Jerry Nelson: A famous local author
We who hail from this neck of the woods hate to brag, but we have a world-renowned author living in our area.
OK, so she is no longer physically with us anymore or even alive for that matter. But Laura Ingalls Wilder is very much a living force in the town of De Smet, South Dakota.
Like every schoolchild in America, I grew up reading Laura’s “The Little House"” series of books (we locals feel that we know her well enough to be on a first-name basis). When I was a kid, the fact that Laura had lived in De Smet, only 30 miles from our farm, didn’t impress me at all. I assumed that this was the way things are, that everyone had a literary icon from their area.
Due to this attitude, I never took the time to actually see some of the famous Wilder sites in De Smet or attend the Wilder pageant that’s held there each summer. My wife and I decided to rectify this recently by motoring out to De Smet.
We began with the Ingalls Historic Home, located a stone’s throw from the Kingsbury County courthouse. We went to the gift shop where my wife – surprise! – immediately began to shop for gifts. While she was thus occupied, I perused photographs of the Ingalls family. A sepia-toned Pa Ingalls looked back at me from the picture frame, his fierce chin whiskers like a bushy bib.
I chatted with Dianne Mollner, assistant director of the Ingalls Historical Home. I asked her how business has been in the wake of the pandemic.
“People are coming back,” she replied. “We’ve hosted almost as many school tours as last year. We’re excited. We can tell that people are ready to get out and do things again. Each year, the Ingalls Historic Home receives visitors from all 50 states and numerous foreign countries.”
I strolled the grounds, pausing to peruse the one-room schoolhouse that Laura and her sister Carrie attended. A bronze statue of Laura as a skipping schoolgirl stands in front of the schoolhouse. A basketful of wildflowers is in her hand, an expression of pure joy on her face.
Nearby is Brewster School, where Laura taught as a young woman. Stepping inside the structure makes you realize how tough the prairie pioneers had it. The school is basically a rickety little shack with a potbelly stove to one side and a small blackboard at the front. It’s hard to imagine how any learning could have taken place there.
It was lunchtime, so we motored a few blocks to the west and ducked into Ward’s Store and Bakery for a bite. I visited with Patty Ward, the proprietress of the joint. I asked her what sort of effect Laura has on a prairie village of 1,100 souls.
“Laura continues to have a huge impact,” Patty said. “The town sees a big boost during the tourist season. It’s been estimated that Laura brings in as many as 30,000 visitors per year. Five of Laura’s books are set in De Smet.”
No Wilder pilgrimage would be complete without a stop at the Ingalls Homestead, located a short drive south of town.
The day we were there, the homestead’s visitor’s center thrummed with the energy of several dozen schoolchildren who were on a field trip. Groups of kids were herded onto covered wagons. Teams of workhorses patiently pulled the wagons on a tour of the Ingalls homestead.
The Ingalls Homestead’s visitor center has a gift shop where my wife – yup! – shopped for gifts. I ogled the vast collection of Laura’s books that filled the shelves. It’s wondrous to know that Laura continues to sell boatloads of books after all these years.
I spoke with the harried lady who was running the till as chatty schoolchildren lined up to purchase souvenirs. I learned that the annual Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, which is held in a nearby open-air theater, will mark its 50th year of performances this summer.
“We’ve had actors from all across the nation come here to be part of the pageant,” said the cashier lady. “The pageant is a very big deal for our little town.”
Our last stop was the hilltop cemetery that is the final resting place for Laura’s infant son, her three sisters and her parents, Charles and Caroline.
As I contemplated the stone markers, I wondered if Pa could have ever imagined that his “little half-pint” would have such a large and lasting impact on the world. But I didn’t ponder upon it for long, because a car full of people who also wanted to pay their respects to the Ingalls family was ambling up the dusty prairie path.
If you'd like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.