Travel

In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s footsteps, with my daughters

Night falls on the prairie as actors perform in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant in De Smet.

Jenna Russell/Globe staff

Night falls on the prairie as actors perform in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant in De Smet.

DE SMET, S.D. — As a child, obsessed with the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I had imagined this scene a thousand times: me in a covered wagon pulled by horses, crossing the windswept Dakota prairie to a distant one-room schoolhouse.

Decades later, here I was at last, living out my childhood fantasy. And this wasn’t just any stretch of windswept prairie: this was the Ingalls Homestead, part of the actual 160-acre homestead claim farmed by Laura’s father, Charles Ingalls, from 1880 to 1888. Even better, my two daughters, ages 7 and 8 – in the early stages of their own Laura Ingalls fascination — were driving the team of horses, clutching the reins as the harnesses jingled and the green sea of grasses rippled all around us.

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When we reached the school, built in 1889, each girl chose a calico bonnet from the row of hooks inside the door, and settled in at a small wooden desk. Soon, to my surprise and theirs, the “teacher” called them up, with the other children, to recite their multiplication tables. On the way out — after a rousing sing-along of “Yankee Doodle” and a lesson about the lard sandwiches Laura might have carried in her lunch pail — they took turns pulling on a rope to ring the rooftop school bell.

We had traveled 1,500 miles west — and 130 years into the past. I was in “Little House” heaven.

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My passion for the prairie did not come from Laura’s stories alone. My mother was born and raised in South Dakota, and we traveled there throughout my childhood to visit family. I dearly loved those western sojourns, which felt as faraway and exotic as a kid from Boston could get: the baking heat unchecked by any hint of a sea breeze; the bathwater relief of swimming in the lake; the enormous sky and endless cornfields. I ran wild with a pack of barefoot cousins, and relished the surprised looks I got back home when I said where I’d been on vacationing. This was Laura’s world — and my unlikely second home.

Still, in all my time in the Midwest, I had never traced her steps to see the places she had lived. As my daughters aged into her books, and we started reading them together, I vowed that I would take them to my childhood stomping grounds — and, along the way, discover Laura’s places, too.

Because of trip logistics (we spent our first five days in Yankton, S.D., running wild with cousins at a lakeside family reunion), our subsequent Laura Ingalls road trip took us through her childhood in reverse-chronological order. We started in DeSmet, S.D., Laura’s last childhood home before she became a teacher and married Almanzo Wilder; then visited Walnut Grove, Minn., where she lived from age 7 to 12 by the banks of Plum Creek (with a brief detour to Iowa); and finally Pepin, Wis., Laura’s birthplace and the home of the “little house in the big woods” made famous by her first book, based on her earliest childhood memories.

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As it turned out, DeSmet was a perfect place to start. By far the most fully developed tourist destination of the three we visited, its star attraction is the Ingalls Homestead — a thoughtful and authentic re-creation of the family’s farm where we spent hours learning and exploring. Visitors can ride a horse, drive a buggy, wash laundry in a tub, stretch out on a hay-stuffed pallet like the one Laura slept on, and, in a loft over the barn, learn about the ecology of prairie fires.

Nothing beats the wagon ride to the schoolhouse, though, for its sheer immersive power. The rocking and creaking of the wagon, the clomping of hooves and the timelessness of the view convinces you you’re seeing and feeling the same things that Laura did. For the serious “Little House” fan (I mourned the death of actor Michael Landon — who played Pa Ingalls on the TV show — as if he were family), the crackling sense of connection in that moment was thrilling.

Clearly, I wasn’t alone. I knew we would encounter other Laura disciples on our pilgrimage, but I failed to imagine how many would be wearing their own calico bonnets. (For the record, I stuck with 21st-century garb, though I did buy bonnets for my daughters at the homestead gift shop.)

To cap off a visit to DeSmet, the true devotee must attend the annual Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, a live theatrical production based on one of Laura’s books and staged outdoors on the prairie three weekends in July. The show unfolds as the sun sets behind it, on property adjacent to the homestead, and draws an international audience. We picnicked on subs from the local Subway and — the adults, at least — cans of Dakota-brewed beer while watching a cast of locals perform scenes from “Little Town on the Prairie,” a book set in De Smet that ends with 15-year-old Laura being hired for her first teaching job. I confess I got a little teary as I watched my growing children watching her lament the end of childhood’s freedom.

After the show, my 8-year-old joined the long line of starstruck fans waiting to score autographs from members of the cast. Most popular, of course, was Michelle Wiese, the De Smet High School freshman who had taken center stage as Laura. In a small town, though, celebrities aren’t so elusive: the next morning, when we visited another site in town, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, it was Wiese — bright-eyed in a fresh green calico dress — who sold my mom her souvenirs in the gift shop.

Our final stop in De Smet was the pretty hilltop cemetery where Pa, Ma, and three of four daughters are buried, a single rose atop each stone the day we paid respects. Laura’s grave is in Missouri, where she and Almanzo made their home, and where she wrote her books, beginning in her 60s.

What was it that made me love Laura so much? The same things, I suppose, that have made her books so enduringly popular, with 60 million copies sold in 100 countries. Born 150 years ago, in 1867, she described her family’s daily life in astonishing detail. Decades later, I can still envision the attic in her Wisconsin log cabin, stocked to the rafters with provisions for the long winter. Yet the explanations always circled back to people, especially her beloved Pa, with his twinkly blue eyes and scratchy beard, scaring his little “Half Pint” half to death with tales of the bears lurking in the woods.

I felt a kinship with Laura. I, too, had a little sister named Carrie and a charismatic, storytelling dad. And I loved how her writing drew a picture, and let me feel, from inside her head, how the closeness of her family buttressed them against the hardship of their westward quest.

Two hours east of De Smet, in Walnut Grove, Minn., we skipped the small downtown museum and drove straight to Plum Creek, where the family first lived in a dugout house on its banks. Everything about the place felt properly heartland: to access the site, through a family farm, one deposits $5 in an honor box, under a sign warning visitors to be wary of the creek where “Laura nearly drowned.”

The dugout itself is gone — collapsed back into the earth — and that feels exactly right as you stand before what’s left, a vague depression in the ground marked by a sign. Around it lies the very same landscape Laura loved: in front, the brown water swirling through a tunnel of trees; behind, a sea of prairie wildflowers. A short hike — undertaken by my girls in their calico bonnets, to my heart’s delight — loops through the gorgeous grassland back to the creek, where the only modern amenity is a pair of wooden picnic tables.

Our journey was almost over, but we had time for one last stop, another 200 miles east, and just across the Mississippi, in the place where Laura’s journey started. The log cabin where she was born is long gone, but a replica sits at the quiet hilltop site seven miles outside the town of Pepin. Standing inside it, I thought of little Laura listening to Pa’s fiddle on a winter night — and of grown-up Laura, writing down her memories of those nights to last forever.

“[T]he cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now,” she wrote at the end of her first book. “They could not be forgotten . . . because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”

Luckily for us, Laura’s time is always now, in her books and on the road she traveled west.

If you go . . .

PEPIN, Wis.

Little House Wayside

www.lauraingallspepin.com

WALNUT GROVE, Minn.

Ingalls Dugout and Museum

walnutgrove.org/index.html

DE SMET, S.D.

Ingalls Homestead

www.ingallshomestead.com

Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant

www.desmetpageant.org

Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society

discoverlaura.org

Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com.
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