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 dinner...no 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.|