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.

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