Little Van on the Prairie

Serendipity, or subconscious guidance?

I had a resigned feeling about the chore of recrossing South Dakota. But staring at the map, I saw De Smet, and “suddenly remembered” it was the real Little Town on the Prairie from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series. Direction set, I convinced the Minnesota rest stop attendant to let me wash dishes in the bathroom sink, because it was cold out at the tap. We had a broken conversation interrupted by the turbocharged hand dryers. He was from Laos. He had a lukewarm response about Minnesota. “The government brought me here,” he said.

On a muddy dirt road outside of De Smet is a living history set-up on the original quarter-section land claim that Pa (everyone here just calls him that) had. Just the cottonwood trees he planted remain, but they’ve brought in original buildings from nearby. I came up on the one room school house just when a batch of kids went in, and listened as the schoolmarm actress quizzed them.

I chatted with an old man who drove the Percherons hitched to the wagon.  He said he’d grown up nearby. A bird sang, and he asked me if I knew what it was. No? He said it was a meadowlark. Then he said his grandma always told him it said “Plant your potatoes, early bird!” I said it to myself and the phrase did indeed match the rhythm of its song. Such a grandma thing to say.


I “suddenly remembered” that for years after I’d read all the Little House books to my daughter, she would insist on calling me ‘Ma.’ I just realized it was probably because of those books. She found it amusing, and I thought it was ridiculous. I was a fierce iconoclast, not a mere farm wife.  In the bookshop there were prairie style, hand sewn dresses like those she loved when she was a little girl. When I was a girl, I vehemently refused to wear dresses. I wanted to be an Indian warrior.

In De Smet itself,  there was the surveyor’s house where the Ingalls family spent a winter. Laura is on the right in the photo. The guide quoted a great passage from the book where Laura describes her first time coming into the house, and you can see everything she describes for yourself. When she pointed out the shelves with the fancy trim of brown paper,  a delighted murmur rippled amongst us women. How funny we all remembered that bit, after how many years?

I was lucky in that I came to the door just as a group had entered, and the guide was nice enough to let me skip the office and pay her. There were maybe 15 people standing around the small room, every last knave having donned a mask, and forced one on their children. I was left free to manage my facial expression as I looked at all those expressionless eyes. The guide’s was below her nose, as she elaborated on the hardships the family had. All their moves, the scarlet fever, the diphtheria, leaving some permanently blind, others with a permanent limp. Clearly if the fools had just worn masks all the time, this never would have happened.

My book addiction took over, and now I have loaded Janet with purchases made with what I’ve saved by camping on the side of the road! Last night under the light in a dirt lot in Bowdle, South Dakota was blessedly quiet, and our wagon will trundle westward in the morning.

Comments Off on Little Van on the Prairie