Little Town on the Prairie – historical perspective
From Prairie Girl to Little Town on the Prairie. While the fictional Little Town on the Prairie takes place in De Smet from early summer 1881 until Christmas eve 1882, the events depicted historically occurred over a much longer period – at least through December 1883.
Originally, Laura Ingalls Wilder planned to write seven books in her Little House series. The last book, Prairie Girl, would tell the story from after the Hard Winter until Laura earned her first teaching certificate, yet the plan was also to have Laura Ingalls engaged to Almanzo Wilder at the end of this book. In a letter to daughter Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder wrote that in Prairie Girl, she intended to crowd the events of two years into a little more than one. Wilder soon realized that she had material for an additional title, and Prairie Girl became Little Town on the Prairie. Some later De Smet activities and events were covered in Little Town on the Prairie, and Laura’s courtship with Almanzo Wilder was reserved for her final book, which became These Happy Golden Years. Below are some of the events described in Little Town on the Prairie, and when they historically occurred. It is important to remember that Wilder described most of the events fairly accurately; she merely rearranged their order to suit her narrative.
Meeting at the home of Amos Whiting to organize Kingsbury County government – March 1880
Congregational Church organized – July 1880
Charles Ingalls on De Smet school board – September 1880 only
Mary enrolled at the blind school in Vinton, Iowa – November 1881
Ben Woodworth’s birthday supper – January 1882
New England Supper – January 1882
Gophers devoured much of the county’s corn seed planted – June 1882
First services in new Congregational Church – August 1882
Eliza Jane Wilder taught in De Smet – Fall term, 1882
Louis Bouchie married – December 25, 1882
George Williams replaced Amos Whiting as School Superintendent – January 1883
Literary Society met in De Smet – January through mid-March, 1883
Minimum age requirement for Dakota teachers set by law – March 1883
Grand 4th of July celebration – 1883
Mr. Clewett taught in De Smet – Winter and Spring terms, 1883
Emma Dawley taught in De Smet – Summer term, 1883
Hiring of Ven Owen as De Smet teacher – September 1883
Laura Ingalls Wilder earned first teaching certificate – December 1883
Christmas tree service held at Congregational Church / Church bell installed – December 1883
School exhibition – April 1884
Blackbirds destroyed many corn fields in county – September 1884
Revival held in De Smet – February 1885
Mrs. Jarley’s Waxworks performed – March 1885
Dime Sociable sponsored by Ladies Aid – March 1885
Laura Ingalls’ De Smet. While working on the manuscript for Little Town on the Prairie, Wilder both listed the main businesses on Main Street and drew a map showing “where she placed them in the book.” She listed (starting at the railroad tracks and going south on the west side of Calumet): Mead’s Grocery, Saloon, Vacant Lot, Royal Wilder’s Feed Store, Barker’s Grocery, Beardsley Hotel, Harthorn’s Grocery, Vacant Lot (Wilder added a second saloon here), and Couse Hardware on the corner. Crossing Second Street, she continued with: Fuller’s Hardware, Bradley’s Drug Store, Power’s Tailor Shop, Tinkham Furniture Store, Loftus Drygoods and Groceries, Noyce Drygoods and Groceries, Vacant Lot, and Ruth’s Bank, which was on the corner of Calumet and Third Street. Only Wilmarth Grocery was said to be on the east side of Calumet north of Second Street. Only Pa’s building was said to be on the east side of Calumet south of Second Street. For the year following the Hard Winter, this was a fairly accurate listing of businesses along the Main Street of De Smet.
Since the Ingallses were active in the Temperance movement, Wilder mentioned the evils of drink and the unwelcome presence of saloons in De Smet. In the 1880s, Kingsbury went from a dry county to one that allowed saloons as often as the law allowed for voting to take place. Charles Ingalls, as Justice of the Peace, reviewed many cases involving illegal possession of liquor. Thomas Power (fictional Tay Pay Pryor in Little Town on the Prairie) was known for his fondness for drink and had to appear before the Justice of the Peace more than once on charges of intoxication.
For more information:
* Miller, John E. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town: Where History and Literature Meet. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1994.
* Poppen, Carol L. De Smet Yesterday and Today. De Smet, South Dakota: DeSmet Bicentennial Committee, 1976.
Little Town on the Prairie, historical perspective