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Volga, Dakota Territory

Town on the Dakota Central Railroad between Brookings (Brookings County) and Nordland (Kingsbury County), platted in 1879.

[Pa] told Ma that a crowd was going to take the handcar from the depot and go meet the train at Volga. He would take all day for they would clear the track of snow as they went, so they would spend the night at Volga and come back with the train Saturday. – Hard Winter manuscript, Chapter 8, “Pa Goes to Volga”

In The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that after one of the fall snowstorms filled the railroad cuts and prevented the train from getting as far west as De Smet, Pa and a group of men went to Volga on a railroad handcar, clearing the railroad track as they went. They returned several days later on the train. Wilder doesn’t mention Volga in By the Shores of Silver Lake for the simple reason that when the Ingalls family traveled through that portion of Brookings County on their way from the Big Sioux railroad camp to the Silver Lake railroad camp, the town didn’t exist!

Originally called “Bandy Town” after an early settler, Volga was platted in September 1879. Four men each donated 40 acres for a townsite as incentive for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Company to put one there, and they did. It was laid out exactly as the original town of De Smet, with four blocks south of the railroad tracks, each block containing 21 lots. Its north/south main street was named Kasan Avenue. Several stores, a post office, hotel, blacksmith shop, saloon, cobbler’s shop, and residences were built immediately. Edelbert and Frank Harthorn opened a store there, moving on to De Smet the following spring.

The first train arrived in Volga in November 1879, and from then until the following May, Volga was the terminus of the railroad. For that reason, it grew quite rapidly that first winter. Multiple lumber dealers sold their goods directly from railroad cars. Although Wilder wrote in By the Shores of Silver Lake that Brookings was the nearest town while they wintered in the Surveyors’ House, Volga (35 miles from De Smet and 7 from Brookings) was continuously occupied to the bursting point that winter with several hundred settlers and workers keeping three hotels filled to capacity. The first load of wheat was brought to town to ship back east only five days after the first train arrived.

In The Long Winter (Chapter 11, “Pa Goes to Volga”), Pa brings Mr. Edwards back to De Smet with him and Mr. Edwards deposits a twenty dollar bill in Mary’s lap and makes his escape before the family knows it’s there.

According to an online currency converter (, that twenty dollars would be worth $396.03 in 2005. (Update: $515.69 in 2017) During the hard winter, you could supposedly buy for about a dollar what you can get for twenty today. I don’t know if the currency converter is accurate, and it’s hard to worry too much about that twenty dollars anyway since it’s highly unlikely that Mr. Edwards was based on a single person (Edmund Mason) even in Little House on the Prairie, who actually was in De Smet in 1879. It turns out that Laura Ingalls Wilder told the story a bit differently in her Hard Winter manuscript.

In the manuscript, there is a whole chapter edited out in which Pa and Mr. Edwards have met up in Volga and are spending the night in the hotel. Mr. Edwards decides to join a poker game, asking the men if poker is played “anything like 7-up.” Of course this implies that Mr. Edwards doesn’t know a thing about poker, and he is invited to join the game. Pa figures Mr. Edwards has little money to lose, so he doesn’t interfere.

It turns out that Mr. Edwards is a card shark with more tricks up his sleeve than cards in the deck. He ends up winning over $500 in the game, and the next morning, he decides to accompany Pa back to De Smet on the handcar to avoid the other poker players finding him.

In De Smet, Mr. Edwards tells Ma and the girls about his gambling winnings, but it’s stressed that Pa didn’t drink (Mr. Edwards did) and Pa didn’t gamble. So when a twenty dollar bill turns up in Mary’s lap, Ma and the others know full well where it came from. As grateful as they are, it was no great sacrifice for Mr. Edwards to part with that money because he still had the 2005 equivalent of almost ten thousand dollars (or over twelve thousand dollars in 2017) in his pocket.

— From my old blog; originally posted June 8, 2005.

Next time you’re in the area – or traveling between the Little House sites in Walnut Grove and De Smet, it’s a worthwhile side-trip to turn off Highway 14 and see Volga, South Dakota, instead of thinking that all there is is the stuff along the Highway. Time your visit so you can spend some time at the Brookings County Museum on the east side of the Volga City Park; you won’t be disappointed. And stop to see the Volga depot at the Wheels Across the Prairie Museum in Tracy, Minnesota. Although it’s not the first depot built in Volga (that one was built on the same plan as the original depot in De Smet, remember), this 1897 depot would have been a familiar site to early railroad travelers. Photo above is from early 1900s.


Volga, Dakota Territory (TLW 11, 33)