De Smet offers Ingalls’ buildings, memorabilia and graves: Part 2

A staff member at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes site in De Smet, wearing a mask for safety reasons, offers information on the acclaimed author as a child and young woman. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society of De Smet manages two homes and a pair of schools where she lived and worked. The Ingalls family lived for years in De Smet, and several of them are buried there; although Laura and her husband and daughter are interred in Missouri. Photo courtesy of Tom Lawrence

OPINION — De Smet takes a lot of pride in its connection to the Ingalls family. Tessa Flak, director of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society of De Smet, said the Kingsbury County town provided much-needed stability for the Ingalls clan.

“De Smet was a very special place for the family. For years, Charles Ingalls (Pa) moved his family around the Midwest seeking a fresh start and they found it here in Dakota Territory,” Flak said. “In 1880, Charles filed for a homestead and most of the Ingalls family stayed in Dakota Territory the rest of their lives. Charles, Caroline (Ma), Mary, Carrie, Grace and Grace’s husband Nathan, are buried here. This is also where Laura grew up (age 12-27), met her husband Almanzo, and had a family.”

She said the town receives over 50,000 people every year to see and tour the Laura Ingalls Wilder attractions.

While Laura resided there as teen and when she first married, she later lived for a time in Florida before finally planting roots in Missouri.

However, her parents and sister Mary made De Smet their home and remained there.

It’s interesting to note that while De Smet is famous for its connection to the Ingalls family, Laura and her husband Almanzo are buried in Missouri, as is their daughter Rose Wilder Lane, a successful author, newspaper columnist and Libertarian advocate. An unnamed infant boy, who died after just 12 days, is buried in De Smet.

Laura started her career as a writer in Missouri, at first serving as an editor and columnist for the Missouri Ruralist. Rose Lane became a successful author and encouraged her mother to write books based on her childhood and the first years of her marriage.

While it’s been speculated that Rose Wilder Lane was the real author of the books, most researchers now believe they are primarily Laura’s work and words. The “American Masters” report said Lane didn’t want to connect herself to what was seen as a series of children’s books, but there is no doubt she played a major role with her mother in crafting these memorable works.

The late Dr. John Miller, a South Dakota State University history professor and author, wrote three books on Laura Ingalls Wilder. He said while the mother and daughter worked closely together, and Rose Wilder served as an advisor and editor, the credit for the books belongs to Laura.

“In the end, the lasting literary legacy remains that of the mother more than that of the daughter ... Lane possessed style; Wilder had the substance,” Miller wrote.

He said after years of research, he came to understand how Wilder and Lane used the family’s journeys and struggles as the basis for the books, without feeling a need to stick to the exact dates and facts.

John was prominently featured in the PBS show. It was good to hear his voice and see him again; he was my professor at SDSU four decades ago and had become a friend in recent years. He was a dedicated historian with a passion for small towns and people with big dreams, like Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Her name even evolved over the years, starting out as Laura Ingalls, with her father calling her “Half-pint” and “Flutterbudget,” and her husband, who had a sister named Laura, preferring “Bessie,” adapted from her middle name Elizabeth. Her daughter called her “Mama Bess.”

She later was known as Laura Wilder, Bessie Wilder, Mrs. A.J. Wilder, the name she used for newspaper columns, and, as she became famous,  Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The child and woman who went down many roads used many names as well.

“Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend,” which Miller published in 1998, explained how this “remarkable woman” overcame countless challenges and an uneven life to become a skilled author and, by the end of her long life, an American icon.

That, it turned out, was her ultimate destination.

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