De Smet, South Dakota

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.)


The Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society

The Ingalls Homestead

John Miller’s Amazon Page

My post on Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder



“This is What Men Call God”

Greetings. I’ve been working on my paper for the Conference on Faith and History (CFH) Biennial Meeting next week. It is titled “‘This is What Men Call God:’ The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I sent it off to the respondent for our panel last week. I thought I’d give an overview of the paper this week and then report about what happened after the CFH Meeting.

The paper opens with a brief description of the problems confronting someone trying to consider Wilder’s faith: conflicting evidence and the role of Rose Wilder Lane. The conflict is mainly that there is evidence that she believed in Christianity, but 1) there are negative depictions of the church and Christianity in the Little House books and 2) Wilder never formally became a member of a church. Then there is the question of what in the Little House books was written by Wilder and what was contributed by Lane.

I then describe what I found when I looked at the manuscripts of the early Little House books. Basically, it appears that Wilder wrote a pretty straightforward and conventional description of the church and Christianity. Rose took what Wilder wrote and made it more direct, engaging, and memorable, but she also complicated the simple descriptions Wilder wrote. For more, see my blog entry on the Manuscripts.

Finally, I consider several things that I believe that we can say about Wilder’s faith from all of the works Wilder wrote. First, she seems to have been a believer in God, His word, and His work in the world. Both Pioneer Girl and By the Shores of Silver Lake describe an experience with God. The title of the paper comes from the Pioneer Girl account. Her Missouri Ruralist articles give much evidence of her Biblical worldview. However, her Christianity emphasized moral action in the world and love for one’s neighbor. She very rarely mentioned sin and salvation, and almost never mentioned Jesus Christ. Second, there is good evidence that she participated in the most important Christian practices: Bible reading, prayer, and Sunday worship. Finally, she was active in the Congregationalist Church as a child and young adult in Minnesota and Dakota. She attended the Methodist Church in Missouri for most of her adult life. But there is no evidence that she ever formally became a member of any church.

I’m hoping that those who come to the session will help me with several questions. First, what historical contexts should I be trying to fit this in? Congregationalism? Women’s history? Rural religion? Second, who should I think about in terms of audience. Academics have not been all that interested in Wilder, but there seems to be a large number of people in the general public who read and love Wilder and her works, and they buy books.

We’ll see what people think. Thanks for reading.

By the Shores of Silver Lake

Often when I read a well-written book a subsequent time, I see things that I didn’t before, or at least that I didn’t remember from before. (I think the same is true of well-made movies.) This is especially the case when I’m looking for something in particular. I believe that this is the sixth time I’ve read the Little House books. My wife Paula first got me to read them when we were first married in the early 1990s. I read them again when I was in graduate school at Duquesne University. I think that Paula and I read them to our children twice. Then I read them again ahead of two talks about Wilder’s political views I gave at Grove City College in 2009 and at Trinity Christian College in 2011. However, when I read By the Shores of Silver Lake yesterday, I saw something that I didn’t remember at all: Laura’s description of a religious experience.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Silver Lake begins two years after On the Banks of Plum Creek. Laura is 13; Mary is 15 and blind. The family decides to move west so Pa can take a job with the railroad and then find a homestead for the family in Dakota Territory. The book describes their time in two railroad camps, a winter in the isolated surveyor’s house (which you can still visit in De Smet, SD), and their first days on the homestead.

I was beginning to think that there wasn’t going to be much mention of Christianity or the church. Wilder states multiple times that the family had moved beyond the line of civilization. For more than two thirds of the book there are only brief mentions of what might be called religious ideas. In chapter 2 the Ingalls family’s beloved dog Jack dies and Pa tells Laura that “He has gone to the Happy Hunting Grounds.” (12) In Chapter 4, a railroad worker sings worldly words to the tune of Ma’s favorite hymn, “There is a green hill far away”: “There is a boarding house far away…” (21) Ma is scandalized. In chapter 19, “Christmas Eve,” the family reminisces about other Christmases they had together, including the one described in Plum Creek with the Sunday School Christmas Tree.

Then I reached chapter 23, “On the Pilgrim Way.” The family is singing hymns one Sunday Evening when they are answered by voices outside the surveyor’s house. It’s their old pastor from Minnesota, Reverend Alden, along with a young home missionary and two homesteaders. The company is on their way to a new town named Huron to see about starting a church there. All stay for the night with the Ingalls family. Laura is overjoyed to see Rev. Alden. In reference to Mary’s blindness, Pa notes that while it is hard to be “resigned to God’s will,” (126) he is glad that none of his children had died. (This is especially poignant for those of us who know that the historical Ingalls family did lose a child in infancy – their only son.) Rev. Alden responds that Mary is “a rare soul, and a lesson to all of us,” and furthermore, “whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth.” (127)

More importantly to the plot development in the book, Rev. Alden tells the family that there is a college for the blind in Iowa that Mary could attend. Everyone is excited, although they have no idea how they might be able to pay. Laura is not sure what to think. Earlier in the book we are told that Ma and Pa had told her that they hoped one of their daughters might teach school. Laura does not want to teach school, and she is torn between duty and desire.

That night they have a prayer meeting, and while Rev. Alden is praying Laura has what only can be described as a religious experience:

They all knelt down by their chairs, and Reverend Alden asked God, Who knew their hearts and their secret thoughts, to look down on them there, and to forgive their sins and help them to do right. A quietness was in the room while he spoke. Laura felt as if she were hot, dry, dusty grass parching in a drought, and the quietness was a cool and gentle rain falling on her. It truly was a refreshment. Everything was simple now that she felt so cool and strong, and she would be glad to work hard and go without anything she wanted herself, so that Mary could go to college. (127-8)

Later that night, she promises Mary that she will “study hard, so I can teach school and help” her go to college. (128) Some Christians, like myself, can think back to experiences such as this that have happened while praying. Laura’s description is lyrical and matter-of-fact at the same time. This account is also the first time that forgiveness is mentioned as part of the Christian message. In general, depictions of Christianity and the church in the first four books have to do with right behavior, including Sunday observance, doing the right thing in all situations, and loving one’s neighbor. (While these are important Christian virtues, the central message of the gospel concerns the free offer of forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ.) The next day they have a preaching service since the preacher is there with them, even though it is Monday. All are excited to have celebrated the first church service in the new town of De Smet. Rev. Alden promises to come back to start a church there the next year.

There is no edge to any of the descriptions of Christian practice here that would be similar to what I described in my post on Plum Creek. There is a little comic relief, however: Ma is a little concerned about the ability of the younger pastor to cook for himself, worrying that he might “ruin his heath.” “‘He’s Scotch,’ said Pa, as if that meant that he would be all right.” (130) I’ve written this down in my notes about Wilder’s depictions of ethnic diversity in the books, though I’m not exactly sure what to do with it.

Two other miscellaneous comments: God, Christianity, and the church are not mentioned in the rest of the book. Jesus Christ has yet to be mentioned in the series.

As always, I welcome comments.

(All page number references are from Volume 2 of the two volume set of the Little House books published by the Library of America in 2012.)

P. S. I may not be able to post next week. The first paper in my Western Civilization courses was due today, so I have 66 papers to grade by next Friday. We will see how they go.