February 4, 2005

Little House Field Trip: The Good the Bad and the Ugly

We just returned form a min-vacation/extended field trip. We went to the town of De Smet, South Dakota. Why? That town features prominently in several of the Little House on the Prairie books. Most well noted are “By the Shores of Silver Lake” and “The Long Winter”. There were many interesting things to see and learn about. There would have been even more during the springtime, but I am still glad we went now.

The trip always starts out better than it ends, a long car ride home may be tainting my writing of this. Overall we had a great time, but as with any long car ride (especially one with 5 children aged 1-8) there is a sense of the good, the bad and the ugly.

The ugly first – the car ride home. Everyone was a bit loopy after being together in close quarters for several days non-stop. Also rides home are always more challenging with kids because they do not look forward to going home as much as they look forward to the trip out there. Ciaran was especially challenging on the ride home. He had a friend exactly one week older than him and the two of them feed off of each other. Potty jokes, touching each other, fighting over everything, being generally loud and continually asking for things got a little tiresome after several hours. Rhiannon and her friend, a boy three years older, were generally very good. They listened to the end of “By the Shores of Silver Lake” on tape and colored and drew in their activity books and pieces of paper. Sirah was the best behaved, sleeping most of the time and being very calm and happy nearly all the time.

Add to all the chaos the fact that we missed our turn and ended up lost in all places we ended up in Walnut Grove (by accident). We took the time to look around, though nearly all of it was closed for the season, and then got back on the road trying to navigate our way home. I managed to get lost again and we turned what should have been a 4 hour drive into a 7 hour drive with stops. So kids who were already loopy and parents working on little sleep, dealing with overstimulated kids made the ride seem even longer than it was.

Little Sleep – late arrival the first night and long wind-down time led to after midnight and excitement led to getting up by 8am. Sirah was up and down throughout the night. The second night led to earlier bedtime but Rhiannon was getting sick and was up and down all night with terrible dreams and stomach pains. No naps for the baby or the three year old boys.

Attractions Closed – several of the sights were closed or not as interesting because of the season we saw them in. We were not able to fully enjoy all aspects of the locations. Also the people in charge were not the most accommodating or friendly, not even letting us look around the outside of the buildings or take pictures. It actually left a rather sour taste in our mouths for the tourist locations. If my children were not so interested in these books and the lives of the family I am not sure I would go back again because of the people who were running it and some of the rigidity of policies. It was enough to lead me to write a letter to the tourist locations and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Foundation. However, both Walnut Grove and De Smet will probably receive another visit from us during their summer pagents and events, giving them one more try.

The Good

Everything else! Despite the downsides I listed we had a great time. It was informative, interesting, educational and fun. It was nice to do with friends and it helped provide more context and understanding to the books. I think a visit to these sites helped bring alive the books even more than they already are. It was interesting for a range of ages, especially adults, though I am not sure I would recommend it for three and four year old boys. Some specifics we really enjoyed.

Being with friends – it was nice for the kids to have each other to enjoy the trip with. While part of me thinks Ciaran might have been better behaved and gotten more “educational” experiences out of the trip if it had just been our family, the other part of me realizes how much more Rhiannon was able to get out of the experience by having an older friend there with her. By having someone else there near her age who has also loved and read the books helped her get so much more out of it. The trip was also much more fun for me to have my good friend there. The drives gave us a lot of time to chat and get to know each other deeper. It also tested our friendship and patience with each other and let us see each other with nothing to hide. We have camped together but this was even more intense, here we saw each other in the morning, before the baseball caps and showers, had to admit if we snore, show how we truly handle our kids under stress and a multitude of other things we don’t often admit or show people. We survived and will be stronger for it.

Playing the fiddle – This was Rhiannon’s favorite part of the trip, with buying an authentic pioneer dress, bonnet and apron coming in a close second. At the exhibit in De Smet – at “The house that Pa built” and still stands today she was able to play a fiddle from the time, and also an organ. The fiddle was the kind Pa played (though not his actual one) and the organ the kind Mary played (again not an original). They were both located in the actual house that Pa built for his family and Pa, Ma, and Mary lived in until they were dead.

Perspective – Seeing the houses and the artificats brought the books to life and gave some perspective. Looking at how small the churches, schoolrooms and houses were helped us understand more about the context of the books. As much as you read and try to explain these points to the kids I don’t think even as an adult you truly get your head around how small these quarters were until you see them. The church and school room we saw at Walnut Grove were both smaller than a modern day garage, a little bigger than some sheds in people’s yards. The hotel was smaller than most homes (ours included) of the people we know. The surveyor house in De Smet where they first lived seemed big to them and was two rooms, a pantry and an upstairs loft. The bedroom was simply room enough for Ma and Pa’s bed and a little rollaway wooden box that Grace slept in at night and slid under the beds at night. Seeing the laundry tubs and homemade soap made clearer how much more difficult life was for them in terms of hard labor. There were many other examples of this throughout the trip.

Visiting the Graves – In De Smet we visited the graveyard where Ma, Pa, Mary, Carrie, Grace and Laura and Almanzo’s baby boy were all buried (Laura, Almanzo, and Rose are buried in Missouri). Seeing the headstones made the reality of them as real people come home more. For some reasons that made you really recognize that they actually lived and died there. All too often I picture Michael Langdon as Pa and see the people from the TV show as the ones I picture in the books. Visiting the museums and historical sites helps you change that view and get the picture of the real family in your mind.

Wealth of Information – The tour guides were a wealth of information that I never knew about. They were able to help bring the site and the book and lives of the Ingalls to life. They helped fill in some gaps and extend the story as far as it went. Some of the interesting things I never knew were: All three generations of women lost a young baby boy within the first year of life (Ma, Laura, and Rose), Rose was a well known author first and encouraged her mother to write, many of the artifacts from the Ingalls have been destroyed or lost, how each family member finished their lives, and many other interesting details and facts.

The Extension Activities – Before we left I printed out several activites that the kids could do during their downtime at the hotel or in the car. I put together a packet of activities and coloring sheets for each of them. Most to do on their own and some to do together. They did not get through all of them, but it was nice to have them available and now we can use them to follow through with the lessons. We also picked up some other activity books and things from the gift shops along the way. I did show some reserve and did not purchase the Prairie Primer though I really wanted to. I decided to wait at least a year as she is still young. It was nice to see it first hand though and be able to flip through and look at it, it does seem like a valuable resource if you enjoy the books.

The Pool – Spending time in the hotel pool was one of the kids favorite memories. The could hardly wait to go in and never wanted to come out. They spent awhile in the pool Wednesday night after our day at the Ingalls historical sites in De Smet and then spent nearly two hours in the pool this morning before we headed home. Only one of the kids was a swimmer and I forgot to bring life vests/floaties for my kids so I was carrying Sirah around in the water, with either Rhiannon or Ciaran on my back. When our friend was done with his lifevest, Rhia and Ciaran took turns using it. Rhiannon had a blast with it, giving her the confidence to run and jump into the pool, having no fear of the fact that she went under – since she came right up and she was willing to swim all around the pool by herself (it showed me she is ready for swim lessons this spring). Ciaran was still more timid and still wanted to hold me even when he was wearing the life vest.

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