A visit to the real Little House on the Prairie

A century ago, cold, hungry pioneers in Dakota Territory were faced with a dramatic energy crisis. Icy blizzards blasted almost daily, halting supply trains from the East. General stores grew bare and echoing. For six frigid months, twisted sticks of hay and wheat ground into flour provided heat and nourishment. Even today, the cold months of 1880-81 are remembered and referred to as "the hard winter."

Today, in De Smet, S.D., a pile of twisted hay feeds the cast-iron cook stove in the 102-year-old railroad Surveyor's House.A coffee mill stands on the plank shelf of the pantry, where wheat was ground for daily bread. A crude rocking chair is drawn near the stove, and kerosene lamps sometimes flicker against the board walls.

The little house in De Smet -- a little town which snuggles among South Dakota's broad plains -- is not suffering from suspended animation. The twisted hay, the oil lamps, patchwork quilts -- these are just few of the well-used reminders that draw up to 20,000 tourists to town each year, all in search of a family named Ingalls. De Smet, you see, was the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose nine "Little House" books recall long winters, Indians, and drought, along with the simple joys and satisfactions of growing up as a pioneer girl a century ago. The books, all true stories, have gained ardent fans since publication in the 1930s and 1940s. Now, with NBC's weekly adaptations of "Little House on the Prairie" -- countless more are enamoured with the lives of Pa and Ma Ingalls, Laura and Almanzo Wilder, and other characters of the stories.

Each summer now, Wilder fans descend on the town that formed the setting for six of Mrs. Wilder's books. They come seeking the "Little Town on the Prarie," the title given De Smet when she was writing her girlhood memories as a 70- year-old Missouri farmlady.

The drawing card in De Smet is the hope of finding remembrance of the real -- not the television -- Ingalls family. The seeker is well rewarded, for over 20 years have been spent by the local Laura Ingalls Wilder Society in preserving, restoring, and collecting the relics of the pioneering Ingalls and Wilders.

Two homes of the Ingalls family were saved. The oldest, and smallest, is the one-time railroad Surveyors' House, where young Laura Ingalls spent her first winter in Dakota Territory as a 12-year-old. The other building is the Ingalls home itself -- built by a Pa Ingalls in 1887, when at last his wandering covered wagon came to a stop in De Smet.

Laura Ingalls Wilder recalled the Surveyors' House as large when her family moved in. This fact tends to bewilder the youthful visitor, for the house is tiny. Guides, costumed in calico and sunbonnets, meet visitors at the house, and explain in detail the homely contents of th restored building: a hand-carved chest built by Pa, the corner what-not loaded down with trinkets and bric-a-brac , the red-checked table- cloth "as Ma always had." And of course, the hay-twist fuel and wheat-grinding coffee mill made famous by the older Laura in her book "The Long Winter."

From the Surveyors' House, the pilgrims are sent away with a tour map which leads them over familiar territory in De Smet. Eighteen sites are marked because of their close connection with events in the "Little House" saga . . . Pa's store building locale, the original general store, the school- house attended by the Ingalls girls, the church the family helped build, homes of familiar characters of Laura's childhood.

Perhaps the most interesting of the lengthy network of sites is the Ingalls home, located under arching trees along a quiet town street. Several rooms in the simple gray-frame house are full of clothes, jewelry, handwork, dishes, family letters, and photographs; others are restored to the Ingalls era, with an original piece of furniture here and there. Back in the kitchen, Pa Ingalls's canniness as a carpenter is proven by the well-preserved built-in cupboards. Each spring, herds of visiting school tours clatter over the wooden floors, but summer tourism is just hectic. One day, 900 toured the homes, and it is not uncommon for groups of 50 to fill each narro room.

"Now is now; it can never be a long time ago," wrote Laura Ingalls Wilder. Thanks to her books and the dedication of her present-day friends in her old hometown, that long time ago can be lived once again.

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