Review: Ingalls Homestead, De Smet, SD

oh beautifulCan you imagine listing “doing the laundry” as a highlight of your vacation or any day? On a recent trip through De Smet, South Dakota, washing the clothes was one of my kids’ favorite events.

Last month, we took a road trip from Colorado to Minnesota to visit grandparents and other family and friends. On our way back to Colorado, we veered a little off-course to visit the homestead of the Ingalls family, and it was well worth it. My kids absolutely loved the place and all of the activities they got to do, especially doing the laundry with a washboard, wringer, and clothesline. My daughter actually asked if we could get a wringer at home. 🙂

I grew up reading and loving the semi-autobiographical books about the pioneer life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I also watched and loved the television show Little House on the Prairie. I think I felt an extra special connection to the books and show because part of the pioneer journey occurs in Minnesota, my home state. I also just love reading and learning.

A few years back, I began reading the book series out loud to my kids before bed each night. I wasn’t sure how it would go; I thought maybe my kids would be too far out of touch with a story of pioneer life to be interested. My worries were for nothing. My kids have LOVED the books, and I often hear, “Can we read just one more chapter?” We also occasionally check out the DVD series from the library and have watched a few episodes from the first season of the show. My kids have shed tears over the struggles and triumphs of this family from so long ago.

With the books fresh in my kids’ minds, I thought now might be the perfect time to visit the Ingalls Homestead site in De Smet, SD. I was right. They LOVED the site and all of the associated activities. If you ever find yourself on a road trip across the Midwest, you might try to plan your course through this little town on the prairie. If you and your kids have not read the books or watched the television show, you might consider giving them a try. It is amazing to learn about the hardships the pioneers endured, and I am astounded at the self-sufficiency of the people. I don’t think I would have made it one day.

Where is it? What is the cost?

The Ingalls Homestead is off a gravel road outside the small town of De Smet, South Dakota. The land is the actual quarter section of land owned by the Ingalls family from 1880-1885. To visit the site, you first enter the gift shop to pay admission and get a map. The price was $12 per person at the time of our visit. Once you have paid admission, you walk and visit the exhibits, buildings, and activities at your own pace.

What’s there?manure spreader

The visitor map lists twenty different items to see including the visitor center and gift shop, an example of a dugout home, an example of a shanty, a couple of barns, a church, and a school. I don’t believe any of the buildings are actual buildings owned and lived in by the Ingalls family. The buildings are either replicas built to the known specifications of the Ingalls buildings or buildings from the same era that have been moved to the property. The land itself and five cottonwood trees in one area are the only actual items that belonged to the real Ingalls family.

What is there to do?

We spent about five hours here. One of the best things about this place is that kids are encouraged to be actively engaged. Kids are encouraged to touch, feel, and try out the various items on display. You can go inside the dugout, shanty, and house, and sit on the beds, try to run the sewing machine, play the pump organ, set the table, and imagine life at this time. As already mentioned, one of my kids’ favorite things was to wash clothes at Ma’s house. They used a scrub board, real lye soap, a wringer, and a clothesline. They also ran a non-motorized lawn mower around the yard and pumped a water pump. They held baby kittens and rode a pony. Employees were stationed in various areas to tell visitors about what they were seeing and how it connected to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her books. In Ma’s house, a woman helped the kids make a string and button toy to take home with them.

In the garage building, visitors had an opportunity to make a corn cob doll and a jump rope to take home as well as grind wheat and braid hay.corn cob dolls

One of the biggest highlights was getting to ride in a covered wagon out to a school house in one corner of the property. All of the kids on the ride got a turn at driving the horse and wagon. Once at the school house, the kids were instructed to put on bonnets and straw hats that were available and then take a seat in the desks. A teacher in costume talked a little about what school was like for pioneer children and engaged the kids with questions. Some kids even had the opportunity to stand at the front of the class to read from an old school book. Everyone had an opportunity to ring the bell to dismiss the class, and then we rode the wagon back to the main area of the site.

There are also many educational exhibits and displays scattered throughout the buildings. You can learn more about the Homestead Act, pioneer life in general, Native Americans, and the geography and biology of the Plains.

Getting around and amenities:

Visiting the Ingalls Homestead does require a fair amount of walking. There is a short walk between most of the items on the map. There are no specific walkways or sidewalks. You walk across the prairie grass to get from one thing to another. Since this is the prairie, there are very few trees, so it can be pretty hot and windy at times during a visit. I did notice that bottled water was available for purchase in at least one of the buildings, but you may want to bring your own.

There are bathrooms located in the visitor center at the top of the hill. There are also picnic tables available around the visitor center if you packed a lunch. I recommend bringing a lunch because there is no restaurant or snack bar at the Homestead. Alternatively, there are a few restaurants available in De Smet.picnic tables

Camping:

We did not come prepared to do this, but it looked kind of neat. There are a few tent sites, RV sites, and cabins available to rent on the property. If your kids are really into Little House on the Prairie, you might consider doing this. The cabins are designed as covered wagons. *One thing I noticed is that, again because this is the PRAIRIE, there is not much shelter for campers. You are right out in the wind and the stars.camping

Other things to do:

  • Many members of the Ingalls family are buried in the town cemetery. You can ask someone at the Homestead for directions or a map if you’d like to see it. It is just outside of town on another road. There are signs directing you to the appropriate part of the cemetery. For some reason, my kids really liked visiting the graves. It is one of the most common things they mention when they tell people about our visit.
  • In addition to the Ingalls Homestead, there is a Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society that offers a separate tour of some buildings in town including a house Pa built in town. This activity is a separate organization and a separate admission. We did not have time to do this on this trip.
  • During weekends in July, De Smet puts on a Laura Ingalls pageant wherein they portray different stories from the books. We visited on a Monday, so we missed out on this, but it may be worth looking into for a future visit.

My recommendations:

  • My kids absolutely loved this place, and it was well worth the time and money for the stop for us.
  • I think any visitor would want to read some of the books or watch the television show beforehand to make the visit more meaningful. I am not sure that my kids would have it enjoyed it quite so much if they weren’t already familiar with Laura Ingalls and her family.
  • Pack a lunch and a water bottle. There are picnic tables available around the visitor center.
  • Remember to put on sunscreen or wear a hat. There is not much shade.
  • Wear shoes that are comfortable for walking. You will need to walk across the prairie grass from one building to the next.

“It is still best to be honest and truthful and to make the most of what you have.” Laura Ingalls Wilder

Ingalls Homestead website: http://www.ingallshomestead.com/

 

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