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A prairie favorite



Published: Sat, August 20, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



DE SMET, S.D. (AP) -- Margaret Knowles and her sister Karen Erickson might not be typical visitors to this little town on the South Dakota prairie, the setting for five of Laura Ingalls Wilder's novels for children about life on the American frontier.

However, they are among the most loyal.

Since their first visit 30 years ago, the women, both in their 40s, have repeated their trip to De Smet at least six times. They sometimes travel with their own families, but more often the two Minnesota women take the six-hour drive together.

"We've loved Laura Ingalls Wilder since we were kids," says Knowles, 48, of Fridley, Minn., as she and Erickson, 43, of Minneapolis, checked out a display of photographs and documents from Wilder's life.

"We've just been fans since we were little. It's a passion kind of a thing for us."

Distant attraction

Each year about 20,000 people tour two houses in De Smet that have been preserved and are maintained by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, says Cheryl Palmland, executive director. Another 10,000 make the pilgrimage to the town but don't take the tour, she says.

The attraction is not close to any big cities. It's about 40 miles from the nearest interstate highway and 100 miles from Sioux Falls, the state's largest city.

Surrounded by wheat fields and farms, De Smet has no mega-mall or giant amusement park to bring in crowds.

However, the location has turned out been a blessing for Tim Sullivan, who with his wife, Joan, have set up a nearby attraction called Laura's Living Prairie.

Most people who come have done their research, Tim Sullivan says. They've read one of Wilder's books and want to know more about the stories she wove around her childhood, he says.

They come from every state and several countries, says Palmland. Many are parents or grandparents who want to teach their children and grandchildren about a long-ago way of life, she says.

The "Little House" books, based in Wilder's experiences growing up during the late 1880s on farms around the Midwest, in what is now South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Kansas, have been translated into 40 languages.

They also were the inspiration for a 1974 television series that starred Michael Landon.

Living landmarks

In De Smet, a railroad surveyor's house where the Ingalls family lived during the winter of 1879-1880, and a house built in 1887 by Laura's father, Charles, are the top attractions, Palmland says.

Sixteen other sites mentioned in the "Little House" series can be found there, too, along with the cemetery where Wilder's parents, three sisters and an infant son are buried.

A pageant that retells the Ingalls' family story is held each July.

Renee and Aaron Hirsch, of Aurora, Colo., and Peter and Rita Reinhart, of Elizabeth, Colo., brought their home-schooled children to De Smet to sample prairie life for themselves. They read the book series last winter.

"It's a neat way to study westward expansion," says Renee Hirsch as four girls, ages 10, 9 and 8, swarm around her in sunbonnets and long cotton dresses styled after those described in Wilder's books.

"It puts a personality to the history," says Hirsch. "Plus, they're good, solid moral stories."

Just east of town is the Ingalls homestead where Laura's father filed a claim in the spring of 1880.

Learning by doing

That's where the Sullivans run Laura's Living Prairie, adjacent to a stand of five cottonwood trees believed to have been planted by Charles Ingalls for each of his daughters.

The outdoor museum offers a distinct contrast to the orderly tours in town where visitors are reminded not to touch the furnishings and other items on display.

In its ninth season, Tim Sullivan says he hopes people leave the attraction with a better idea of what it might have been like to be a homesteader.

And, he says, children are welcome to put their hands to work.

They can twist slough grass into a bundle for burning, pump water from a well, climb into a hayloft and ride to an 1880s schoolhouse on a covered wagon.

"I think one of the ways to learn is getting in there and doing something," Joan Sullivan says as she grabbed white dish towels from a clothesline for Hanna Roenfanz, 8, and her 7-year-old sister, Lilly, to wash in a tub.

Many who come to the Ingalls homestead have visited before, Tim Sullivan says. Some camp there in tents, park their recreational vehicles nearby or rent out a sheepherders wagon and sleep under the stars.

They feel a connection to the places where Laura once lived and, in turn, have reached out to his family, he says.

"We get a lot of Christmas cards," says Sullivan.

"We try to touch everybody who comes through."




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