The Little Town in the Land of Used-to-Be

A few months ago, a high-school student asked me what I thought Laura Ingalls Wilder’s favorite place was of all the places she had lived as a young person. Of course, a definitive answer to such a question is not really possible when Wilder herself is not around to consult. But, as I told the student, Wilder’s writings do suggest an answer: De Smet, South Dakota.

DT-3 04 De Smet id019 LIWMS 197.025.095

De Smet, 1883. Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society

Another South Dakota author, Elizabeth Mills Irwin, captured what I think De Smet meant to Wilder. In her book, Home of the Heart: Mound City Stories (2000), Irwin wrote: “For everyone, at least for the lucky, there is a home, a secret place to which one returns, in memory and in dreams, for solace when today is a wrong day, when doubt clouds the future, when wherever we are now, we need something that is not there. It is our heart’s home” (p. 13). De Smet was Wilder’s heart’s home and possibly Almanzo’s as well.

In 1948, Wilder wrote to a friend: “Almanzo and I were speaking of De Smet the other day, and of how we were still homesick for Dakota” (quoted in A Little House Sampler, ed. William Anderson, p. 231). The Wilders had returned to South Dakota three times in the 1930s, but she still wrote of her yearning for the prairies and what she called “the Land of Used-to-Be” (ibid., p. 227). Those faraway days were now mostly a memory of her youth, as she recalled in her poem “Little Town of Memory”:

Oh little town of memory
I hear your voices singing
I see your faces bright and gay
I hear your sleighbells ringing—

Those three trips home had taught her what so many of us have learned about going home, and she concluded her poem with these lines:

It all has gone beyond recall
Its music fades away. (A Little House Reader, ed. Anderson, p. 166)

And, yet, it did not fade away, neither for Wilder nor for her millions of readers. In writing By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years, Wilder visited her heart’s home of De Smet, South Dakota, “in memory and in dreams,” and preserved it for all of us.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

I am indebted to Paula Nelson for the gift of Elizabeth Mills Irwin’s book.

“Your true ‘enemy’ Laura Remington”

Readers of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography continue to share interesting information with the Pioneer Girl Project staff. A good example is Nami Hattori, who follows our blog from Canada.  She recently wrote to us that she had found some additional information about Laura Remington, whom Wilder mentioned twice in her autobiography. On page 243 of Pioneer Girl, Laura Remington is “among the younger girls” at school, and on page 275, Remington is paired with Alfred Ely as a participant in the sleighing parties on De Smet’s main street in the mid-1880s. The annotation about Laura Remington reads: “The 1880 census includes one family named Remington in Kingsbury County:  Francis P. Remington and his wife, Ellen. They had one daughter named Grace—not Laura­­—and she would have been about six years old in the fall of 1881” (p. 244n46).

Nami Hattori, though, has discovered another source that sheds a little more light on the elusive Laura Remington. A girl by that name not only lived in De Smet in the 1880s, Hattori pointed out, but she also “wrote a message on Wilder’s autograph book,” which the “LIW library in Mansfield owns.” Hattori shared with us and our readers the photograph that she took of Wilder’s autograph book in the 1990s. It contains this handwritten line, “Your true ‘enemy’ Laura Remington.”

Laura Ingall's autograph album, photographed by Nami Hattori

Laura Ingalls’s autograph album, photographed by Nami Hattori

While Remington did not date her entry, Hattori noted that many others who signed the book, including Charles Ingalls, Cap Garland, and Ida Brown, had dated theirs from 1882 to 1885. “Judging from her handwriting,” Hattori wrote, Laura Remington “was not a little girl at the time.” Because the signatures appear to have been penned after 1882, Hattori continued, “we can speculate that she might have moved to Dakota after 1880,” which would explain why she is not listed on the census.

With Hattori’s speculation in mind and the album as proof that there was a Laura Remington in the area, we went back to the census data from a different angle and found a second candidate for the family: Laura Remington could be the daughter of William and Helen M. Remington, who moved to Dakota Territory from Wisconsin sometime before June 1883. Their daughter Laura would still have been six years younger than Wilder, closer in age to Alfred Ely with whom Remington went sleighing. However, because the state census records for Kingsbury County are missing, we still cannot be absolutely certain that this Laura Remington is the one Wilder knew. As with so many of the people mentioned briefly in Pioneer Girl, little can be uncovered about them all these years later. Even with the wonderful autograph album, we do not know much more about Laura Remington.

But the album itself is fascinating. It is a resource for modern researchers, and it apparently served Wilder herself as a source of information. “Ida Brown’s verse on the real autograph album is the same as the one in Little Town on the Prairie,” Hattori wrote. “It tells that Wilder used this album when she wrote LTOP.” We are grateful to Hattori for bringing this treasure to our attention.

Nancy Tystad Koupal