In which our author visits the hometown of one of her heroes.
Like most little girls who grew up in the 1940s or later, I adored Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. So when I left Pierre 11 years ago this morning, I headed for DeSmet, the small railroad town in eastern South Dakota that was the real “little town on the prairie.”
The Missouri River, which bisects South Dakota from north to south, is a climatic dividing line as well. As I put it in my journal, “it’s not quite as undulating on the east side of the river, and it got farmier and farmier (as opposed to ranchier) the farther I went.” It was noticeably more humid, too. And the mosquitoes! My word. In September. Literally a different world.
By the time I arrived in DeSmet, I felt like I was in the Midwest, rather than the Great Plains. Since Laura had always written about how far “west” DeSmet was, it disconcerted me a bit.
DeSmet has a thriving cottage industry with regard to Mrs. Wilder. First I went to the Surveyors’ House, immortalized in By the Shores of Silver Lake (but relocated into town):
This is where the railroad surveyors lived while they were in the area, and where Laura’s Pa was essentially the winterkeeper in the year before DeSmet mushroomed up into a town. They were the only people for miles in any direction that winter.
Behind the Surveyors’ House was a replica of a claim shanty like the one where Laura taught her first school:
The house that Pa Ingalls eventually built in town for his family is also a museum:
Pa’s violin and Mary’s organ are among two of the treasures there, as well as furniture that Laura’s Pa had built.
After I visited DeSmet, I drove out to where the Ingalls homestead claim had been.
After I had satisfied that “always wanted to visit” place on my mental list, I headed east again, to the town of Brookings and South Dakota State University. I had read somewhere that the university had a nice arboretum, McCrory Gardens, which turned out to be true, although apparently I took no pictures. What I remember and what my journal mentions is the lovely All-America Test Garden there and the banks of flowers it contained.
Late that afternoon, I went south and east into the far southwest corner of Minnesota and Pipestone National Monument, which was a fascinating place. “Besides preserving a rare quarry of brick-red rock used by Indians to make pipes and other objects, it also preserves a remnant of tallgrass prairie, filled this time of year with asters, what I think is boltonia, and goldenrod. Lots of tall grasses, too, obviously. Some it was as tall as I am.” I watched a carver work on some of the pipestone, then walked a trail past the quarry and out into the prairie. It was beautiful, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to either go to the website or take my word for it…
One of my guides (I was traveling with Lonely Planet USA and Let’s Go USA) listed a hostel near the tiny town of Gary, South Dakota, almost plop on the Minnesota state line about an hour north of Pipestone, so I went looking for it. I did finally find it, and then managed to track down the proprietor, who let me into this enormous building that probably could have housed a hundred people, out in the middle of absolutely nowhere. I was the only tenant that night, and I rattled around, heating my supper in the industrial-sized kitchen and playing Goldilocks in the enormous bunkrooms.
Apparently I was there in the off season, since its primary function in life seemed to be as a church camp and cross-country ski center, judging from the guest book. But the showers were hot, the place was peaceful to the point of no return, and it was nice to sleep indoors for the first time in three nights.
And so on to Minnesota!