Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Little House Roadtrip: On the Banks of Plum Creek

I drove from De Smet to Walnut Grove, the location of the book "On the Banks of Plum Creek". Interestingly in reality the Ingalls' progress West was not entirely as described in the childrens books and reading the adult version of the story that Laura wrote (Pioneer Girl) does present a slightly different perspective on the childrens books as a mixture of truth and fiction.

In "On the Shores of Silver Lake" which follows 'Plum Creek' in the series the girls follow Pa to Silver Lake on the train after he goes to work on the railroad camp. There is a lot of description of this journey to Tracy so I was really surprised to find that Tracy is only a few miles from Plum Creek.  I did check out the railway depot, but no photos!

Walnut Grove is another seasonal tourist location mainly because the TV series is all set in the town. As I never watched the TV show I was not really interested in the town itself - but as it turns out there is really not much in the town, and again, no other visitors at all.  The only Laura-related thing I saw was the church bell - once funded (partially) by Pa when he donated the money he had for new boots to buy the church bell.  Its now located outside the local congregational church - obviously not the original!
'Pa's Bell'

My destination at Walnut Grove was the site of the Ingalls' house on the banks of the creek. They initially move into a Dugout (like the one in De Smet) built into the creek banks. This appalls Ma, and having visited the one in De Smet I can understand why.  The dugout is no longer there, but you can clearly see the depression where it was located.

Remains of the dugout

Before I came on this trip I re-read all the books with special attention to the ones relating to these locations.  What I loved about Plum Creek was that it was so clearly the same location as described by Laura.  I could stand where the dugout door would have been and look across the creek.

View from the dugout

The creek water level was high, so the big rock that Laura and Mary played on was submerged, but it was easy to imagine falling into the creek and nearly getting swept away like Laura did.

Plum Creek
I walked along the creek banks, seeing where Laura would wait on the 'table land' for the cows to come home. The wind was gently blowing the grassland and it was peaceful. The farmer has left a wild grassland area on the creek banks for visitors to explore. You can see below how the dugout sheltered under the creek banks, and how Pa would have sheltered just along the creek for 3 days in a blizzard over Christmas.

Looking back across the creek to the dugout site

While I was there (and again the only visitor) I met the farmer who owns this land. He told me that he was the 5th generation of his family farming the land. His farmhouse is most likely built on the site of the house Pa built eventually so they could move out of the dugout - but of the house itself there is no trace.

The current farmhouse

The farmer related that the dugout had actually been intact until a few years previously, but had become dangerous with visitors ignoring his warning barriers so he had let it fall down.  I had planned to walk from the dugout site into town, as Laura and Mary did to get to school but there was no pathway and it started to rain. I got in my car and reflected on what a terrible pioneer I would have been!

Little House Roadtrip: Day 2 in De Smet

I left De Smet, although not before doing the full tour of the town.  Although many of the buildings on Calumet St (The main st)  are not original, you do get a real sense of the town and there are many original buildings including Fullers Hardware Building, and the shop where Laura worked for the milliner Miss Bell.  Pa's building is no longer there, but I did see it's location, as well as the locations of many of the buildings in the books.
Downtown De Smet

De Smet currently has a population of about 11,000 and has some light industry in addition to tourism. However tourism in South Dakota is clearly a highly seasonal business as almost nothing was open at the end of April and hardly any other tourists in evidence.  A large part of the current economy is still farming.

Billboard outside De Smet

I went back out to the Homestead location, where as well as the marker there is a commercial 'Laura's Living Prarie' place.  In April it was all shut up but I was able to go and wander around the buildings, many of which were unlocked.

There is an original claim shanty (not the Ingalls) that was relocated from elsewhere. It's just tiny, and its hard to imagine the Ingalls and their 4 daughters fitting into the space. In the books there are lots of descriptions of Ma fitting beds for them all into small spaces.

Claim Shanty

There is also a dugout similar to one which features in an earlier book in the series "On the Banks of Plum Creek".

Dugout reproduction
 It was good to see how snug it was in the dugout - probably cool in the summer but almost impossible to keep clean and very dark.

Dugout: Interior
You can clearly see the stacked sod 'bricks' that were used to build the dugout and the canvas protecting the inhabitants from what must have been a constant trickle of dirt from the grass-covered roof.

There is also a reproduction of the Ingalls homestead which morphed over the years from the original claim shanty into a 'real house'.

Homestead reproduction: Interior
 Its been built from descriptions in the books, as well as the plans that Pa submitted for the various enhancements to his home. It was really charming, also furnished according to the descriptions in the books, and I stood in the doorway and looked out on a scene probably little changed from Laura's day.

View from the doorway
 I also went out to the site of Laura and Almanzo's first homestead. Nothing left here except a few trees, maybe the remnants of his tree claim.

Laura and Almanzo Homestead site
Laura and Almanzo lived here for the first 4 years of their marriage, a time of hardship and misfortune. This is documented in the book 'The First Four Years' which is a sadly realistic portrait of what must have been the fortunes of many settlers.  Almanzo and Laura lost crops, their house, and their son while they lived on this spot.

Before I left I called in at the De Smet cemetary where Ma, Pa, Mary, Carrie, and Grace are all buried. Laura and Almanzo are buried in their final home area in Missouri. I also spotted the grave of Robert and Ella Boast who appear several times in the books.

Finally I left De Smet and headed back East for Walnut Grove and my next stop.

Little House Road Trip: Still Day 1

I went out to Silver Lake which is just outside De Smet. In the 1920s it was drained, but more recently has been allowed to re-fill and is a wildlife preserve. Although I was close to town (and even closer to the cement works), it was easy to imagine being the only people on the unpopulated prairie.

Silver Lake

When Laura arrived in South Dakota it was almost completely treeless - hence the landmark of the "Lone Cottonwood", these days there are some trees, but still mostly rolling grasslands and farmlands.

I do have a prairie dress outfit, but in the interests of travelling light I just bought my bonnet - so for the entertainment of friends and family alike here is the dress-up photograph. It was very windy although that does not actually explain the funny face!

On the Shores of Silver Lake
I then went out to the Homestead site. There is a monument marking the location on a small rise just above the Big Slough.  On the right side of this photo you can see some wooden buildings which are the location of the pageant which is held in De Smet on summer weekends.
Monument at the Homestead site
I walked from the town out to the Homestead along the side of the Slough as the girls would have done going to school, or going to town. The photo below is looking from just below the homestead across the Slough into town which you can faintly see. Its about a mile walk, and it was so peaceful. I saw the gophers that so entertained Laura popping up along the path, and lots of ducks and geese,  there are a lot of wetlands in this part of South Dakota although I doubt the bird life is as plentiful as it was when the Ingalls first came to settle in this area.

The Big Slough from the Homestead
Later I took a drive out to Lake Thomson State Recreation Area.

Lake Thompson

It was cold and windy and I was again the only person there! In the books Laura and Almanzo drive out to the 'Twin Lakes' of Thompson and Henry - a distance of about 12 miles. I was surprised at how large the lakes were and it was all rather lovely.

Little House Roadtrip: Day One

At the end of April I had a business trip to Rochester, Minnesota. On a previous visit in 2009 I visited Pepin, Wisconsin, to visit the Little House in the Big Woods: location of Laura Ingalls Wilder's first book in the series based on her family's pioneering experience.

The chance to visit Minnesota when it's not usually snowing was too good to pass the opportunity of a road trip to see some of the other locations of the book.  I planned a weekend road trip to visit the location of the House on Plum Creek, Walnut Grove MN, and also De Smet, SD which is the location of the last 4 books in the little house series.   For my birthday I received a copy of 'The Annotated Prairie Girl' which provides a lot of the historical background and context to the books and I read it avidly prior to my visit.

I drove on Thursday afternoon from IBM Rochester to De Smet. I had booked a couple of nights at the Prairie Manor Bed and Breakfast. The Prairie House was formerly home of Banker Ruth (who appears in the Long Winter as the financial backer for the 'wheat trip').

Friday morning I presented myself at the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum for the tour. The 3 of us, 4 including the guide then spent the entire morning visiting buildings around De Smet.

Bursting with excitement in De Smet!

We started off at the Surveyors house, below, which is very memorable from 'The Shores of Silver Lake' from Laura's description of running ahead to explore this 'huge' dwelling, which of course is tiny! Once I saw the claim shanty and dugout later in my trip it was clear why Laura though the Surveyors house was so luxurious. The family lived here for 5 months through their first winter in On the Shores of Silver Lake - which is probably my favourite book of the series.

The Surveyors House

Rather gratifyingly the house was just as she described and really unchanged, especially the pantry which is such a vivid passage in the book. I assume that as the Ingalls family were poor, that they often went hungry, hence Laura's descriptions of food and food-related topics throughout the books. It's not in its original location on Silver Lake, but has been moved into town along with some other buildings. 

The next building is a reproduction of the Brewer School where Laura taught her first semester of school.

Reproduction of the Brewster School
Sadly no photos were allowed inside any of the buildings, but even from the outside you can see how small this building was. Inside it was clear how cold it must have been in the depths of winter, I was shivering on a bright April day, and I was well wrapped up.
De Smet's first school is also located at the tour center. This was described in the books many times as being enormous and for some events the entire town gathered for the Spelling Bee, Singing School and other social events.  
De Smet First School
I particularly enjoyed seeing the pairs of desks, one of which was helpfully loosely screwed to the floor so you could rock like Laura did when she got sent home from school!

Ma and Pa's last house in De Smet
The final house on the tour was the house Pa built when he and Ma retired from the homestead. It was an odd house with the distinct aspect of having been added on to (which of course it was!). I really got a good feel for the family from this house (although I hadn't really planned on visiting it as its not mentioned in the books) but it was the only place furnished with the Ingalls' things.

It was also 2 doors down from the Bed and Breakfast where I stayed. If you are visiting De Smet I would highly recommend the Prairie House. ( )