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Laura Ingalls and the Little House on the Prairie

On route through South Dakota I passed near the little town of DeSmet and found it impossible to bypass “the Little Town on the Prairie”. I read the Laura Ingalls books to my kids 25 years ago and got quite hooked on them myself. They are surely some of the greatest books for conveying a genuine feeling and understanding of early American pioneer life.

If you never read the books you probably saw the TV series with Michael Landon, although its not a patch on the books. The uniqueness of the books is that they were not written (like most cowboy stories) by some city-slicker in New York, from stories and lies that drifted back east, but by a young girl who lived the life.

Charles Ingalls (Pa) took up Lincoln’s 1862 Homestead offer of “free land” for settlers if they would farm it for 5 years or more. I’m not sure how it was decided it was “free land” as another Nation of people already lived there, but that’s another complicated and horrifying story. Eventually, in 1887 Charles Ingalls sold up the Little House on the Prairie homestead and moved into town.

The old homestead was bought and sold many times until the Sullivan family bought the ¼ section (160 acres) and sought to restore the original Ingalls homestead. They did a good job, the landscape is clearly recognisable from the books, and the buildings give an authentic feel for the times.

Having been farmed by various families for over a century none of the original buildings remain but the Sullivan’s have also rebuilt a traditional ‘sod house dugout’ and a perfect replica of “Ma’s Little House”. They have also salvaged an original claim shanty, farm wagons and a local one-room school from nearby homesteads. So if you know the books you will recognise many places and things Laura describes.

In DeSmet the house that Ma and Pa moved into is still there, the surveyor’s house the family initially lived in is there and even the old Loftus store is still open for business.

Its impossible not to admire the hardship and courage of those early pioneers, although the genocide of native American Indians is an even harder story to tell.


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I’ve been writing about travel for the past 14 years and have travelled extensively from [A]ustralia to [Z]imbabwe. I’ve been around the world a few of times and have written widely for the international press in America, Australia and the UK, for newspapers, magazines and websites.I am also the author of a definitive guide to Wildlife Conservation Volunteering (Bradt, 2012) and have worked on volunteer projects in South America, Africa, India and Europe. Working from a riverboat on the Amazon has to be my favourite conservation project – a bit of comfort and luxury at the end of the day after getting filthy ploughing through the muddy jungle.I think the best way of getting around is travelling by train, not just because it’s eco-friendly but because I enjoy the journey as much as the destination. I’ve written a lot about train travel and am a contributing author to Great Railway Journeys of the World (Time Out 2009). My enthusiasm for travelling on trains culminated in 2011 – 2012 when I travelled around the world by train - from London to Sydney. This was the most amazing trip I’ve ever done and I spent three months because I couldn’t stop myself getting off to explore what couldn’t be seen from the window.Naturally it’s now a book!

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