Author of the Little House on the Prairie series, Laura Ingalls Wilder, is nothing short of an American legend. Traveling across America from the East Coast to the Great Plains, during her formative years from the ages of 13 to 18, they settled in DeSmet, South Dakota, which is where most of her life is chronicled.
Today, DeSmet celebrates the life and legacy of Laura and her family, and visiting the town is both a glimpse of what once was and a mark on the history books.
To say DeSmet is small is an understatement. 1.16 square miles, the city is home to only 1,110 people so don’t expecting bustling shopping streets or a raging nightlife. Located in a historical building that look like an old-timey convenience store, the restaurant to try is Ward’s Store and Bakery. Try the pulled pork: you won’t regret it.
There are several locations still standing in DeSmet that were mentioned explicitly by Laura. One of the most famous is the Loftus Store. Opened in 1879, it is still, miraculously, in it’s original building. Laura wrote often of Mr. Loftus in “The Long Winter,” which offers a variety of knick-knacks, souvenirs, and dry goods to take home.
Another historic spot to visit is the Prairie House Manor. This house gets a passing mention by Laura, but it’s worth visiting for it's sheer beauty. Today, it serves as a Victorian Bed and Breakfast and an event space. Book a room and stay a night as one of the Prairie Elite.
For real Ingalls nerds, there is the DeSmet Cemetery, which holds some of the real grave sites of family members featured in her writing. If you’re a true fan, you’ll likely recognize some of the other names inscribed on the tombstones that date back to the 1880s.
The crown jewel of the Laura Ingalls Wilder experience is the Homestead. Open for camping, you can choose to sleep on the prairie in a tent, bunk down in a cabin, pull an RV, or crash in a covered wagon to learn about life in the Great Plains in the 19th century and America's early pioneering days.
An interactive experience, you can try driving a real covered wagon pulled by two horses. Every visitor gets a chance to drive the team, which will take you to the one-room school house where Laura learned everything she could, inspiring her to become a teacher. Don bonnets and straw hats as a worker gives you a mock lesson. Try your hand at making corncob dolls — one of Laura’s most prized possessions as a child. You’ll learn how to shuck and shell an ear of corn and then dress it in a handkerchief to take home, just like Laura did. Surprisingly, one of the most fun activities at the Homestead is doing laundry. Using a wash bucket, washboard, and ringer, children can practice using real lye soap made at the Homestead. If only chores were always be fun!
The Best Time to Visit
Every July, over a hundred locals put on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant to bring Laura’s writing to life. Actors play all the characters and reenact events from her books. The stage is set on the open prairie, so you are immediately immersed in the story in the very setting it took place. Let your mind wander, and you can easily drift back to imagine what life was like in early Americana.