her family moved to the DeSmet area in 1879 at the beginning of the book, By the Shores of Silver Lake and she spent her teenage years living here.
Our First Stop was the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society at 105 Olivet Ave SE.
Be sure to pick up a map of all the downtown locations and if you have the time, take the guided tour.
A couple of significant buildings have been moved onto the Memorial Society property. They even have a recreation of the Brewster School where Laura first taught. After a tour of the interiors of these buildings, we followed the tour guide over to the Ingalls Home that Charles built in town.
In the book, By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about living in this house the first winter the Ingalls family spent on the Dakota Prairies. Charles Ingalls was working for the railroad and the family moved into the Surveyors House for that first winter in South Dakota.
It is the oldest building in DeSmet. The railroad built this railroad company house on the north shore of Silver Lake around 1879, a year before there was even a town located here. It was then moved into town in 1884.
According to Pa’s journal, the Ingalls family moved in on December 1, 1879. The family only spent their first winter in the house. After that, the house often served as a hotel for the many homesteaders coming through the area.
Only used one year, by 1885, it had been sold and remodeled into a house. Many families lived in it over the years. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Society purchased the home in 1999 and restored it to the days of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The original chalkboards were found under many layers of wallpaper.
This building is a recreation of Brewster School, the first school where Laura Ingalls Wilder taught after earning her teaching certificate at the age of sixteen. Brewster School was located 12 miles southwest of DeSmet.
A quote from, These Happy Golden Years, about Laura teaching at Brewster School:
Only yesterday she was a schoolgirl, now she was a school teacher. This had happened so suddenly. But tomorrow she would be teaching at Brewster settlement. It was twelve miles from town and Laura did not know what it would be like. She did not know anyone there.
It was the first time Laura had slept away from home and living with the Brewster family while teaching at the school was very trying. Mrs. Brewster was apparently clinically depressed and one night Laura awoke to find Mrs. Brewster threatening her husband with a knife.
It was during this time that Laura and her future husband, Almanzo Wilder, started courting. Laura was miserable but every Friday, no matter what the weather Almanzo Wilder arrived to take Laura home to her family for the weekend. Laura was determined to finish out the term as the money she earned helped to send Mary to the College of the Blind in Iowa.
The Ingalls home that Pa built in town was started in 1887. In the beginning it only had three rooms. The rest of the house was built one room at a time as money, time and weather permitted. The 5 bedroom home was finally completed in 1889. The house stands in its original location. All windows, doors, woodwork, siding, hinges and interior windows are original. The cupboards that Pa built for Ma are still in the kitchen.
Laura never actually lived in this house. She married Almanzo Wilder in 1885 and they were living on their own homestead while Pa was building it. This house was never mentioned in any of the Little House books.
In October of 1901, Laura’s youngest sister, Grace was married in the parlor.
A year later in 1902, Pa passed away of a heart attack. Ma and Mary rented out the upstairs part of the house for extra income after that. In 1918, Ma became ill. She passed away on Easter Sunday in 1924.
After Ma passed, Mary decided to visit Carrie in Keystone, South Dakota. Mary suffered a stroke while in Keystone and passed away in 1928. She never returned to this house.
Carrie inherited the house. In 1944, she decided to rent it out but later sold it to the Ferguson family.
This was the spot where the homestead claim shanty of Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder stood. The shanty was located on the hilltop.
It was the birthplace of the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s only surviving child, Rose Wilder Lane. Mrs. Lane became a well-known novelist, journalist and political essayist. Her last reporting assignment took her to Viet Nam in 1965, where at 78 she was the oldest war correspondent. Rose was the one responsible for convincing her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, to write the Little House books.
This is where the Wilder's lived during their early married life, experiencing the fire that destroyed their home, the death of an infant son and other natural disasters which were part of the daily lives of the South Dakota pioneers.
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about the pioneering life:
No one who has not pioneered can understand the fascination and terror of it.
We next headed over to the Ingalls Homestead at 20812 Homestead Rd.
This shanty and livestock barn sits on the homestead of Charles Ingalls. Laura Ingalls Wilder lived on this property from the age of 13 through 18 when she and Almanzo Wilder married on August 25, 1885. In 1886, Charles filed final papers and put the declaration in the DeSmet News. This 157.25 acre homestead cost Charles and Caroline $16.00 in filing fees.
The rest of the family lived on the homestead for eight years until Charles was so tired of struggling to make a living off the land that he sold the homestead and they moved into the house that Pa built in town.
Like many other settlers arriving in the 1880s, free land was what lured the Ingalls family to the Dakota Territory. Charles Ingalls filed on this homestead at the land office in Brookings in February of 1880 and built a small shanty in preparation for the family to live there.
In the spring of 1880, they moved out to the quarter-section of land that Pa chose as his homestead. The location of the Ingalls Homestead met their wishes for it is only a mile from DeSmet. This land was perfect in many ways. It had good water and he could easily dig a well. The family lived and worked the homestead except for the winter months of 1880-1881 and 1881-1882 when they moved into town in the room above Pa's store.
Pa built the families claim shanty in three stages.
Stage One – In the spring of 1880, he built a half-house of 140 square feet for his family of six. Laure described it as having a slanted roof.
Stage Two – In 1881, he added the second half, an addition of another 140 square feet. Laura wrote that the new part created two tiny bedrooms each with a window.
Stage Three – While attending the Iowa School for the Blind, Mary learned to play the organ. Pa and Laura worked and saved money to purchase a pump organ as a surprise for Mary’s homecoming.
Pa built a 12 foot by 16 foot addition to make room for the new organ. Once completed, Ma declared that the shanty was now a real home.
The reconstruction of the Ingall's claim shanty was built according to the description Pa provided in his proving up papers. Filling the Testament of Claimant forms was required to obtain ownership of a homestead claim.
The horse drawn wagon at the livestock barn, gives rides out to the one room school house on the opposite side of the property.
This one room schoolhouse sits on the Charles Ingalls Homestead. Complete with a teeter-totter and American flag. It was placed here to house the Laura Ingalls Wilder Traveling Exhibit.
Every little girl dreams of being Laura Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie! These colorful little calico “prairie girl” dresses and sunbonnets were hanging neatly on hooks in the back of one of the schoolhouses just tempting all the little girls to try them on. It made me wish that I was 8 years old again!
At the time we traveled to DeSmet, I was not aware that there is a historic byway called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway. This drivw links all the sites that Laura and her family lived in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota. The Little House on the Prairie website has a wealth of information with all the historic locations listed.
I have since read all the books and I am an avid fan! I'm planning to conquer the television series next.
Visit my South Dakota Collection to see more images from the Little Town on the Prarie in DeSmet, South Dakota.
About the Author
Susan Tregoning is the 8th photographer in the past 4 generations of professional photographers in her family. After a long career as an art buyer and interior designer, she put her career on hold in 2006 to travel with her husband and his job. In the process she found her “roots” again, by developing a photography obsession far beyond casual snapshots that eventually evolved into a desire to capture each and every location and object as “art”. By meshing her two loves, photography and design, she has come full circle. Only now, she is creating art instead of just purchasing it.
To see more of Susan's work, visit the Susan Tregoning Fine Art Photography Collection. All images in the her collection are available as wall art, fine art prints, on home decor, gift items and apparel.
I am the 8th photographer in 4 generations of my family. Back in 2006, my husband accepted a job traveling and I jumped at the chance to go with him. We have spent the last 11+ years traveling the United States.