Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Visit to the Banks of Plum Creek

Here is this week’s update and another road trip discovery . . . this time on the eastern fringes of the Great Plains. After the visit to Joe, Montana (see February 21, 2009 column), my wife and I continued eastward across the badlands of North Dakota, through the watershed of both the Little Missouri and Missouri rivers, and into those of the Sheyenne River, the Boie de Sioux, and the Big Sioux River. The graven plateau gave way to the endless miles of Eastern Dakota prairie grasslands. I had traveled across North Dakota on Interstate 94 during that first big road trip in the summer of 1970 (see February 16, 2009 column), but the blue highways of this region were all new to me and it seems there was a new discovery down every road. I want to share with you just one of these, one that again supports what I have already written about the function of road trips; to travel "into the landscape in order to better understand it, and the people who call it home, those who praise or curse it for what it offers or takes away." Thanks again to Sally Ann for her good eye in taking the photographs. I hope you will read on.

I never read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books when I was a kid. Just not my cup of tea, I guess. But my wife did, and she loved the stories of the Ingall’s family as it moved from the Big Woods of western Wisconsin to Kansas, and eventually north again to the small town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and De Smet, South Dakota, in the latter half of the 19th century. I really knew nothing at all about Mrs. Wilder or her stories until the television series "Little House on the Prairie," which was very loosely based on her characters, premiered in 1974. I’ll admit it; my wife and I watched it regularly. After all, she knew the characters from reading the books, and the series starred the late Michael Landon whom I idolized in his role as Little Joe on "Bonanza," a program I watched religiously as a young boy, but I did not think much about Laura Ingalls Wilder or the television series once it went off the air in 1983.

More recently, my wife and I were traveling through the Dakotas, and while studying our maps in a motel room in Watertown, South Dakota one evening, she pointed out that we were only an hour or so away from the town of De Smet, where the Ingalls family settled in 1879 after three years of failed crops in Minnesota. It was in De Smet that Laura Ingalls Wilder lived and went to school, and where she met and married Alonzo Wilder at the age of 18, in 1885. They moved to Alonzo’s farm just north of town and raised wheat, the main cash crop in those parts. De Smet became Laura’s "Little Town on the Prairie" that formed the core of many of her books, six of which are set in and around the town. Although I am not always interested in the writings of certain authors, I have always held a keen fascination for the lives of writers, any writers; where did they live and how did these places impact on how and what they chose to write about? So curiosity got the better of me as we planned to visit De Smet the following day.

The next morning we drove west out of Watertown on US 212, and then south on State Route 25, passing though wide expanses of prairie farms stretching to the horizon, where the roads ran in grid pattern to the four compass points. Each town we passed through looked pretty much like the one before and after. As we approached De Smet from the north we came upon a small historical marker informing us that the Wilder homestead, the small claim shanty where Laura and Alonzo lived after they were married, was once located in a wooded thicket to our west. It was there that their daughter Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968), was born. Like her mother, she continued to celebrate her youthful days on the prairie although she would grow to be an accomplished journalist and novelist in her own right, and at age 78 the oldest war correspondent during the Vietnam War. The Wilders had a difficult row to hoe on that farm and they eventually pulled up stakes and left De Smet in 1890, settling in the Missouri Ozarks where they would remain for the rest of their lives. Mrs. Wilder died in February 1957, just three days after celebrating her 90th birthday. She lived in De Smet for just over a decade, but it was her years there, and those of her earlier childhood spent in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, about which she would write most fondly . . . stories that several generations of young girls would cherish into adulthood.

Upon our arrival in De Smet, we found a small park situated near the center of town which serves as the current site of the old Surveyor’s House, in which the Ingalls family first lived after moving to the Dakota territory. My wife took a tour of the house as well as a replica of an old one-room school house similar to the one that Laura and her sisters attended. Laura, at the young age of 15 and still a student herself, later worked as a teacher in such a school. While she explored these places to her heart’s content, I was satisfied to walk the quiet streets of De Smet and collect my thoughts about life in the heartland. It is not easy wresting one’s livelihood from the soil where the wind blows as long and hard as the winters are cold and the summers are hot. "No one," Mrs. Wilder wrote, "who has not pioneered can understand the fascination and the terror if it."
At the end of her tour, my wife inquired about the Ingalls family’s time on Plum Creek, near Walnut Grove, between 1874 and 1876, and whether it might be possible to visit the site. The nice lady who gave her the tour through the buildings picked up the telephone and called the owners of the farm on which the old homestead is now situated, to inquire whether it would be alright for us to drive over there that day to have a look around. So, after lunch in De Smet and a visit to the Ingalls family plot in the town cemetery on a hill south of town, and a brief visit to the site of the Ingalls farm near the Big Slough where five stately cottonwood trees planted by Pa Ingalls still grow, we set off on US Highway 14 - the Laura Ingalls Wilder Scenic Highway - for the 100 mile eastward journey to Walnut Grove.

We crossed into Minnesota and soon passed through one of the largest wind farms in the United States at Lake Benton - over 200 large wind turbines positioned along Buffalo Ridge, one of the highest areas in the state, their spinning props filling the sky in ever direction. Fifty miles beyond the border is Walnut Grove, population 599, a town very much cognizant of its important place in the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her books. There is an annual pageant and several signs around town reminding one of this connection, but there is not much in this small town that was there when the Ingalls family lived nearby on the banks of Plum Creek. As we approached the town my wife read to me Laura Ingalls Wilder’s description of her family’s arrival at Plum Creek.

We followed the directions provided to us in De Smet and drove a short distance north to a well-kept farm with its stately old house and red barn and out buildings. Beyond these is a two-track through acres of what would soon be corn fields to the banks of quietly meandering Plum Creek. The plum thickets are still there and the place looks like it must have when the Ingalls family lived here. There is a depression on the hillside where the small dugout once stood, and below it flows Plum Creek. The site is bordered by a broad tableland where the family’s tilled fields and wood lot were located. We had the place all to ourselves and we wandered up and down the stream and across the fields. All you could hear was a fresh springtime breeze blowing through the tall grasses. I am sure my wife was thinking back to the stories she read as a young girl. I’m glad we came if for no other reason than that.

The trip to Walnut Grove and Plum Creek on that beautiful April day? Pure serendipity. When we awoke that morning in Watertown, South Dakota we had no plans to drive well into Minnesota. That is the wonderful thing about a road trip. You go where your personal winds blow you and sometimes you end up on an unexpected shore. In this case, the banks of Plum Creek. By late afternoon we had resumed our trip back toward Sioux Falls, our intended destination that evening. Tired and hungry we wondered what the next day would bring.

NEXT WEEK: Entr’acte II: A Grand and Noble Beast

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