CNN.com - Travel - August 8, 2005
DE SMET, S.D. (AP) -- Margaret Knowles and her sister Karen Erickson
might not be typical visitors to this little town on the South Dakota
prairie, the setting for five of Laura Ingalls Wilder's novels for
children about life on the American frontier.
But they are among the most loyal.
Since their first visit 30 years ago, the women, both in their
40s, have repeated their trip to De Smet at least six times. They
sometimes travel with their own families, but more often the two
Minnesota women take the six-hour drive together.
"We've loved Laura Ingalls Wilder since we were kids,"
said Knowles, 48, of Fridley, Minn., as she and Erickson, 43, of
Minneapolis, checked out a display of photographs and documents
from Wilder's life.
"We've just been fans since we were little. It's a passion
kind of a thing for us."
Each year, about 20,000 people tour two houses in De Smet that
have been preserved and are maintained by the Laura Ingalls Wilder
Memorial Society, said Cheryl Palmland, executive director. An additional
10,000 make the pilgrimage to the town but don't take the tour,
The attraction is not close to any big cities. It's about 40 miles
from the nearest Interstate highway and 100 miles from Sioux Falls,
the state's largest city. Surrounded by wheat fields and farms,
De Smet has no mega-mall or giant amusement park to bring in crowds.
But those who come have read one or more of Wilder's books and
want to know more about the stories she wove about her childhood,
said Tim Sullivan of Laura's Living Prairie, a nearby attraction
that he set up with his wife, Joan.
They come from every state and several countries, Palmland said.
Many are parents or grandparents who want to teach their children
and grandchildren about a long-ago way of life, she said.
The "Little House" books, based on Wilder's experiences
growing up during the late 1880s on farms in what is now South Dakota,
Wisconsin, Minnesota and Kansas, have been translated into 40 languages.
They also were the inspiration for a television series that starred
Michael Landon and aired from 1974 to 1983.
In De Smet, a railroad surveyor's house where the Ingalls family
lived during the winter of 1879-1880 and a house built in 1887 by
Laura's father, Charles, are the top attractions, Palmland said.
Sixteen other sites mentioned in the "Little House" series
can be found there, too, along with the cemetery where Wilder's
parents, three sisters and an infant son are buried.
A pageant that retells the Ingalls family story is held each July.
Elsewhere in the Midwest, other homes, historic sites and attractions
associated with the Ingalls family can be found in Pepin, Wis.;
Independence, Kan.; Walnut Grove, Minn.; Burr Oak, Iowa; and Mansfield,
Renee and Aaron Hirsch, of Aurora, Colo., and Peter and Rita Reinhart,
of Elizabeth, Colo., brought their home-schooled children to De
Smet to sample prairie life. They read the book series last winter.
"It's a neat way to study westward expansion," said Renee
Hirsch, swarmed by four girls in sunbonnets and long cotton dresses
styled after those described in Wilder's books.
"It puts a personality to the history," Hirsch said.
"Plus they're good, solid moral stories."
Just east of town is the Ingalls homestead where Laura's father
filed a claim in the spring of 1880.
That's where the Sullivans run Laura's Living Prairie, adjacent
to a stand of five cottonwood trees believed to have been planted
by Charles Ingalls for his daughters.
The outdoor museum offers a distinct contrast to the orderly tours
in town, where visitors are reminded not to touch the furnishings
and other items on display.
Tim Sullivan said he hopes people leave the attraction with a better
idea of what it might have been like to be a homesteader.
And, he said, children are welcome to put their hands to work.
"I think one of the ways to learn is getting in there and
doing something," Joan Sullivan said.
Many who visit the Ingalls homestead have been there before, Tim
Sullivan said. Some camp in tents, park their recreational vehicles
nearby or rent out a sheepherders wagon and sleep under the stars.
If you go
Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society: De Smet, S.D.; www.discoverlaura.org
or (800) 880-3383, ext. 2. Hours: in September and October, 9 a.m.
to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; November through March, 9 a.m.
to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; April and May, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Monday through Saturday; June through August, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Adults, $ 7; children 6 and older, $ 4. Getting there: From Sioux
Falls, S.D., 95 miles; take I-29 north to Brookings, S.D. (50 miles),
turn west on Highway 14 (45 miles). From Rapid City, 325 miles;
take Interstate 90 east to Mitchell, S.D., take Highway 37 north
to Highway 34, turn east on Highway 34, turn north on Highway 25.
What to see: Two historic homes where the family of Laura Ingalls
Wilder lived are open for tours. Sixteen other sites mentioned in
Wilder's "Little House" book series are in the De Smet
Ingalls Homestead: Laura's Living Prairie, 20812 Homestead Road,
De Smet, S.D., www.ingallshomestead.com, (800) 776-3594. Located
one mile southeast of De Smet. Open daily Memorial Day weekend through
Labor Day weekend. Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, www.desmetpageant.org,
(800) 776-3594. Held annually in July. Other Ingalls sites are in
Pepin, Wis., where Laura Ingalls Wilder Days are celebrated Sept.
10 and 11, www.pepinwisconsin.com, (800) 442-3011; Independence,
Kan., www.littlehouseonprairie.com, (620) 289-4238; Walnut Grove,
Minn., www.walnutgrove.org/museum.htm, (800) 528-7280; Burr Oak,
Iowa, www.lauraingallswilder.us, (563) 735-5916; and Mansfield,
Mo., www.lauraingallswilderhome.com, (417) 924-3626.