Between House On The Rock in Wisconsin and Ingalls Homestead in South Dakota, we pulled off I-90 for a quick stop in the little town of Blue Earth, Minnesota. We chose this quick pit stop because the Jolly Green Giant was there. Yes, one of those roadside attractions you have to spare 15 minutes to pull up and if anything, snap a few photos and be on your way. This novelty attraction stood 55 feet high.
On this trip out west, my wife wanted to take a more leisurely trek than the monstrous hours of driving I had planned to get us to where I wanted to go, quicker. When we plotted the trip I conceded to some concessions but should have looked at the fine print before being so agreeable.
Our second stop on our holiday road was none other than a little house on the prairie. I felt completely emasculated. I’ll admit, I watched the TV show like many people when I was a kid …but come on, did we really have to visit it?
As we closed in on nowheresville, South Dakota, I was being prepped. “Now I don’t know if this is the best little house site because there’re five or six across the Midwest,” my wife revealed casually.
My translation was – Great. Torture for the day.
Here’s a piece of information you need to know. If you ever DID watch the TV show, erase it from your head. “Why?” you ask. Because I was confused most of the day before learning that in real life, the Ingalls family didn’t live all that time in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. In fact, they were there just a few years. They actually lived in many places, including De Smet, South Dakota. And it was here that many of the books in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series were based, including By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years.
The Ingalls lived in De Smet from 1879 to 1894 at the family homestead, a house in town built by Charles Ingalls, the dugout, the Brewster School where Wilder taught, and the surveyor’s home. All of which are open to visitors. Charles, Caroline, Mary, Carrie, Grace Ingalls and the unnamed infant son of Laura and Almanzo Wilder are buried in the De Smet Cemetery.
We tumbled out of the vehicle, stretched and wandered into a building adjacent to the parking lot. Inside it was a store. A nice lady took our money, explained a few things and handed us a map.
We exited the gift shop and went around back and saw history.
WOW! From our vantage point on a hill, a beautiful panoramic view of deep green grass met the blue and white sky. The wind breezed through our hair as if it were right on queue and the sun shone and the birds sang. Welcome to another world. And for the next few hours we not only got to see it. We got to live it. Thoroughly!
A teenage boy appeared by our side and said a group was about to head off to the schoolhouse by horse and covered wagon. We walked with him. The kid was as nice as nice can be and very informative and helpful. We already felt this was a gem of a stop and we had hardly seen a thing to this point.
Once we joined the other families on vacation in the covered wagon, we were off. One by one, each and every kid had a turn to take the reins and drive the horses. The trip to the schoolhouse wasn’t short so it allowed us to marvel more at the lush green grasses that swayed back and forth in the gentle breeze against a contrasting blue-white sky. There went the outhouse. Way up yonder we saw the schoolhouse. A day later we arrived. Not really. The whole ride probably only took 10 minutes at best.
As we rolled up in our horse-drawn wagon, the bell atop the roof peak rang loudly. The school teacher invited us in and instead of giving a boring description of this and that, she had the kids dress the part of prairie school children. Once they donned their new duds, they took their seats at desks in the one-room schoolhouse. Parents gathered along the walls and some desks in back and watched school take session. Each kid was asked to the front to participate in hands-on learning demonstrations. They LOVED it!
A couple fathers and I headed back outside. After some small talk we haphazardly did a series of solo circles kicking rocks, gazing around, breathing the prairie air in deeply and listened to the kids enjoying themselves inside ringing the school bell. We reconvened with a mystery that seemed to dawn on us simultaneously. What happened to our guide?
Considering the flat fields of tall grass allowed us visibility to see forever and a day, the mystery began to unfold. Where did the kid go? We all seemed to receive non-verbal orders and went searching. One gent walked around the schoolhouse, another checked around the horses and wagon, I meandered back into the schoolhouse scanning every nook and cranny. When the three of us reconvened at the schoolhouse steps, we laughed aloud.
WHERE DID HE GO?
Not here. We checked.
We squinted and looked as far as the eye could see and determined the boy couldn’t have walked back to the house and barn. It was simply too far to cover that kind of ground in that short a time.
By now the kids and wives had had their fill and filed out of the schoolhouse. Instinct kicked into the women and they noticed, too, something was awry. In fact, it took them much less time to question the whereabouts of our guide.
Once we all did another round of rounds, we reconvened in a large group in front of the schoolhouse. Only this time, laughter of the situation faded giving way to thoughts such as, “That’s a far walk back” and “Will this throw the day’s schedule out of whack?”
Interestingly, the kids didn’t give the fact we were all standing around stranded a thought or care in the world. They picked up sticks and rocks and tall grass and made things, played with things and then disappeared deep into the rhythmic blowing fields to where you could only see little heads bobbing up and down.
A light went off in several mothers’ heads. They whipped out cameras quicker than a gunslinger could draw his six-shooter. My wife captured our kids running through the golden glow of majestic grassland right at us with ear-to-ear grins. It was just like the opening scene of the TV show, Little House On The Prairie. If you have ever seen the show, you know what I’m talking about and no further explanation is needed. I’ll bet you can even hear the music!
Once the diversion ended we summoned the school teacher. She picked up an amazing piece of technology called a telephone (go figure) and called up to the main complex. A handful of minutes later a much anticipated call came back. No sign of the kid anywhere. Now there was restlessness and murmurs of disapproval.
Just then, as if someone said “POOF,” the boy was among us. I think our minds were as one when our puzzled looks revealed the same thought –“How did he do that?” This was followed by, “Where did he come from?”
Upon closer examination, we noticed his hair was awfully messy – a kind of matted mess as opposed to wind-blown. His eyes were unfocused and one side of his face was beat red. I think there may have even been a trace of drool that wasn’t entirely wiped away by his flannel sleeve.
He kind of looked puzzled as he looked back at us going about his routine getting the horses set for the ride back. After the school teacher said something to him that none of us could hear, his entire face turned beet-red and he could barely make eye contact with anyone. His voice even cracked with humility.
So it goes.
On the return trip from the informative schoolhouse, everyone began chatting about the other things to see and do back at the Ingalls homestead. Our guide pointed out how crops were planted and explained how you can see clearly between each row straight on as well as diagonally. Then he admitted to planting the next crop himself. It was very crooked. We all had a nice belly laugh. And so did he.
Back at the homestead, each family went their separate way. Some went off to ride little carts behind ponies, some checked out the livestock and horse barn. We went to where an older lady had our daughter create a prairie doll and our son create an action figure. They used authentic tools and machines from the 1800s, shucking corn and making rope. The kids did all the work. The adults played too.
Afterward we headed to the house and took pictures when another lady corralled us and taught us to wash cloths prairie style. When the chores were done, we retired inside and the kids got to play the piano that Pa had bought Mary. Inside and out, we learned more than we thought there was too know about living life in this little house on the prairie and about the Ingalls family.
On the grounds were also a straw roof barn and a row of trees the Ingalls themselves planted.
Replicas of the Ingalls’ earlier homes were also open to explore such as the dugout. This was basically a tiny one-room living area carved into the earth just as the name suggests. Now that’s a rough way to hole up for the winter.
The day concluded with a visit to the learning center and climb up Lookout Tower for a bird’s eye view of the entire homestead. For those interested, there were tiny covered wagon cabins to spend the night and a walking tour in the town of De Smet where other houses of the Ingalls were opened to see.
On this trip out west, it felt very fitting that we spent a day as pioneers. It set the mood for the trip early. And when all was said and done, after we’d return home seeing a wide variety of sites in 15 states, the Ingalls Homestead in De Smet, SD ranked number one for my 10-year-old daughter. So we Netflixed the old TV show.
By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!