"De Smet was built as the railroad went through, out in the midst of the great Dakota prairies far ahead of the farming settlements, and this first winter of its existence it was isolated from the rest of the world from December 1 until May 10 by the fearful blizzards that piled the snow forty feet deep on the railroad tracks. It was at risk of life that anyone went even a mile from shelter, for the storms came up so quickly and were so fierce it was literally impossible to see the hand before the face, and men had frozen to death within a few feet of shelter because they did not know they were near safety."
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Feb. 1917
I've been through De Smet, South Dakota, the town where most of Laura's books took place, many times over the years starting in about 1981, but I didn't really stop and look at all the sites until 1994, which is when these photos were taken.
De Smet is away from the freeways, which has helped keep it from becoming generic. It still looks like a fine, small, South Dakota town. As it is the site of so many of Laura's books it has numerous sites to visit, and holds pageants and other events related to the Ingalls time there.
This part of South Dakota is settled farmland, now, well-covered with trees (recall Almanzo's tree claim), so the land doesn't look much like the Ingalls first saw it when they arrived as the first permanent settlers to this area. Yet this is where they stayed the longest and so has the most sites for you to see and visit. If you travel not much further west into South Dakota you will get the full effect of the vast, treeless prairies. The photo in the header at the top of this page is of the South Dakota prairies.
If you arrive in town from the east, you'll have come on what is now called the "Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway", US Highway 14, and passed through all the towns the Ingalls went through on their route from Walnut Creek, Minnesota ("On the Banks of Plum Creek") to De Smet, South Dakota.
Just before you get to town is the first site you'll want to stop at, the Ingalls homestead site. The house on the site is a reconstruction of the house Pa built (top photo) but was built on the original house site and to its measurements. The size struck me. The descriptions in the books made it seem tiny, as many of the Ingalls' "Little Houses" had been, but this was a reasonably good size, not huge but spacious enough for comfort. A knowledgeable reader of this site told me the cottonwood trees by the house are later plantings and not those planted by the Ingalls. This site also has a dugout house which gives a taste of what their home on the banks of Plum Creek would have been like.
From here, go into town--follow the signs--to the Surveyor's House. This is a wonderful stop as this house is the original surveyor's house the Ingalls stayed in when they first arrived "On the Shores of Silver Lake". This house is tiny.
From the surveyor's house, go to Pa and Ma Ingalls house in town. This is the house (second photo) Pa, Ma, and Mary were living in at the time of "On the Way Home," when Laura and Almanzo left De Smet for Mansfield, Missouri. If you've read the "Rose" series, you'll have revisited this house in "New Dawn on Rocky Ridge" when Laura returns to see Pa in his last days.
South of town is the cemetery where most of the Ingalls, as well as Laura and Almanzo's unnamed infant son are buried.
Out of town to the north you'll pass by Laura and Almanzo's homestead. There's not much to see, just the fields of a working farm, but it is the land where Rose was born, and where Laura and Almanzo lost everything. Now it looks like fine farmland. Keep your eyes on the sky to the west for weather.
This isn't a wall cloud (the type that produces tornadoes) but this roll cloud I saw just after I drove by the Wilder homestead was enough to keep my attention focused on the sky.