HomeVirtual VisitInformationHistoryGift Shop


 Return to News Archive    

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, she said.

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, Mo.

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 area.

Other attractions

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.