Monday, 15 August 2011

Wide Open Spaces

I'm typing this in Iowa, but for the past few days we've been staying in South Dakota, at the Ingalls Homestead.

"Oregon or bust."
I've had the 'Laura Ingalls Guidebook' for a few years now and done a fair bit of armchair-travelling to the town of De Smet, SD, and wondered what it would be like to stay at the Ingalls Homestead. I'd always imagined it might be a little bit cheesy and overdone but still wished I could stay. Well, having done so, I am happy to report that it is a beautiful place, full of hands-on history and it still looks and feels much as I imagine it would have done in Laura's day. The people who run the place have faithfully reconstructed or transported period buildings, to give you an idea of what life would have been like. You are encouraged to wander round, climb on things, try out things and have a go at the many activities on offer. We had a covered wagon ride, attended an 1880s school lesson, made skipping ropes (currently in use as a washing line), corn-cob dollies, washed clothes pioneer-style (the Mouse put part of her finger through a mangle/clothes-wringer at this point, thus gaining herself an authentic pioneer-child injury - ouch!), ground wheat in a coffee grinder, twisted hay into fire-wood sticks, pumped water from a well, made button toys and had a go at braiding a rag rug.
"Not quite the horsepower I had in mind, but still..."

As campers, we were allowed to explore the buildings after hours, which meant that we could go and investigate the dugout (not just a hole in the ground, this one!), find all the kittens (Prom Queen, they almost rivalled your coterie of cats) and, the Mouse and TR's favourite: go and play pioneers in the claim shanty. TR loved 'doing the housework' and 'cooking and eating corn on the stove'. The Mouse manically worked her way through all of Ma's weekly chores, pretending to wash, dry, iron, mend and sew new clothes. She loved using the heavy irons and the treadle-operated Singer sewing machine. Since someone had to go down with them, I took my sewing down and sat at the table in the shanty, cheerfully hand stitching applique hearts onto Baby G's quilt, while admiring the beautiful view of the open prairie, framed neatly by the open doorway. I know: sometimes I am a parody of myself!

TR tests his button toy while the Mouse sews the family's winter wardrobe.

Speaking of prairie, when you drive through the midwest you don't quite get the view of open prairies, with their tall waving grasses that literature and the opening titles of 'Little House on the Prairie' might have led you to expect. Just about everywhere is ploughed and cultivated, so what you actually see are high-waving cornfields and low-waving soybean fields. However, at the homestead they have tried to restore and conserve some of the 'heritage' plants and grasses. There are more trees (including the cottonwoods planted by Pa - that gave me a little frisson, I can tell you!) and the view isn't quite the same as Laura's, but you do get a good impression. You can also still see the sloughs (pronounced 'slew') and even the 'Big Slough' mentioned so often in the books. What has remained the same are the enormous and ever-changing skies. There is a constant breeze blowing, which makes the summer climate very pleasant indeed. The sky really is impossibly blue, as a good friend of mine would have said, and the clouds are forever blowing across, grouping, re-grouping and changing shape. If all you did was looked upwards, you wouldn't tire of the view! In the evenings we watched incredible sunsets. Then after the sun went down we 'sat by the fire and watched the moon rise'. At night we watched shooting stars and, later still, spectacular thunder storms, so far away that we could see them but not hear them.
Spectacular sunset gives way to...
...a full moon over the Dakota prairie.


  1. Hold your horses, I am hitching my oxen to my covered wagon and coming to join you! I may bring a cat or two with me as it sounds like they would enjoy it.

  2. Yo Mousey n TR get em Up Move em out. An avid reader but hopeless commenter but maybe just maybe .. this time