Friday, July 24, 2015

little wagon on the big prairie

This is one scattershot blog lately, isn't it? I mean, most people go on vacation and post about it in some sort of categorical order. Our Yellowstone trip is getting a real mashed-up treatment, but trust me, when you buy my new book next winter, you'll say to yourself "Enduring her crappy blog posts all summer was totally worth it because Across the River is SUCH a great read! I'm glad she gave her blog short shift so she could spend quality time revising and editing it!"


Way Back When we were planning Our Yellowstone Vacation I mentioned the Laura Ingalls Homestead in De Smet, SD to my people.  I grew up loving the books, I'm of that age, and just like Laura, my family moved west when I was young and I saw much of the same things at the same age. Team Testosterone was enchanted by the idea of sleeping overnight in a covered wagon. In fact, they were so charmed by this notion, they kept bringing it up. "Mom? Did you book that night in the covered wagon yet?"

It made sense to spend the night in De Smet, it was almost 9 hours into our drive, so we'd be ready for some entertaining side trip. I booked a large wagon over the phone with a lovely woman named Ann and remembered to toss sleeping bags into the packed truck.

Now, Team Testosterone doesn't really know much about Laura Ingalls Wilder. We tried Farmer Boy as a read-aloud, but they got bored about halfway through. They never watched the TV series, however, they know I own a Complete Set of the Laura Books and I explained to them a little about her story as we turned off the Interstate towards Ingalls Homestead.  They exploded out of their seats when we pulled up, eager to investigate acres of wide open prairie.

Inside the cozy old-fashioned store we saw all kinds of useful and interesting things. The boys played a quick game of checkers while I checked in and got our wagon key. We learned that since we were staying overnight, we would enjoy free rein of the exhibits--just kindly shut the door of each building when we leave. The attractions would close to the public by 6:30, so we had time for the last covered wagon tour of the day before they shut things down. Team Testosterone and I hopped aboard.

Here's the story: Many years ago a LIW (Laura Ingalls Wilder) fan made her way to De Smet to pay homage and she fell in love, bought this property with her husband and built this place. The buildings are all historic, everything in them and around them is hands-on and authentic. The Ingalls Homestead is a labor of love and passion. What made this whole tour so special was the pages from the book blown up and framed beside each object, building or activity--highlighting the connections that make the LIW books so special.

The covered wagon took us to the one-room schoolhouse where girls donned bonnets and dresses, boys wore straw hats. We took our seats and the schoolteacher gave us a lesson about prairie education, actual people from De Smet who were in Laura's books and a few cool facts about the time period.  The school experience was interactive and we all had fun, even Mr. D who had to demonstrate how naughty kids got punished (standing against the wall with his nose inside a chalk circle).

After our wagon ride we were offered horse rides, but we were hungry and unpacked in our covered wagon to have supper.  Then we helped ourselves to everything the Ingalls Homestead had to offer--activities like twisting straw to burn (like Pa and Laura did in The Long Winter) and making corncob dolls like Laura's doll Susan in Little House in the Big Woods.  We explored a sod house, barn, live animals, garden, prairie, cropland, log cabin, barn, history of settlement and the church.  The kids ran and yelled and blew off steam while learning all kinds of cool stuff in a huge, safe environment.  Mr. B discovered kittens in one barn, Mr. G figured out how to lasso cattle.

Sleeping in the covered wagon was a unique experience, a lot like a tent, except with more cubbyholes to store stuff.  We had plenty of room and enjoyed the vast, huge silence of the western prairie. Ingalls Homestead has clean bathroom facilities, even hot showers available for campers. We didn't have a fire, it was quite warm out, but there was a fire ring.  No, we didn't circle up the wagons with all the other campers, everyone was pretty spread out, but that's in tune with a modern-day sensibility about privacy (one shared by Pa Ingalls).  Cozied up beneath the canvas tarp, I listened to the wind and drifted off into a great night's sleep. 

Worth it? Totally. I'd recommend this experience in a heartbeat. My sons said it was a highlight of our vacation, they had fun AND learned--and teenage boys are hardly the demographic for this venue, so this is high praise. This place is cleaned, cared for and the interaction with our hosts added to the charm. Plus, where else can you park it after a long day's drive and just let the kids run wild and loose without any restraint? Not at a hotel, that's for sure. Ingalls Homestead was the perfect spot to spend the night under the big, starry sky.

Mr. G exiting the covered wagon to chase a pheasant.

Eating we didn't have salt pork and fritters.

The main exhibit shows each location of LIW's books with important parts pulled out for old fans to remember and new fans to enjoy.

It's like a LIW Wall of Aweome, really.

Sod houses are dark and small. No thanks.

Pump it! Pump it real good!

Our campsite at sunset. Mr. D is going to check on the horses. Or stretch his legs.

So many buildings to explore, it took us a few hours to work our way through everything even without a guided tour.

In our excitement I forgot to get a picture of us tucked in for the night, but this is my exit shot. You can see where beneath the big bed a mattress has been tucked away, a table slides out from beneath the big bed for eating or card playing or planning out the next leg of a westward journey.
Spill it, reader. Would you go? Have you gone? Are you a Wilder fan like me?


  1. We visited the homestead on our road trip last year. We found kittens too!

  2. dit is geweldig mooi even terug in de tijd,weg van de drukte van alledag.

  3. When we did our South Dakota trip with our boys, I couldn't get them to stop in DeSmet. Too eager to get to the Corn Palace. Ha! Wish we'd stopped now. I can see why this was a highlight.

    Funny, I tried to read Farmer Boy to my kids, too. Found it very boring. We quit and moved onto The Indian in the Cupboard as I recall.

  4. I NEED to do this. On my summer bucket list is the Pepin museum; I'd better get on it before August fills up! Thank you for the summary. OH, yea, I am looking forward to your next book! Keep your priorities straight in the meantime.

  5. WOW! I am totally impressed - with ALL of you!

  6. Some pals and I were recently discussing a trip to DeSmet in honor of LIW. Thanks for the lowdown!

  7. I had no idea this even existed! It would be a stop for us, for sure!

  8. What wonderful thoughts and photos. Greetings!

  9. It sounds wonderful, but frankly I'm disappointed there was no pig stomach balloon. It was the stomach wasn't it? They need that to make it truly authentic.

    I could use some wide open prairie right about now. Love those books so much. I think Farmer Boy is my favorite. I read the first two or three to my boys several years ago.

    What a great experience for you and your kids.

  10. I'm a HUGE LIW fan. The Ingalls Homestead looks amazing! I can't wait to make my own pilgrimage there someday. I'm glad you had fun. I'd heard about the covered wagon accommodations and I was curious about what they're like.

  11. I did not read the books when I was a kid and the books were a big deal with the TV show (I am your age) probably because boys did not really pay attn. to what was considered girl's books. BUT I got the complete set last year for the wife, whose grandmother had read them to her at lunchtime when they were kids, and I WAS THE one who read them, lickity split, and enjoyed them. We had moved a lot as a kid, and I thought that Laura's father was a jerk--moving away from their first home was stupid, and each after. Making the family risk their lives just to get some more elbow room? Very foolish, my adult self thinks. And my understanding is that the truth is even more difficult and harsh than she wrote about. BUT, despite my adult view of pa and the difficulties he forced them through, I did enjoy the books a lot. And, well, NO, I would not relish sleeping in a covered wagon or sod house, then or now, having become an adult who likes a comfy bed and bathroom..... but I totally love that you and your kids did this, perfect for them. As a boy I would have loved it too.

  12. WOW. I love it. And YES, I would totally love to do this some day.

  13. This is so cool that your family camped in a covered wagon!

  14. Slow Panic, there is a pig stomach balloon in the museum in DeSmet. I have a picture of my husband playing with it. I never got around to blogging about my LIW adventures last summer.

  15. I've long known that there is the homestead in DeSmet, etc., but I had NO IDEA it was this interesting or detailed--much less that you can book a wagon to sleep in. Thank you for putting this on my radar!

  16. Are you freaking kidding me? This is the coolest thing EVER!!!! All of my kids LOVE watching Little House. Tommy didn't enjoy Farm Boy but he loved reading Little House in the Big Woods and of course I read them all and watched the show growing up. I can't think of too many reasons to go to SD but this is definitely on my list now. VERY cool. I can see why your crew loved it. I think we would too.

  17. Oh, my goodness, this is INCREDIBLE!! I actually did read the books to my boys (when they were quite young) and the fact that your teenage sons loved this spot is high praise indeed!
    Bucket list!


Spill it, reader.