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.