Arriving in DeSmet, South Dakota, I pondered how miserable the ride would be from Sioux Falls had I traveled by wagon like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family did in 1879. An easy drive, DeSmet is a small town on the prairie where Laura Ingalls became a teacher, met and married Almanzo Wilder and gave birth to Rose, their daughter.
The town is barely one square mile yet bleeds Americana. Proud of their country, an even prouder group of citizens leave no doubt you are in Laura Ingalls Wilder country. Attractions, both in town and out of town, allow visitors to experience sites that inspired many of Wilder’s books such as: The Long Winter, By the Shores of Silver Lake, Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes
In town, the original structure the Ingalls family called home when arriving in DeSmet, known as the Surveyor’s House, still stands. This is the house Laura referred to in By the Shores of the Silver Lake. Guided tours allow you access to the interior of the home, which is considered Lilliputian by today’s standards. At the same site, it a family travel opportunity that engages children to learn about America’s literary history. The Discover Laura! Learning Center encourages kids to dress in period costume and experiment with pioneer life. Children pick fresh vegetables from the garden, play checkers and collect eggs.
Just a few short blocks away is another shrine to the legendary writer’s family. The Ingalls Home is available for tours; it is the last residence of Laura’s parents.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Driving or Walking Tour
If you would rather walk or drive about DeSmet to witness Laura’s inspiration first-hand, then opt for the 16-point Walking and Driving Tour. A visit to the local cemetery while in DeSmet will allow you to see the burial sites of Laura’s parents and her sisters Mary, Carrie and Grace. Information is available at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes site.
At this point, you think there can’t possibly be more to learn, see or experience as far as Laura Ingalls Wilder is concerned. But, you would be wrong. Just south of town is Charles Ingalls’s land claim. Now it houses Ingalls Homestead an attraction boasting more family friendly travel activities than most US theme parks.
There are replicas of the original house where the family lived in the 1880s. Even more interesting is the replica of the dugout house that shows how the family dwelled in Minnesota before heading west to DeSmet. Five original cottonwood trees planted by Charles Ingalls still stand. For me, the crowning jewel was the covered-wagon ride to the Little Prairie School where I was able to experience learning 19th century-style. A retired school teacher who has soared past the age of 80 delivered a lesson I wouldn’t soon forget. Set to the beat of our clapping hands, we rhymed words learning proper phonics and spelling as we sang along. While there, kids will have the chance to twist rope, use an antique scrub board, and make a corn cob doll.
DeSmet Is America
Today, the small town is home to just over 1,000 residents. A short meander down Calumet Avenue SE almost morphed me into Opie. Residents exchanged pleasantries, stopped to inquire about each other’s family and made evening dinner plans much like they do in episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. It was here that I enjoyed my first bite of home cooking while in South Dakota as I stepped inside Ward’s Store. As nauseating as the name sounds, you must try a sour cream raisin dessert bar. For some reason the thought of sour cream and raising just didn’t sound appetizing. But, I’m sure that after three of them, I am one of their most enthusiastic patrons.
So load up the station wagon and visit this proud, rural, historic treasure located on the plains in South Dakota. For more information about DeSmet, visit: www.desmetsd.com or call Rita Anderson, a wonderful DeSmet tour guide, at 605-854-9011.
Where to stay:
DeSmet Super Deluxe Inn
Hwy 14 E
Where to eat:
DeSmet Country Club
611 7th St. SW
102 Hwy 14 W
20812 Homestead Rd.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes
105 Olivet Ave.