A red-checkered tablecloth, a potbelly stove, and a quilted bed sit inside a sample shanty similar to what many Great Plains homesteaders lived in at the Ingalls Homestead in De Smet, South Dakota.

RealImaginaryWest Day 4 – Connecting with Laura at the Ingalls Homestead

Our first day off the road! We visited Ingalls family historical sites and museums around De Smet, South Dakota and took time to relax and recover after the storm that drove us from our tent the night before.

A carriage traverses the Ingalls Homestead

Waking Up in De Smet

After getting practically no sleep the night before, we began our day at about sunrise by driving into De Smet and getting breakfast at the Oxbow Restaurant. There was no use hanging around the Ingalls Homestead anyway, since they didn’t open until 9am that day. They would hardly have even known we were there, save for a couple of bundles of firewood missing, since we had pitched our tent well after closing time and pulled it out only two or three hours later. The weather had calmed down, with partly cloudy skies and gorgeous shades of greens and yellows from the early sunlight on the terrain around us. The wind was still blowing hard and gusty, but it was all that was left besides a few puddles after the last night’s storm.

With what little of my brain was left, I checked the forecast—partly cloudy, 90 degrees for a high, and windy all day with severe storms likely in the evening with possible large hail. Uhm, yeah…we’re not doing the tent thing! NO WAY. Large hail was all we needed to know.

So at the Oxbow, it was great to sit in something that was not a car, and it was just awesome to get a nice hot breakfast with eggs, French toast, and bacon. Becky and I deliberated over whether we should get one of the covered wagons they have at the Ingalls Homestead that night, or whether we should get a motel.

At breakfast we met all sorts of locals, mostly farmers in the De Smet area. One older man said to another as he walked in, “How did you like the sound of MUSIC, last night!” I quickly concluded he was talking about the horrendous storm and had to laugh out loud! He loved the storm for watering his crops, while I hated the storm for wrecking my sleep and nearly wrecking my tent. It was also quite telling that he found pure enjoyment—apparently that isn’t even close to a bad storm for the Plains!

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes

After breakfast, we trekked back to the Ingalls Homestead and paid for our firewood and the night of not tent camping in the maelstrom. We also bought admission to the exhibits and activities there that demonstrate what Laura wrote about in her books. We planned to first go into town to tour the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes museum first, and then return to see the Homestead.

On the museum grounds there are four buildings: the main store, the old schoolhouse that Laura and her sisters attended, the small schoolhouse where Laura taught at the age of 15, and the railroad surveyors shanty that the family lived in when they first moved to De Smet. Becky was most excited to see the house Charles Ingalls built, which was across town from the museum itself. I’d love to share more photos, but photography inside the buildings is prohibited.

One remarkable difference with De Smet is that the Ingalls practically lived in the lap of luxury here! The surveyors shanty was originally located on Silver Lake, on the east edge of town, and even it had a huge kitchen with a sizable pantry, a bedroom, a living area, and a huge loft where the girls slept. It beat the pants off the dugout in Walnut Grove and would have been a lot easier place to spend the winters than the log cabin in Pepin. Charles Ingalls got a coup with this railroad job! The family was delivered from the grasshopper-ravaged farm at Walnut Grove and wound up in an even better position in a town that seemed much prettier.

Charles Ingalls built a 10′ x 14′ shanty in 1880, which he doubled in size the following year. This replica at the Ingalls Homestead also includes the 16′ x 20′ addition he added to hold the pump organ he and Laura bought for Mary.

Now while Charles Ingalls worked for the railroad, he opened a store at the center of town and also undertook another homestead claim. There he built a shanty for the family that started out as another “little house”, but was doubled and then nearly doubled again in size—to add a room big enough to entertain and to hold an organ. You see back in Walnut Grove, Laura’s older sister, Mary, at the age of 14 had contracted a fever that caused encephalitis, nearly killing her. This eventually resulted in her losing her eyesight and going away to attend a school for the blind where she would learn to play the organ. While she was away, Charles and Laura saved money to buy an organ for the house as a surprise for Mary’s homecoming. She became the organist at the Congregational Church the Ingalls attended in De Smet.

The Ingalls spent most of six years at the family homestead. Under the Homestead Act of 1862, Charles had to plant at least ten acres of crops for five years, live there for at least 9 months of each year, and build a house to live in, after which he would receive ownership of the 160-acre quarter-section of land he had developed at no charge from the federal government. Another way a homesteader could receive his land was to plant enough trees on the land successfully in that amount of time. Charles showed in his proving papers that he had succeeded at farming 30 acres and that he had also planted 6,000 trees, exceeding all the requirements to receive his homestead.

The Ingalls Home & Museum is the last house Charles Ingalls built and lived in.

As Charles and Caroline’s age advanced and his daughters except Mary got married and moved away, the family built a house in De Smet that would top even the modest shanty on their homestead. It started out small yet again, but Charles kept adding to it and improving it until Caroline had even said that they no longer lived in a little house—now they had a comfortable one. This is the only Ingalls house that still stands just as it was, kept up in its original interior decor. It was positively beautiful and looked like a palace compared to all the places they’d lived in before. All that hard work in unforgiving environments had really paid off for the Ingalls family! The house itself was often how Charles, Caroline, and Mary made their living as they got older, offering room and board to all sorts of people who needed a place to stay. The surviving daughters managed the house for several years after Charles and Caroline’s passing, eventually selling the house after it was in the family for 57 years.

Ingalls Homestead

After visiting the Ingalls homes and schoolhouses in De Smet, we stopped at the cemetery outside of town where the Ingalls family was buried, and then returned to the Ingalls Homestead to tour there.

360-degree panoramas of Ingalls Homestead. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

They had a dugout house lined with prairie sod to check out, along with a small shanty next to it. This showed the two choices a homesteader had for building a house when he arrived, depending on whether he wanted to have lumber shipped in or whether he decided to make do without it. Lumber was not an easy commodity to find on the open prairie like it was in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. Finished lumber had to be purchased and brought in by rail, or more expensive yet, by stagecoach if the railroad was too far away. So many made do with a sod house on flat lands, or a dugout on hillier property.

The dugout seemed like a positively awful place to live compared to a log cabin! While insulation was no problem during winter, and the dirt walls kept things cooler inside, the bug and animal infestations would have been difficult to tolerate! The shanty seemed much less objectionable, but it still would have been tough living with the extreme summers and winters in the Dakota Territory.


Dugouts and sod houses had dirt walls and only required wood to support the roof and perhaps one wall.

While cooler in summer and warmer in winter, the disadvantage was sharing space with insects and animals living inside your walls. We could hear an insect burrowing inside this dugout!

…or Shanty?

Shanties were expensive to build, more difficult to keep warm in winter, and got plenty hot in summer.

Shanties provided a much more pleasant-looking interior space. Settlers used newspaper for insulation.

A hay dugout like the one Charles Ingalls showed he had built in his homestead proving papers

They also had a hay dugout, which homesteaders like Charles built to shelter their animals and store their hay.

A modern stable had horses for horseback rides, a donkey, and a team of mules that pulled a covered wagon to an old school house at the opposite corner of the homestead. You traverse open prairie along the way, passing corn, wheat, and oats grown on ten acres each, just like Charles did back 130 years ago.

The modern stable, with mules pulling the covered wagon to the schoolhouse

The schoolhouse, complete with schoolbell

The schoolhouse was not one where Laura taught or that any of the Ingalls girls attended, but they shared what school was like then. I was bad though, so I missed some of the lesson from having to hold my nose on an X on the blackboard! It all worked out in the end though, since everyone got a chance to pull the rope and ring the school bell to warn all the neighbors that we were headed back to the stable.

Demonstrating how the Ingalls twisted hay to make logs during The Long Winter

After the stable, we saw all of the hand driven machines that the Ingalls used. We saw how they twisted hay into logs when they ran out of wood and the trains were cut off during The Long Winter. They had a machine that removed all the dry kernels off of an ear of corn. They had a coffee grinder where you could try using it to grind wheat, to see how much work it would be to make bread just to get by until the snow subsided and trains were able to come in again with flour. They also let you try the tools used to make rope out of twine.

After all was said and done, Becky and I went back to covered wagon number four—our accommodations for the night, and where we had cooked the night before. We still had some meat that we needed to use up, so it seemed like the smart option over choosing a motel where we wouldn’t likely be able to build a fire. I grilled pizza sandwiches in my pie iron, and Becky grilled Ohio chicken breasts and fried mushrooms. We ate well and had time to reorganize the car and repack the cooler with fresh ice well before the rains arrived.

Final Reflections—Connecting with the Ingalls Family From 130 Years Away

Before we returned to our covered wagon to turn in for the night, we visited Silver Lake and the Ingalls Homestead Memorial, the original site of Charles Ingalls’ shanty. Silver Lake was no longer a lake now, since use of the water for irrigation has reduced it to a grassy marsh, which on the prairie they call a slough (pronounced “slew”). The Homestead Memorial was another emotional moment for both of us…the plaque there told how Laura Ingalls Wilder visited the site at an old age and testified to the location of the homestead, saying that these were the five cottonwoods that Pa planted, one for each of his girls. These cottonwoods still stand today.

While there, Becky told me she never thought she’d get to see all this. I was flooded with all sorts of emotions…happy that Charles and Caroline had so much success here, humbled and honored to be able to connect with someone’s life from over a hundred years ago, sad to think that homesteaders and farmers changed the open prairie forever, and most of all happy to have made such a longtime dream of Becky’s come true…so she could see the places and hear the sounds, see the sights, smell the smells, feel the things that Laura Ingalls Wilder brought back to life again and recorded in her books. I only read her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, just before we left on this road trip. Now that I’ve had this experience, relying mostly on Becky to help me understand it, I have to go back and read them all!

Becky said she doesn’t understand why Laura’s books aren’t all required reading, not just as literature, but for American history. The pioneer story is one that so many of us can relate to, since almost all the United States was settled by pioneers who became almost everyone’s ancestors here. Some came to wilderness in the forests, savannahs, prairies, or mountains, while others immigrated to start a new life or were finally allowed to start one of their own choosing, pioneering in another way. Caroline Ingalls’ ancestors arrived on the Mayflower in Massachusetts, and so did my mom’s. So we’re all connected somehow to the first families who came here and had to figure out how to survive here under new circumstances. It’s a history that helps us see how tough we can each be to get by in our own circumstances. And how resourceful we can be to stay safe and live on to enjoy another day of precious life!

Sleep At Last!

The sun broke through the incoming storm clouds breifly just before setting.

The night before, Becky and I were in our tent…”roughing it” until the wind told us we couldn’t. When the storm rolled in this time we were inside a hard-topped covered wagon with a much cooler breeze coming through. It was a storm much like the night before, strong winds, a downpour, and so much lightning you’d think God was holding a press conference—but this time we were much better prepared and ready to keep going with our tent and our road trip intact!

Covered wagon #4, where we slept on our second night in De Smet. It looks like a canvas-covered wagon, but it actually has a hard top…which was great because there was hail in the evening forecast!
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