On Thursday, June 21, I visited De Smet, South Dakota.
I went to De Smet with John Miller, Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar and author of Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder. We had a great time. He is thinking of writing something more about De Smet, so he wanted to go to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society and see what they had in their archives. I wanted to look through their archives for information about the Congregational Church and its pastors. So I followed him west on U. S. route 14 from his home in Brookings to De Smet.
Our first stop was at the De Smet Community Church, which until last year was the De Smet Congregational Church. Laura’s parents and sister Mary were founding members of this congregation in 1880. The church moved to a new building on route 14 in 1966, and the old Congregational Church building was taken over by a Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) Church. So we also stopped by the CMA Church building. Charles Ingalls helped to build part of this structure in 1882. It was greatly enlarged (another wing was added) in 1909.
We then visited the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society. Tessa Flak, the director of the Memorial Society, very graciously gave us access to whatever we wanted to look at in their archives. I worked through several vertical file folders on the Congregational Church, Reverend Edward Brown, and Reverend Edwin Alden. I also looked at some letters written in 1930 by Laura and her sister Carrie Ingalls Swanzey about their early experiences in De Smet, including descriptions of early church services. By far the most fascinating piece from Carrie’s letter:
At the time there was just one other little girl in town my age. The first Sunday services were to be held in the depot. The men fixed the benches early in the morning and father came home and said the seats were all ready. So this little girl and I went over to take a look. No one was there and we went in and found that the seats were just a good jump apart. We started. I was the best jumper, could go the whole length without a miss or stop. The other girl did her best which was not bad, and I suppose we “yelled” our best too. Fun, never have had so much since. Then in the door came Rev. Woodworth-who was to preach that morning and he said “I don’t think that [sic] a very good way for little girls to act in the House of the Lord.” We disappeared.
But that goes to show how these early pioneer church people remembered a place which, if only for the time being was dedicated to the worship of God.
I found some other primary source material that will be a great help for the project. More on this later.
By the time I had looked at what I thought there was to see in the archives, it was early afternoon. I said goodbye to John because I wanted to take the Memorial Society’s tour of the Surveyors’ House and he had to head back to Brookings for a book discussion. The Ingalls family lived in the Surveyors’ House during the winter of 1879-1880. It has been moved into De Smet from outside town where it sat next to Silver Lake. This house is described in Pioneer Girl and (appropriately enough) By the Shores of Silver Lake. Like other historic homes connected with Laura, this house is quite small, much smaller than the impression you get from reading the novel. It is truly a little house.
After the Surveyors’ House, I drove to the historical marker where Laura and Almanzo’s homestead was located, north of town. All one can really see is a rise surrounded by hay fields. Then I went to the site of Silver Lake, to the southeast of town. The lake no longer exists, though there is a wetland. Then I drove past the grounds for the Wilder Pageant (“These Happy Golden Years,” plays weekends in July) to the Ingalls Homestead.
There is a rock with a historical marker on the northwest corner of the homestead, facing across the fields and big slough towards De Smet. This corner belongs to the Memorial Society, so there are signs for the Memorial Society’s homes and tour there. But the rest of the 160 acres that was proved up on by Charles and Caroline Ingalls belongs to a family-owned business called the “Ingalls Homestead: Laura’s Living Prairie.” The owners have created a hands-on experience for families that immerses you in the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder. There is a building with information about all of the places where the Ingalls family lived. There are replicas of a dugout cabin and the house that the Ingalls built on the homestead. There is a stable, and pony rides, and covered-wagon rides, and fields of corn, oats, and wheat. One can twist hay and make a rope. One can also camp there – there are spots for RVs and tents, or you can sleep in one of their covered wagons. There is an authentic one-room schoolhouse on the southwest corner of the property.
Finally, there is a church on the northeast corner of the property. The West Bethany Lutheran Church was built in 1905 about ten miles north and east of De Smet. The last services were held there in 1969. In 2009, the building was moved to the Ingalls Homestead. So I walked across the fields to this church. The building is incredibly well preserved and restored. I would estimate it could hold 60-70 people. There is also a full basement, and I thought – they must hold weddings here. It could be the perfect site for a destination wedding and reception for a Laura Ingalls Wilder enthusiast. One of the employees later told me that they have had several weddings in the church.
So I spent the late afternoon walking over the Ingalls Homestead, imagining what the land might have looked like and been like when Laura spent her adolescent years there.
My final stop in De Smet was at the De Smet Cemetery, where I visited the graves of Charles and Caroline Ingalls, their daughters Mary and Carrie, and the infant son of Laura. I then got on the road home. I drove the rest of the way from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Chicagoland on Friday, June 22.
I am very appreciative to my family for allowing me to take an entire week in Laura Ingalls Wilder country. It was good to see the places where she grew up in the upper Midwest. I still have not visited the Little House on the Prairie site in Kansas, but I hope to get there next year. I am just about done with chapter 2.
Thanks again for reading.
(The quote from Carrie Ingalls Swanzey is from her letter to Mr. Mallery, 11 April 1930, Collections IIA4a, Box 028A; and the picture of the De Smet Congregational Church is from the Congregational Church Folder in the Vertical File, both at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society Archives, De Smet, South Dakota.)