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.
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.
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