February 4, 2005

Little House on the Prairie Field Trip

We took an extended field trip to see some of the historical sites found in the Little House on the Prairie books. Last summer we made the trip to Little House in the Big Woods located in Pepin, WI. This week we went to De Smet, SD which features in several of the books, we know it from "By the Shores of Silver Lake" and "The Long Winter", it is in several others as well. This is the town the Ingalls finally settled in for the long term. Pa, Ma, and Mary all died while living in "The House That Pa Built" as it is known today. They are all buried there along with Carrie, Grace and her husband, and the infant boy of Laura and Almanzo.

At the site we were able to walk around inside the original surveyor's house that Pa and then the Ingalls stayed in when they first moved to De Smet. Much of it is still the same and has not been restored much. Seeing the house helped give perspective of how they lived, the size of their home and the things they had to do, such as wash laundry by hand and carry in coal and water. There were some original artifacts such as books and their stove and then some replicas. The tour guide was informative and shared things we did not know as well as reviewed some we did. Areas of the home are roped off for safety or preservation reasons. The kids were sad they could not go upstairs and see where the older girls slept. I was sad we could not take any interior pictures.

The second site we saw was the home that Pa built for the family. The original home included three rooms, a kitchen, a living/bedroom area, and a downstairs bedroom for Mary (who was already blind by this point), and the upstairs loft area for the girls. As money and time allowed he built other rooms to become the house that it is today. The living room had some photos of the family including one that Carrie apparently wanted burned. There was a fiddle and organ that the kids were actually allowed to try out (not Ingalls but replicas from the time period) and a room full of displays, photos and information about what happened to each family member.

There were other sites you could drive around and see, including the original site of Pa's store (where they spent the Long Winter) and the 5 cottonwood trees he planted for his girls (they are still standing). You can go out and see part of their original homestead and some of the areas mentioned in the books. During the summer there is apparently a festival and pageant out there, but we did not get to experience it during the winter.

You can also visit the graves of the family members (all except Laura, Almanzo and Rose and Rose's son, and Freddie)out at the De Smet cemetary. There may have been some other sites we did not get to visit in this town. But really getting to stand inside the houses and at their graves was worth the trip. It really brought the books home and alive to us. It helps you realize these were real people and not just out of the pages of a book or off the screen of a TV. We enjoyed our time there. If you are a gift shop person - they have a nice one. Warning: If you have daughters who really love these books and dresses (such as I) you may wish to avoid this store or be prepared to purchase a pioneer girl dress, apron, and bonnet!

On our way home we got lost and ended up in the town of Walnut Grove of all places! Unfortunately almost all of that location was closed for the season (with the exception of the gift shop of course) and you could not even walk around the outsides of the buildings! We could see several of them and their signs from outside the fenced off area and the kids were able to get a grasp on how small the church and school room, and homes would have been. During the season there are 7 buildings to visit and also the original sod site (though the sod house itself fell quite awhile ago) you can see the land where it was. They also have summer events and pageants in the season. We intend to go back and visit this site during the summer season.

I highly recommend visiting these historic sites. They are appropriate for all ages, though the younger children did not get as much out of them. The house tours were tough on the young boys (3-4 range) but I recommend them. They give you context, perspective and much more information than the books. The museums, presentations, and artifacts fill in the gaps and extend the story to its conclusion. As an adult I would like to go to them by myself or with other adult friends and get more out of it than I can while herding kids and focusing on their questions and needs.

For those who want much more detail about our trip - read the next post. For those who don't - then please skip it.



  1. Have you and/or your kids watched the PBS Prairie House series? It's a reality show where families have to live as Pioneers doing all the work they did, living in the types of homes they did. Now that I think of it, it might be called Pioneer House. I'm not sure, either Prairie House or Pioneer House. They also had some other series' with Victorian times, etc.

  2. Sounds great. We read Little House in the Big Woods a few months ago and really enjoyed it. I'd like to read some more. If I'm ever up that way (doubtful), we will definetly stop in and check it out.

  3. Ah! I'm so jealous! One day ...