Working Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I was sixteen, I scored one of the best jobs of my life. I became a tour guide for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Society. My hometown of De Smet, SD is famous for its connection to the writer, author of the Little House series of books that chronicle pioneer life in Minnesota and South Dakota in the 1800’s. For several years, Laura lived in De Smet with Ma, Pa, and her sisters Mary, Carrie and Grace. She became a schoolteacher and met and married Almanzo Wilder there. Her stories of life in De Smet carry readers through several of her later books: By the Shores of Silver Lake, Little Town on the Prairie, The Long Winter, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years. Wilder’s first books, Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, and On the Banks of Plum Creek featured other locations. In De Smet, we prided ourselves on being the setting of most of Laura’s stories, and having: two homes the Ingalls actually lived in (one of which Pa built,) the graves of Pa, Ma, Mary, Carrie and Grace, and an open air portrayal of some of her stories. “The Pageant,” as it was known by us locals, was performed by volunteer townspeople out on the prairie near the homestead location. Hundreds of people flocked to De Smet each night on the last weekend in June and the first two weekends in July to see amateurs in costume act out parts of the books, or in later years (due to copyright restrictions) original works that were written to reflect the life and times of the Ingalls family. Every summer thousands of people toured the Surveyor’s House (the original, from the Silver Lake book) and the Ingalls Home (built by Pa when the time came to move into town some time after Laura married Almanzo.)

To be a tour guide you had to be reasonably presentable, comfortable with  public speaking, and knowledgeable. We had to know the entire series of books backwards and forwards (no problem as I was a true fan,) but we also had to know the behind-the-scenes facts: the dates of births and deaths, the later lives of the siblings, and the untold year that occurred between Plum Creek (set in Walnut Grove, MN) and Silver Lake; when the family lived in Ames, IA where a baby brother was born and died, and Mary got scarlet fever and went blind. We had two tours to learn, one for each house. We learned ticket and gift shop sales and crowd management. On busy days, guides would give back-to-back tours to roomfuls of people, while the next group waited impatiently in their cars or out on the front lawn. We had to keep people from climbing the forbidden stairs in both houses. I’ll grant you, they were enticing, but they were also moderately dangerous and only led up to stifling unrestored rooms where we kept brochures and merchandise. Usually accompanying bus tours was a job that fell to the matriarchs of the guides but sometimes we younger girls were permitted to do this, guiding the driver from house to house to cemetery to homestead site, with views of the big slough, and Lakes Henry and Thompson where Laura and Almanzo took buggy rides.

We sold these "Charlotte" dolls. They were made by an old lady who remembered when Mary Ingalls used to sit out on the front step of their house. My friends and I bought dolls and were probably a little weird about them. The dress on the left is for parties.

The Pageant: me, as Laura, with a member of the visiting film crew. Maybe the director? I like to imagine that in 1984 I was some kind of equivalent to a rock star in Japan.

It was my job to confuse small children and reduce adults to disappointed tears by telling them that the stories of Laura Ingalls as portrayed on the television show, “Little House on the Prairie,” starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert are, to a large extent, fictional. No one who loves that show wants to hear that Albert was a made-up character, or that little Laura never climbed to the top of a mountain to offer God her life in exchange for the baby’s (there are no mountains within hundreds of miles of De Smet.) Look on the bright side! we urged. Mr. Edwards and Nellie Olson were real and featured in several stories in multiple books! Real life on the prairie was difficult, charming, and just as cool (if not as action-packed and dramatic,) as it was on TV! Really! At the height of the season the crowds were unrelenting. During the day I’d repeat the memorized script so many times that I’d wake myself in the middle of the night, sweeping my arm to the right and saying out loud, “…and here is an actual dresser built by Charles Ingalls, who, as you might recall from the books, was a skilled carpenter.” We wore long dresses in keeping with the period, though no corsets, and as little else as possible because it was hot in those houses, especially when they were crammed with tourists. It was hard work, but I loved all the curious people who wanted to know something that I could tell them. Laura fans tend to be wonderful folk. I loved the old houses and the history and the challenging  questions and how there was no mud or manure involved (see related posts: The Pig Years.) There was even some fame to be had. The year I turned eighteen, the only year I participated in The Pageant, I was given the role of Laura. That same year, some Japanese filmmakers visited De Smet for part of a documentary they were making on Laura’s life (she is HUGE in Japan–I mean, we had tourists from all over the world, but evidently Japan LOVES her.) The LIW Society made a special exception and allowed them to photograph and film parts of the houses, and the crew also recorded at least part of The Pageant. We understood each other not at all, but everyone was very nice and so enthusiastic. I had a mullet that year, as was fashionable, and so my braids were stumpy and French, but no one seemed to mind.

Signing autographs before The Pageant. Note the braids. I find myself wondering what the kid in the blue jacket is thinking about.

Related Post: Working Girl, Prologue

Related Post: Working Girl, The Pig Years

23 thoughts on “Working Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder

  1. miq

    Oh. My. Gosh. This would have been my dream job when I was younger. Heck, aside from wearing long dresses in the heat it is still my dream job.

  2. Kelly Thompson

    The kid in the blue is thinking, “Dude, you know she’s not the REAL Laura Ingalls, right? She lives in Japan.” I remember when we were well into college and stopped in Arlington for some reason and there in the gas station was a stack of old Pageant brochures with a pic of you as Laura. We asked the clerk if she wanted you to autograph some of them and she declined the offer…

    1. lynnettedobberpuhl Post author

      De Smet is about 50 miles north of there! I don’t remember ever meeting anybody from Bridgewater, but it is even a smaller town than De Smet. South Dakota is an interesting place, sociologically. You should visit, but take books and an iPod for entertainment. Then go west to the Black Hills which is stunning.

    1. lynnettedobberpuhl Post author

      I never even thought of trying until you said that. Unfortunately, I have the attention span of a gnat and couldn’t get past the third page of Google search. I think I need to be happy with my imaginary rock star status. I did find out that someone in Japan did an animated series on Laura, but I didn’t check it out. Because of the gnat brain.

  3. amysmuddledmusings


    I enjoyed your post. I gave tours at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs for a couple of summers while in college, so I can identify with the phenomenon of the recorded message stored inside the brain, in a special spot that can recall the information and spout it out while sleeping in a work shirt standing in front of a group of tourists.

    It was always a dream of mine to read the entire set, but I couldn’t get past the first one; the house in the woods one. Instead of just starting with the next book, I’d start with the first one again, determined to read them “start-to-finish”. But, I did tune in every Monday night at 7, thinking I would just get the story on tv. Now I’m smart enough to know I’ll STILL have to read the books to get the REAL story.

  4. KerBear's Android

    Hey! You look like Abby on NCIS! Love that gal! Love you too!

    I often thought about the missed opportunity of being a tour guide but I definitely did NOT have the temperment to be sweetly pleasing when I had sweat pouring down body parts in a stifling (read “claustrophobic”) room. I much preferred the position of guiding cars to their parking places while on horseback – drinking in the prairie a We have family in hot springs? ir. And dust. And car exhaust.

    I guess we all had our hazards to deal with.

  5. KerBear's Android

    That last entry didn’t end right – stupid android!

    …drinking in the prairie air…

    Ending with “We have family who own a campsite in hot springs?”

    Just me. 😉

    1. lynnettedobberpuhl

      Yeah, I noted the oddness, but I could see what you meant. The comment reply about Hot Springs was written by Kelly. My only question is “Prairie air? What have you really been drinking?” 😉

  6. Angie Z.

    You had the coolest job EVER! I had no idea that it would be possible to find a job that could combine my love of the Ingalls, old stuff and theme parks. Okay, maybe not “theme parks” since it sounds like you didn’t have any pioneer-style roller coasters or anything like that. Bummer 😉

    I wept for joy when I read here that Nellie and Mr. Edwards were in fact real people. You made my day.

    1. lynnettedobberpuhl Post author

      It WAS cool! And no, no roller coasters, pioneer style or any other, which was fine because I was (and am) notoriously susceptible to motion-sickness. LOTS of old stuff, though. And we had horses, which could be kind of thrilling. Once I’d turned around and the horse I was riding knew he was heading back home where he’d get rid of me, he started hauling ass back to the barn. Kind of like a theme park ride without the safety. It wasn’t the magical girl/horse relationship you often read about, and that my sisters in fact had, but it was exciting! Glad your day was made here! Thanks for visiting and commenting!

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