Ingalls office / store in De Smet
HISTORY OF THE CHARLES INGALLS BUILDING IN DE SMET
© 2013 NANCY S. CLEAVELAND
For more information, see “Pa Ingalls’ Store as Featured in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter” by Richard B. Kurz, Jr., containing a version of this copyrighted history, as well as a 1/48 scale model of Pa’s store (to construct) and notes as to how the store model was recreated. Available at The Loftus Store in De Smet, South Dakota.
The Dakota Central Railroad was surveyed and graded into Kingsbury County during the summer of 1879. Once workers left the area that fall, the Charles Ingalls family moved into the Surveyors’ House to spend the winter at Silver Lake camp. Travel between the Sioux and James Rivers resumed in early February 1880, with many prospective settlers arriving daily via Volga – then terminus of the railroad – hauling lumber from Brookings and looking for a place to build. The Surveyors’ House was a convenient stopping point.
Dated February 2nd and published two weeks later in the Brookings County Press, a Kingsbury County correspondent with the initials “C.S.I.” (surely Charles P. Ingalls, as there was another instance of an “S” substituted for a “P” in the name Peck) wrote: “De Smet is situated in the center of Kingsbury county, on the Chicago & N.W. R. R. and on the bank of Silver Lake. It is surrounded by as fine a country as can be found in the west. There are some claims to be had here yet: some very fine chances for stock-raising. Times are lively here again…”
Laura Ingalls Wilder admitted to daughter Rose Wilder Lane during the writing of the De Smet Little House books that she didn’t quite understand the way town lots were originally purchased, suggesting that first-comers simply built on lots they wanted and then paid for them later.
This is exactly what happened. The town site had been located south of the railroad grade, and after looking the area over in January, Henry Hinz returned in early February with a load of lumber, intending to put in a saloon. He built on what he guessed to be the lot closest to the railroad, but the town was soon surveyed and Hinz had missed his mark by two lots. De Smet was platted in 4 blocks of 21 lots each, with 56 business lots facing the main street, Calumet Avenue. A dozen warehouse lots were located north of the railroad.
Others built to the south, most in a line facing east, and Charles Ingalls used lumber from railroad shanties and built on a corner lot, contracted to be purchased from the railroad by Thomas Maguire, who was in partnership in the hardware business with Edward H. Couse in Volga. In her handwritten Pioneer Girl memoir, Wilder describes the “one story frame building with a square, false front,” which the Ingalls family moved into April 3rd. They were living there during the April snowstorm described in By the Shores of Silver Lake and in June when enumerated on the 1880 census that summer. This first Ingalls building was on the southeast corner of Block 1, Lot 8, and it was purchased and finished by Edward H. Couse to be used as his hardware store and residence. In 1885, Couse built a $9000 brick store and opera house across two lots (one of them being the corner lot on which his original store was standing), and the first Charles Ingalls building was moved to Poinsett Avenue and fitted up for a residence. It was torn down in 1929. The only known image of this first “Ingalls” building is in the 1884 De Smet bird’s-eye view, drawn by Henry Wellge (see link below).
Charles Ingalls built a second town building that spring — this time on a town lot he intended to purchase — the two or three bedroom, two-story frame store building from the De Smet Little House books. It was here the Ingallses and Masterses lived during the Hard Winter of 1880-1881, where Laura and Carrie observed the bustling new town from the upstairs window one Fourth of July, and where Almanzo Wilder brought Laura Ingalls home weekends from the Bouchie (fictional Brewster) school.
According to newspaper reports, Charles Ingalls completed construction on Lot 21 by July 20, 1880. He wrote later in an account of the settlement of De Smet that there were “sixteen buildings put up on the town site that first summer, besides the Depot.” Tax records and recorded deeds indicate that 22 town lots were contracted for in the year 1880, out of 84 platted lots, 56 of which fronted Calumet Avenue, De Smet’s main street. Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered fourteen businesses in town during the Hard Winter (she reduced the number slightly for her fictional account), with a few residences and bachelor shacks besides, these located on lots not facing the main street.
After renting to John Carroll briefly after construction, the Ingallses lived in Pa’s town building during the Hard Winter and the two following winters, but the building was rented to George Westervelt (a piano, organ, and voice teacher) during the winter of 1884-85, and the Ingallses wintered on the homestead. When the family was living on the homestead at other times of the year, the building was rented as a county meeting hall and polling place. The first meeting of the De Smet town school was held at “the County Office (Ingalls Building) in the Village of De Smet.” (Record of Amos Whiting, Superintendent of Schools, July 13, 1880.) As Justice of the Peace, Charles Ingalls heard cases in the front room, which Wilder referred to as “Pa’s office”: “Hizzonor Justice Ingalls is kept busy propping up the majesty of the law.” (De Smet Leader, February 2, 1884.)
Valued at $160 for tax purposes in 1885, the Ingalls lot and building were sold for $600 that October, providing funds with which to both improve the homestead and purchase a residential lot on Third Street. Charles Ingalls built a house in town in the fall of 1887; the family moved to town permanently that December, selling the homestead in 1892. The Third Street house is now owned by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society and can be toured year round.
Preparatory to the construction of his modern brick bank block during the spring of 1886 (the brick building is still standing and houses Gass Law Office today), John Carroll had the Ingalls building moved to the east end of Lot 21 and rotated it to face Second Street to the north. The photo of Pa’s building shown here was taken from the courthouse roof. It housed a number of businesses over the years, including a shoe shop, dress shop, insurance office, and land office. It also served as a residence.
January 22, 1918, Carroll sold “the east 65 feet of Lot 21, Block 4 and premises” to Peter O’Hara for $200. Peter O’Hara opened a fruit and vegetable store in the building, in partnership with William D. Storts and Little House character Robert Boast (1848-1921).
In April, 1919, the former Ingalls building was razed prior to construction of a larger hollow-tile office building. Boards from the Ingalls building were said to have been used in construction of a house on Calumet south of today’s Highway 14. The house, the first one on the west side directly behind the center (unused) portion of Cottage Inn Motel, is now covered in manufactured siding so that the original boards are not visible. The home is private property; please do not trespass.
Ingalls office / store building (SSL 26-27; TLW 2, 7-9, 27, 29; LTP 5, 8, 12, 21; THGY 24; PG); see also De Smet bird’s-eye view
Pa’s front room office in De Smet (PG)