Little Vacation on the Prairie
July 23, 2018 2:38 PM   Subscribe

I will be going out to the Black Hills this fall, and am thinking about stopping at a few Laura Ingalls Wilder sites. What are they like? Will I, as a serious fan of her writing and serious hater of corny touristy crap, enjoy them?

First off, please assume that I have a strong background in LIW Lore and am fully up to date on various theories, problematic viewpoints, and current events.

We'll be driving through western Minnesota and South Dakota in September, and I'd be able to visit the following sites: The Ingalls' Dugout in Walnut Grove, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society in De Smet, and the Ingalls Homestead in De Smet. De Smet also has a Silver Lake walking path, the cemetery where most of her family (but not her and Almanzo) are buried, and the Loftus store. We will NOT be there for any Pageant Stuff. We could stop any any of these places to to stretch our legs and enjoy a bit of Laura Lore.

I am strictly a Book Fan, I have no interest in seeing anything related to the TV show or movies.

My biggest concern is that they'll be corny tourist traps, with bored teenagers trying to sell me $10 Vanity Cakes or a machine that will carve my name on a grain of wheat. I have a super low tolerance for Wall-Drug-like stuff...and if the LIW sites are mainly gift shops with a tiny bit of history, I'll just skip them.

posted by Elly Vortex to Travel & Transportation around Minneapolis, MN (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
There’s a book that might help: The Wilder Life. The author went to all the LIW sites all over the country. I thought it was well done and entertaining. As I recall, she is more immersed in the books. I loathe the TV show, and I liked this book. I remember the people who worked at the Missouri site told her about a tourist who came in and said that those ugly people in their portraits could not possibly be the Ingalls.
posted by FencingGal at 3:12 PM on July 23, 2018 [6 favorites]

I'm getting the feeling you don't understand how these sorts of historic sites work. They're ALL tourist traps to one degree or another. If you're wanting some sort of pure, unadulterated experience devoted to Wilder and her work, you're not going to find it. You won't find it for anyone or anything, I'm afraid.

Having said that, my girlfriend and I made a 15-month cross-country RV trip in 2015-16. The motorhome broke down in Plankinton, South Dakota, which is about 100 miles from De Smet. De Smet is where you want to go. It's not going to be the pure, un-corny experience that you want, though. That said, as huge fans of LIW, my girlfriend and I were both pleased to have taken a day to visit there.

De Smet is small. If you have experience with small town in the U.S., that's what you're getting. You'll get to tour the homestead, visit another building or two, then walk around the town. To me, the REAL value in the whole thing was walking around modern-day De Smet and trying to imagine what it was like 100+ years ago. After the fact, we both agreed that the De Smet Depot Museum was probably the best thing we saw in the town. It's not about LIW at all, and it's not even that exciting, but it does capture the town's history, and because of that it gives you a sense of what life might have been like.

I will say this: One of our biggest regrets from the trip is that we didn't stop in Mansfield, Missouri, which is where LIW spent the latter part of her life. I know that's a long way from the Black Hills, but if you can somehow incorporate that into your trip, you should. We wish we had.

p.s. And obviously Wall Drug is exactly in the middle of the Black Hills and De Smet. You can visit that too! :)
posted by jdroth at 4:56 PM on July 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Laura Person here. I'd recommend a quick stop in Walnut Grove since you have to pass through anyway, but it's a tourist trap. It's fun to say you saw Plum Creek, though. De Smet is where the good stuff is—you can see Silver Lake and what remains of the Big Slough, see the real Surveyor's House and the schoolhouse where Laura gave her recitations and attended Singing School, go north to Almanzo's failed tree farm. Standing near the five cottonwood trees—one for each of Pa's "girls," which still stand on the site of the homestead, was an amazing experience for me, and I loved how it put the distances in the books in context.

Ingalls Homestead is right next to it. It's kind of like a little Laura-themed amusement park that is nonetheless super fun—there's a replica of the Wonderful House, chances to do fun things like wring out clothes and fake iron and pump water, gardens and fields and kittens and ponies and quilts. And if you're lucky, someone there might be able to give you directions to the buffalo wallow, too.
posted by mynameisluka at 6:13 PM on July 23, 2018 [7 favorites]

On second thought, you'll definitely like Ingalls Homestead less, but it's sweet in its way. It will probably close at the end of summer, though, so you're in luck.
posted by mynameisluka at 6:26 PM on July 23, 2018

I mean, I’ve been to the site near Pepin, WI and the corresponding museum in the town of Pepin about a dozen times and it never gets old, and my understanding is that it’s the least impressive LIW home site (it is honestly a glorified rest stop with a replica cabin; the museum is a very ordinary “stuff from the olden days” small town museum with a bunch of farm and kitchen implements, a couple of which have a provenance from Ingalls relatives).

Just being where she was is great. Knowing somewhere near where I’m buying a souvenir candy stick for my kids, she was filling her pockets with rocks, is great.
posted by padraigin at 7:45 PM on July 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

South Dakotan here, De Smet is well worth the visit, by far the best site for me, a very minor fan. I don't have strong memories of any others, but I'll back up them being 'tourist traps', while also saying that the degree to which they are tourist traps is largely a reflection of how incredibly poor these areas and towns frequently are. It's not offensive, but it is present, and to my memory fairly respectful.

Modern day De Smet is tiny for a reason, there are not many jobs around, and those that are don't pay well. It's a place where the average person is well below the poverty line, and the LIW site is a big draw for local businesses and the min wage workers they can employ, so don't avoid them just because they are 'tourist traps', they can still provide a fun LIW experience just by being in the actual places you've read about, and whatever money you have to spend goes to support communities that rely on Little House fans to provide a significant portion of income.
posted by neonrev at 8:16 PM on July 23, 2018 [7 favorites]

I've been to the dugout home on the banks of Plum Creek and it was not a tourist trap. This was 15 years ago but I doubt anything has changed since then.

Although there isn't much to see and the dugout caved in long ago (the only vestige is a slightly sunken area of the upper creekbank that's marked by an informational sign) it's been left mostly untouched by the current landowners, aside from the aforementioned sign and a small footbridge they've built across the creek nearby. It's a quiet and peaceful spot amid farmland well away from the main road, affording you a good sense of how the agricultural landscape and the creek would have appeared when the Ingalls family lived here -- though I suspect in their time the bottomland below the dugout wasn't quite as thickly forested as it is now.

If you're driving from Minneapolis to the Black Hills and have in interest in LIW, it's worth taking the slightly slower non-freeway route that would bring you by here. I didn't go into the town of Walnut Grove or visit the museum, so can't comment on those.

I don't know (but am curious) if it's also possible to see the "Tracy cut" a few miles further west, the railway cutting made impassible by snow during the Long Winter.
posted by theory at 11:09 PM on July 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

IIRC in De Smet the surveyor's house and the Ingalls home in town were self guided. 24 years ago the road to the dugout in Walnut Creek wasn't paved.

If you are able, go to the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak IA too (the part not mentioned in the books).
posted by brujita at 11:56 PM on July 23, 2018

Another vote for the Plum Creek dugout. I was there in 2010, and it was pretty magical. Pretty much exactly as theory describes above. Walnut Grove was somewhat tourist trappy. The museum is just a bunch of stuff thrown together loosely related to the TV show and books. NOTE: I just saw this review from TripAdvisor about the museum from yesterday, and they say the dugout site is currently flooded out.
posted by kimdog at 6:15 AM on July 24, 2018

This probably won't fit into your itinerary, but for LIW fans a visit to Bur Oak, Iowa is also worthwhile. It's a tiny little town that the Ingalls family moved to after the grasshopper plague. It's notable for the Masters Hotel, the very small hotel that the family worked at for a while during that period. It was one of the saddest periods of Laura's childhood, so she chose not to write about it in her children's books. The family also did a midnight flit when they finally left, sneaking out to avoid their creditors.

I haven't been to Walnut Grove and De Smet, but I've visited all of the other LIW sites, and of them all, Bur Oak felt the most like a step back into time. If it wasn't for the cars on the street, you'd find it easy to believe you were back in the late 1800s.
posted by Lunaloon at 5:19 AM on July 25, 2018

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