by Carmel L. Mooney
Last winter, my two youngest children, my recuperating mother, and I embarked on an unforgettable journey. Vacation timing and my mom’s temporary disability allowed for a long road trip, one I knew might never happen again. I’m one to seize the moment, so I packed my mom in the car along with the kiddies and provisions as we began a 7,000-mile cross-country road trip in the middle of winter.
Maybe, but we have no regrets. The weather was unusually kind to us in all 38 states we visited in just over three weeks. With no real commitments and time on our hands, our only concrete plan was to visit Laura Ingalls Wilder’s historic spots of interest and to visit relatives in New York, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, and Nevada.
The Little House on the Prairie books captivated me as a child; I’d read all the books by Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, several times over. Inspired by this American Frontier family’s legacy, I’d written two of my own full-length pioneer novels by age 10.
I wouldn’t say I was a “fanatic” because I’ve never really been fanatical about anything but I’d have to say I was thoroughly awestruck by the stories, often dressing up in authentic 1800s long dresses and bonnets with my friends in elementary school.
As an adult, I read and appreciated adult biographies and writings done by numerous authors on this fascinating pioneer woman and children’s author. I even had my Little House on the Prairie books autographed by the cast of the TV series at the last reunion I attended in 1998.
So in late December, we found ourselves retracing much of the historic trail depicted in the most loved series of children’s books ever. Our first taste of Laura’s life was taking the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway into the town of De Smet, South Dakota. Little House followers know De Smet as the Little Town on the Prairie where the Ingalls family barely survived the Long Winter.
We explored the main street of the town where “Pa” Ingalls had his store. Amazingly, the Loftus Store across the street still stands for visitors to enjoy along with more than a dozen other sites mentioned in the series. We toured the original Surveyor’s House from the Long Winter and the house that “Pa” built for “Ma”, filled with family heirlooms, along with the courthouse where “Pa” made history as justice of the peace, after putting De Smet on the maps and founding the church.
As the stories came alive, my mom and kids were every bit as fascinated as I was. At sunset, we drove up to the cemetery that overlooks the charming little town and the “Shores of Silver Lake.” There we visited the Ingalls family graves where Pa, Ma, Mary, Carrie, Grace, and Laura’s infant son lay. A few feet away we saw the Boast and Brown family plots along with other characters we felt we knew from the books.
On our final morning there, I arose an hour before sunrise. It was almost 15 degrees as I left my mom and kids in the motel to explore an area outside of town where Laura and her husband Almanzo homesteaded. It was there in a shanty near their small tree claim that Laura gave birth to famous author-daughter Rose Wilder Lane.
Much tragedy struck in those first years of Laura and Almanzo’s married life and it’s there where the events in Laura’s book, The First Four Years, took place.
I was told by folks in town that I should look for a marker 1.4 miles outside of De Smet and then try to find a small indentation in the prairie where the Wilder shanty once stood.
At dawn I drove my car across fields of frozen melting snow on a grassy slope of prairie, watching farmers in the distance feeding their livestock. Finally, as the light began to envelop the enormous prairie, I set out on foot looking for “the spot.” I wasn’t expecting to find it, well-warned by the docents in town that few people had ever actually found it.
As I was nearly ready to give up, I looked back at the tiny town on the prairie far below me and imagined life for Laura Ingalls Wilder, a young pioneer woman living on this gentle slope of prairie just a buggy ride away from her family and the comforts of town. As I walked towards my car, a slight depression in the earth illuminated by the early morning rays caught my eye.
As my teeth chattered, I made my way over to the spot where history had happened. Not only was the indentation right there but two deep holes, certainly where Laura’s pump and outhouse had once been more than 120 years ago. As the freezing, unforgiving prairie began to glow with the colors Laura described so eloquently, I had a deeper appreciation for the lives and fortitude of the pioneers.
Later that morning on our way out of the Little Town on the Prairie, we stopped at the Ingalls’ original homestead location to see the original Cottonwood trees that “Pa” planted from seedlings, one for each of his girls. Standing below the wintry trees near Lake Thompson and Lake Henry where Laura rode ponies in By the Shores of Silver Lake, more of the magic came alive.
Leaving town as we passed the lakes where Almanzo courted and proposed to Laura, in These Happy Golden Years, we stopped to watch the birds fly over the lakes just as Laura described in her books.
Our next Little House on the Prairie stop was in Walnut Creek, Minnesota, to see the dugout described in, On the Banks of Plum Creek. As I stood in the dugout spot where “Ma” had kept a house on the side of a hill by the creek, I had more appreciation for the pioneer spirit. Plum Creek looked just as Laura had described it when she had played there with her sister and got caught under the bridge over the creek.
In town, we visited the museum and gift store where photographs of the TV cast visiting the dugout made me laugh as I recalled my own humorous moments with them at the cast reunion. Still passing through many of the small towns mentioned in the books, we continued toward Pepin, Wisconsin where it all began in Little House in the Big Woods. After visiting a re-creation of the cabin where Laura was born in 1867, we enjoyed Lake Pepin.
It was New Year’s Day and the lake was serenely frozen as we stopped to pick up pebbles as Laura did a century and a half ago. A lone man ice-skating on the lake with his dog at his side offered to let me skate across the lake. What a New Year’s gift. Not only did I visit Laura’s lake, but I got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ice skate across it with the fresh chilly air nipping at my nose. I know I’ll never forget the treat.
We would have gone on to Mansfield, Missouri where Laura spent her later life with Almanzo on Rocky Ridge Farm but that museum isn’t open during wintertime so it would have to wait for another trip. On our three-week adventure we also visited Mt. Rushmore, where at the base of the mountain in nearby Keystone, Laura and Mary both visited their sister Carrie Ingalls Swanzey living there with her husband and step-children. We visited the cemetery in Keystone in the Black Hills below the magnificent sculpted mountain and enjoyed another taste of Ingalls’ history.
We visited Niagara Falls, Buffalo, New York City, Valley Forge, Cape Cod, Amish Country, Ground Zero, Washington DC, The Liberty Bell, Las Vegas, New Orleans, the Virginias and Carolinas, the Coast of Florida, and numerous other interesting places and states but most memorable of all was watching the Little House on the Prairie memories come to life as we crossed the nation.
I recommend making the Little House on the Prairie points of interest part of your itinerary on any cross-country trip. The kids will find it unforgettable and they’ll learn American history in the process. I named my oldest daughter after Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder whose books have been translated into more than forty languages around the world. Maybe one day my daughter Laura and I can take the trip to Mansfield, Missouri to complete the Ingalls trail.
Okay, I admit maybe I am a fan after all!
Carmel L. Mooney is a travel columnist, author, and radio talk show host. She is the editor of Road Trips for Couples
Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder was born on February 7, 1867 in the big woods of Wisconsin. At the urging of her only daughter Rose Wilder Lane, she wrote the Little House books while in her 60’s. Her first book, Little House in the Big Woods was published in 1932.
She died at the age of 90, on February 10, 1957. Laura is buried in Mansfield, Missouri alongside her husband and daughter.