section house – A dwelling house built by a railroad company for use by railroad employees, allowing them to live near the track in sparsely-settled areas.
The railroad company has a crew of men here moving the section house from near the lake into town, near the east end of the switch. – De Smet Leader, March 22, 1884
Mr. Lathrop… spent the winter of 79-80 near the divide between Lakes Henry and Thompson, the only residents of this locality during that winter except the late C.P. Ingalls and family, who occupied the section house a little east and south of the present site in De Smet… – De Smet News, June 17, 1910
Fans and researchers have always been curious about what Laura called the surveyors’ house, the only surviving structure in De Smet (although not in its original location) in which Laura Ingalls Wilder lived as a child. Where did it stand near Silver Lake? When was it built? Who built it? Who occupied it before the Ingallses did? What was stored there during the winter of 1879-1880? Why was it moved to town? When was it moved to town? When did it become a private residence? How did the building change over the years? When did the Memorial Society buy it? Some of these questions can be answered, but there are still a few mysteries left to solve.
What Laura Ingalls Wilder called the surveyors’ house was built by the Chicago & Northwestern Railway Company with the idea that when there was a town and railroad near Silver Lake, it would become the railroad section house. A section house was a dwelling for railroad employees, usually the track foreman or section boss and his family. The section boss saw to it that his portion of the track was clear and kept in good repair; living close to the miles of tracks he was responsible for assured that he was readily available in case of any railroad emergency.
Railroad Section House. Does this drawing look familiar? The surveyors’ house was clearly built using standard railroad section house plans, mirrored and with minor interior layout changes. The top row elevation and plan shown here are for one example of a section house as published in Walter Gilman Berg’s Buildings and Structures of American Railroads (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1893), 21. The “dwelling shanty” itself was designed by civil engineer William Barclay Parsons, Jr.; it also appears in his Track, a Complete Manual of Maintenance of Way (New York: Engineering News Publishing Company, 1886), 100. The bottom row shows a photograph of the front façade of the Surveyors’ House in De Smet, South Dakota, with floor plan (drawn by me) to the right. The current structure has an additional lean-to with stairs to the basement on the west side of the building, which I have omitted. It’s easy to see the similarities in Parsons’ plans and the Little House structure. While the surveyors’ house has horizontal lap siding today, a portion of the original board-and-batten – as shown in the period drawing – was left exposed near the back door. Wilder wrote in By the Shores of Silver Lake that a stovepipe went through the ceiling on the south side of the front room and helped warm the upstairs where Mary, Laura, and Carrie slept. In the 1930s, the lean-to was converted to a kitchen, and for many years after purchase by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, a chimney remained, but it has since been removed.
Town Lot surveyors, not railroad location/grade surveyors. In her handwritten Pioneer Girl memoir, Wilder wrote that in December 1879, the railroad company hired Charles Ingalls to live in the surveyors’ house over the winter of 1879-1880 and take care of the house as well as tools that were left in the lean-to. There were many different groups of surveyors involved in locating and laying out both towns and railroads, and Wilder isn’t specific about which group she means. According to the diary of Charles Irish (head surveyor of the team responsible for scouting out and surveying the best rail route from Tracy to the Missouri River), his men finished surveying in the Silver Lake area in mid-June 1879 and they were working in the vicinity of Fort Pierre by the second week in September. That was their base throughout December, so it’s unlikely that they would have left surveying equipment in Kingsbury County. Furthermore, Irish and his men typically camped and slept in tents, and Irish almost always recorded in his diary exactly where they set up camp. In June, Irish and his men camped on Section 3-111-56, at least a mile south of Silver Lake, and he called it the “mosquito camp” because of how the insects tormented both men and animals. Charles Ingalls selected a homestead in Section 3; note the title of Chapter 31 in By the Shores of Silver Lake: “Mosquitoes.”
Newspaper mentions of the building prior to the publication of the Little House books refer to it as either the section house, the railroad construction camp house, or the railroad shanty. If Wilder remembered surveyors living in the building, it was likely town lot surveyors or those railroad officials affiliated with the sale of town lots who must have stayed there. Visiting railroad executives inspecting the work along the line might, of course, have also stayed in the railroad house. It was common in Dakota Territory during the Little House years for land companies to plat towns in the name of a railroad company official. The Western Town Lot Company, an Iowa subsidiary of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, platted twenty Dakota towns between 1879 and 1882 in the name of Albert Keep, the Chicago & Northwestern’s president from 1877 to 1887. These towns included such familiar names as Brookings, Volga, Preston, Iroquois, and Huron. De Smet and Manchester were platted in the name of Marvin Hughitt, who served as second-in-command under Albert Keep for many years. The plat for Hetland in Kingsbury County was drawn up before the town lot surveyors suspended work in 1879. Fraudulent claims filed in Range 56 North by members of the Cameron gang may have delayed laying out the town of De Smet.
For a 1930 account of the early history of De Smet, Carrie Ingalls Swanzey wrote: “Spring came and with it the surveyors. Father used to go with them and one day he came home and said the town was all located. So after dinner I went to the top of the hill, east of where the court house now is to see the town, and all I saw was a lot of sticks in the ground. Mother told me that where the stakes were there would be houses and stores and school house and a church. Then in a little while we went to ‘town’…” – Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, De Smet News (June 6, 1930), B4.
The town lot surveyors returned to Silver Lake “to survey and stake out on and before the 27th day of March 1880” the four blocks of the original town of De Smet and its warehouse lots and depot grounds. As Wilder remembered, men began building on the townsite in advance of it being surveyed into lots, and the Ingallses moved into an unfinished town building (used by Edward Couse as his first hardware store building) on April 3rd. The De Smet town plat was filed on the 6th, but the land on which the town was platted wasn’t purchased until a week later. Sale of town lots began in May.
Original Location: Fred Dow’s Tree Claim. Frederick Neil Dow (1857-1940) and his wife, Mary (Glover) Dow (1869-1973) are not mentioned in the Little House books, but they have connections to many Little House book characters and events. In the 50th anniversary edition of the De Smet News, Dow wrote that he came to Kingsbury County in May 1879 in search of land. After camping at Lake Henry, he and his party came over the Indian mound south of De Smet (leveled when Highway 25 was paved) and they were able to see Silver Lake from the low rise. Dow decided that was where he wanted to file, the little lake being so beautiful and full of water.
In Watertown on June 3rd, Dow filed on a tree claim, the SE 27-111-56; his father, James Chase Dow, filed on a tree claim just east of his son’s, the SW 26-111-56. Fred Dow was the only person filing near the proposed townsite ahead of the Cameron gang. The Dows returned to Minnesota after filing, and Fred was soon contacted there by the railroad (one wonders how they knew where he was and how he was contacted) and asked if he would give up his land for the residence blocks of the town site to be located near the lake. Dow refused to sell or trade, even after being threatened that they would relocate the town miles away from his claim if he didn’t cooperate.
When was the surveyors’ house built? Returning to De Smet in April 1880, Fred Dow said he thought his claim had been jumped, as there was a house on his land – the Surveyors’ House. Dow built a sod house and barn, one of the few sod houses in the vicinity, he recalled. Dow later built a large home on the northwest corner of his tree claim. There was no building on the quarter section and the railroad hadn’t been located across Section 27 when Dow looked the land over on May 10th, but Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that she noticed the surveyors’ house when the Ingallses first moved to camp in mid-September 1879, and it was still there in April 1880 when Dow returned to his claim. The house must have been built between mid-May and mid-September, 1879.
Some of the railroad camp buildings were probably located on Robert Boring’s claim to the west of Silver Lake, including the shanty occupied by the Ingalls family prior to their winter in the surveyors’ house. Boring (from Ironton, Missouri) had been awarded a soldier’s additional homestead in August 1879, but he had given Albert Keep a power-of-attorney to act on his behalf in land matters over a year earlier. In September 1879, without Robert Boring ever seeing or residing on his claim, Albert Keep sold it on Boring’s behalf to Marvin Hughitt for $240. This was standard legal practice for locating railroad towns on public land, the railroad executives seeking out former soldiers who hadn’t filed on all of their allowed 160 acres and making arrangements with them to file on land desirable as or adjoining a town site as well as the rights to purchase it later for some purpose. The 80-acre claims of John McGarry and Richard Pope (mentioned below) were filed and purchased by the railroad under similar arrangements, and the four blocks of De Smet were platted on the line between the McGarry and Pope claims.
X marks the spot? There was no dispute – even prior to the publication of the Little House books or when the Ingallses were living in De Smet – that the surveyors’ house originally stood on Dow’s tree claim… but where exactly on the quarter section had it been built? The short answer is that while the editor of the De Smet News, Aubrey Sherwood, wrote in the 1960s that there were a number of people living in town at the time who knew exactly where it had been located, nobody seems to have recorded that information in a way that those of us who are wondering about it 50 years later can find it. Hello? If anybody out there does know exactly where the surveyors’ house stood on Fred Dow’s claim, what is your source and would you take me to the spot, please?
The Dakota Central had rights to 100 feet on either side of the center line of the railroad track (granted under the right-of-way Act of March 3, 1875), so you would think that railroad buildings would be constructed on the right-of-way or there would be a deed purchasing an acre or less on which it stood, which is how schoolhouse buildings were dealt with. A reliable water source was a key factor in locating towns on the railroad. Silver Lake provided water for people and animals in the construction camp, and once the tracks were laid, it provided water necessary for the steam locomotives. For years, water was pumped from Silver Lake for this purpose; some of the equipment used is on display at the Depot Museum in De Smet. The section house was supposedly built closest to the railroad grade of all the camp buildings, no matter how the temporary railroad camp buildings may have sprawled over the rest of the area.
In her handwritten Silver Lake manuscript, Wilder made a sketch which included Silver Lake, Pa’s claim, sloughs, and the location of camp buildings, including the “S.H.” (Surveyors’ House). Wilder’s sketch suggests that the S.H. wasn’t between the northern-most part of the lake and the railroad grade, but more to the west, with additional lake shoreline to the northeast. Although she labeled north and west on her drawing, it’s impossible to tell exactly where buildings were on the ground, as Wilder’s drawing isn’t to scale and her text presents conflicting information. In the manuscript, Wilder describes the camp layout: “…The camp lay before them [meaning Laura and Mary, when taking their first walk] scattered along the west and north shore of the lake. The surveyors house, a real house, was farthest away on the low bank that was the north shore. The long boarding-shanty was next and much nearer on the western shore end with the long bunkhouse near it. Not far from the bunk-house was the stable for the work teams. It was a long stable built against a swell in the prairie and covered with the long slough grass. At some distance from that following the curve of the lake shore was Pa’s office and store, with the feed store at the back and then their own shanty. Several other small shanties were scattered here and there around the campsite.”
A 1914 photograph taken following an unusually rainy spring shows Silver Lake full of water, and two groups of people stand on the railroad tracks. They are said to be standing “500 or 700 feet from where the one family lived in 1879-1880.” There is no information saying where on the tracks the people were standing, and it would likely be impossible to find this spot, even though that’s exactly what I was doing when I took the photo in 2014. For some reason, publication of the 1914 photo in newspaper literature sold at the pageant made people start speculating that the photographer must have been standing on the low hill (north of the railroad cut) to the north of the tracks, and that must have been where the surveyors’ house had been. No primary source proof has yet been found to support this claim! Wilder never mentions crossing the railroad grade in order to get to the surveyors’ house from their shanty.
Although the 1914 photo shows the water of Silver Lake almost lapping at the railroad tracks, there are personal accounts and maps (see portion of original survey shown here with location of the railroad added, for example) showing that in the 1870s and 1880s, the northern-most shoreline of Silver Lake was about 1/4 mile south of where the tracks were laid, allowing plenty of room for the surveyors’ house to stand between the railroad grade and the lake itself. The entire survey for Township 111, Range 56 can be seen HERE. The footprint of the lake as drawn on the survey is used in locating the “original” lake on aerial photos and maps used here. Even current topographic maps use this configuration to indicate Silver Lake’s location. You can view a number of topo maps for De Smet HERE.
Follow Me. When traveling east on 4th St. SE, the southwest corner of Fred Dow’s tree claim will be when you cross Lyle Ave. SE. Another 1/4 mile to the east, you’ll cross the halfway mark of the quarter section at O’Keefe Ave. The cement plant to your south isn’t on Fred Dow’s former claim, but from where the road curves to the northeast to the line of trees planted on the section line to your north as you approach the rendering plant, you’ll be driving along the only stretch of Silver Lake shoreline on Fred Dow’s tree claim. When the Ingallses lived there, the surveyors’ house must have been in this vicinity (X on the map above isn’t the exact location, just a guesstimate). This southeast corner of Fred Dow’s tree claim is 500 to 700 feet south of the railroad tracks. The rendering plant at the end of 4th St. SE is on James Dow’s tree claim, not his son’s, but the north wall and part of the building are located within the railroad right-of-way. The trees planted to the west of the rendering plant are on the section line.
The Section House Moves to Town. The De Smet Leader (March 22, 1884) reported that the Railroad Company had a crew of men in De Smet moving the section house from near Silver Lake into town, near the east end of the switch. No reason was given for the move; was it to remove the building from private property or simply to locate it nearer the town and depot? That portion of De Smet hadn’t yet been platted into blocks or lots, but it was owned by the railroad, which in September 1879, had made arrangements to purchase the 80 acres of additional homestead land awarded to Richard Pope (living in Washington, Missouri) for $240. The railroad tracks were less than 100 yards from the section house. To the north lay the City Park and Depot Grounds, originally additional homestead land awarded to John McGarry (living in Mankato, Minnesota), purchased by the railroad in April 1880 for $100. When surveyed and platted in August 1887, the section house was on Lot 9, Block 10 of Western Town Lot Company’s Addition to De Smet. It stands there still, at the corner of Olivet Avenue and First Street.
The Section House as a Private Residence. Tax records for the lot after survey and prior to the first sale in 1893 don’t include a value for any structure on the lot, and the lot itself is only listed as worth $35 to $45.
On May 3, 1893, Western Town Lot Company sold Lot 9, Block 10 to George W. Kenyon for $112.50. This is the first record showing private ownership of the Surveyors’ House / Section House; whether it had remained in use as a railroad section house until the time of its sale is unknown. George Kenyon – a Civil War veteran who had served in the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery, the same regiment in which Hiram and James Ingalls served – was one of the 19 charter members of Harvey Post Chapter of the G.A.R. alongside Little House characters C.S.G. Fuller, Thomas Power, Edward Couse, George Wilmarth, Thomas Ruth, and Charles Ely. He was an early Kingsbury County homesteader and practiced veterinary medicine for almost 50 years. A widower, Dr. Kenyon married Mary Slopaca in April 1893. The Kingsbury County Independent of November 24, 1893, reported: “Mr. and Mrs. G.W. Kenyon are now comfortably situated in their dwelling near the courthouse. Doc is prepared to make trips and visit sick horses when the weather will permit.” George Kenyon died at home on March 9, 1898; he was buried in St. Thomas Catholic Cemetery in De Smet. The week before his death, Dr. Kenyon sold the surveyors’ house to his wife Mary for “natural love and affection and one dollar.”
Mary Kenyon moved to Sioux City, Iowa, and in 1902, she sold Lot 9, Block 10 to Mary (Kelly) Bennett for $200. Mrs. Bennett was the widow of Elisha R. Bennett (1835-1893), early grocer in De Smet. One of the Bennetts’ ten children, the memorable Will Bennett, was mentioned in Wilder’s Pioneer Girl memoir. Following their mother’s death in 1911, Will and three of his sisters inherited a number of properties, including both the Bennett building on Calumet and the surveyors’ house and lot. Both Mary and Elisha Bennett are buried in St. Thomas Catholic Cemetery in De Smet.
October 1913, the Bennett siblings sold the surveyors’ house and lot to their cousin, Anna Kelly, for $300. Born in Iowa in 1888, Anna came to De Smet in the 1890s with her widowed father, Owen Kelly (1837-1919). Anna was a 1906 graduate of the De Smet High School. After attending normal school in Madison, Anna taught in several Kingsbury County district schools prior to accepting a position in the De Smet High School, where she taught for a number of years. Following her father’s death, Anna moved to San Bernardino, California, and according to the Laura Ingalls Wilder LORE (Spring-Summer 1979), she rented the surveyors’ house when she could, but it mostly stood empty, with cattle and other animals wandering through its rooms.
In September 1945, Anna Kelly sold the surveyors’ house and lot to Lillian Holverson for $700. Lillian and her husband Charles made extensive repairs and improvements to the dwelling. They added lap siding over the original board-and-batten, excavated a basement, and added running water and indoor plumbing. They re-designed the lean-to into a kitchen, plastered the walls, and ceiled the rooms with unbleached muslin painted white. They also wall-papered the Ingalls sisters’ former attic bedroom.
In September 1947, the Holversons sold the much-improved surveyors’ house and lot to Eleanor Davidson for $2750. Mrs. Davidson sold the building and property to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society on August 22, 1967, for $2350. The December 15, 1966, De Smet News reported:
Plan to Preserve 1879 RR Shanty. Small structure, once by shores of Silver Lake, widely known. May be only remaining building of camps of railroad construction across Dakota. Fund drive for preservation of structure – the railroad shanty of 1879-1880. The one time construction camp shanty, since early years of the town a small residence. It had been the residence of the Delbert Davidson family for many years but not occupied in recent years. Mr. Davidson died a few months ago and the property was made available for purchase as a historic relic. Originally stood on the shore of the small lake a mile to the southeast of where it is now located, a fact long known to its last owner and to others. Until some years ago it had the upright plank siding with batten strips of most railway structures.
From the September 7, 1967, De Smet News:
R.R. Construction Camp Shanty of Wilder Books Lore Acquired. Purchase of the one0time railway construction camp shanty of 1879-1880 by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society was made last week, to be made a historical museum. The property, at the east end of First Street, was bought from Mrs. Delbert Davidson, the former Eleanor Keating, native of De Smet, now of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Negotiations for the purchase were made by telephone and mail some weeks ago and the purchase completed this week, during Mrs. Davidson’s visit here. Possession will be given before she returns to Iowa later this month. The sale by Mrs. Davidson closes a history of many years ownership, during which the Davidsons made their home in the small residence for years. The house had not been occupied in recent years and disposition of the property came following the death this year of Mr. Davidson. Purchase of the 50-foot Lot 10 of Block 9, Western Town Lot Addition is at a price of $2,350. The Memorial Society, an incorporation, had $1,360 to pay toward the purchase and with the approval and promised support of the De Smet Chamber of Commerce a loan was made for the balance. Likely the only relic of railroad construction days of Dakota Territory.
Changes made to bring the “construction camp shanty” back to the way Laura Ingalls Wilder described it included removing a wall and moving the staircase from the north wall back to where it originally stood between the pantry and bedroom. Once interior plaster was removed, traces of the original treatment were analyzed and found to be whitewash, which was re-applied during a Memorial Society “whitewash bee.” The building was first opened to visitors in June 1969 for the 79th Old Settler’s Day reunion. An organ once used in the Congregational Church was put in place, as well as a chest of drawers made by Charles Ingalls, which in recent years was moved upstairs to the attic area (and can be seen reflected in a large mirror at the top of the stairs). Other relics were accumulated by local residents. In the early years of the Memorial Society, gift shop items were sold in the lean-to, with arrangements to tour the surveyors’ house made at the De Smet News office on Calumet Avenue.
In 1974, the Surveyors’ House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places; you can read the application HERE.
surveyors house / surveyors’ house (SSL 10, 13-15, 17, 19; PG), see also surveyor – N.B. In published By the Shores of Silver Lake, the phrase is always written as the plural possessive surveyors’ house (meaning the house of more than one surveyor), not surveyor’s house (meaning there was one surveyor and this was his house and his alone). There are two instances in Laura’s Pioneer Girl memoir where she calls the building the surveyors house (no apostrophe). While the LIW Memorial Society and local newspaper referred to the building as the section house or railroad camp shanty in the early years, they adopted Wilder’s plural possessive for signs and when writing about the building in the Lore and in museum literature. It is unknown why the Memorial Society began using the singular possessive online and on some of their merchandise in 2022. I mention the discrepancy because searching this website for the phrase surveyor’s house wouldn’t lead you to this entry otherwise!
Boasts live in office building by Surveyors’ House (PG)
surveyors’ pantry (SSL 21)
De Smet Cemetery tour info for FRED DOW
De Smet Cemetery tour info for KEATING