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De Smet bird’s-eye view

1883 perspective drawing of De Smet made by Henry Wellge and sold commercially.

A bird’s eye view of De Smet is soon to appear. The town was canvassed this week by Mr. O. Swift, representing J.J. Stoner, of Madison, Wis., and enough copies were taken to warrant the issue. The sketch is a good one, and the samples of lithographing shown by the canvasser are very fine. It will advertise De Smet in good shape. – De Smet Leader, May 26, 1883

Henry Wellge (1850-1917) was one of the most prolific of the city view artists working in the United States and Canada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born in Stuttgart, Germany, Wellge trained as a draftsman, artist, architect, and lithographer. He came to America in the late 1870s and settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. During his thirty year career, he created over 150 bird’s-eye views of towns in 26 states and Canada, including Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver, New York City and… De Smet.

Bird’s-eye views were never the work of itinerant artists (although many bird’s-eye artists did private commissions on the side, of course); they were the work of a team of highly-skilled artists and business men. Shortly after arriving in America, Wellge joined forces with Joseph Bach, a traveling agent. Wellge’s first commissioned bird’s-eye drawing as an artist was of Chilton, Wisconsin, one of 38 total views of Wisconsin towns he completed. Chilton appears to be Wellge’s only signed work with Bach as his agent.

From 1879-1884, Wellge worked with Joseph Stoner, and from 1884-1886 with George Norris. In 1888, Henry Wellge formed a partnership with his brother William, a structural engineer. They started the American Publishing Company in Milwaukee, and soon Henry spent more time running the business than drawing for it. Prior to 1902, the American Publishing Company published thirty views, 17 of which were signed by Wellge. Most were produced in large folio sizes and employed the use of multiple colors. Wellge’s career path was typical of the “view lithographers” in America; many began as artists, then moved into a position as agent, then formed their own publishing company to compete with the very men they had once worked for, and continued the cycle by hiring new artists. Similarly, improvements in the process of lithography were adopted; in the 1890s, Wellge began to rely more and more on photography than his artist’s eye or architectural draftsmanship to complete his projects.

While John Miller – in Chapter 2 of his Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town: Where History and Literature Meet – infers from the newspaper blurb above that a Mr. Swift was the artist of the De Smet bird’s-eye, this is not the case. Oliver Swift was instead a traveling salesman who worked for Joseph Stoner, a map and book publisher in Madison, Wisconsin. After scouting to see if it there was sufficient interest in town to support sending an artist in, Swift would have made arrangements to advertise Henry Wellge’s arrival in De Smet, stressing what a boon to the local economy a bird’s-eye view could be to business and when used as advertising for their fair city, not to mention the fact that “everyone would want one” to grace their parlor wall. As a Brookings bird’s-eye view had been published in 1881, no doubt Jake Hopp (publisher of the De Smet Leader) had heard all about it from his brother, George Hopp (publisher of the Brookings County Press), and Jake encouraged the opportunity for his town view to be captured as well. After all, the people of De Smet have always been known for keeping up with the times!

Swift would have had various samples of completed bird’s-eye views to show around and display – as was mentioned in the Leader blurb – and he would negotiate with town leaders or businessmen to determine if having a view created was even feasible. It’s also possible that the De Smet view was solicited. Based on the size of a town and initial interest shown, the agent could quickly calculate not only the number of lithographs needed to be sold in order to earn a desired profit, but the optimum size for the finished lithograph and the level of detail needed in the finished product to both generate this profit and satisfy the townspeople with the result. According to John W. Reps in Views and Viewmakers of Urban America (University of Missouri Press, 1984), the price of a bird’s-eye view was usually between $1 and $3, depending on size. Wellge’s 1884 highly-detailed view of Seattle sold at the time for $3 in a limited edition of 500, and it was 16×32 inches in size. You can see a detailed copy in the online digital collection of The Library of Congress.

As part of the canvassing process, Swift would also have negotiated privately with business owners to see if any could be persuaded to pay extra in order to have the artist include a separate image of their business establishment or family home, often seen in corners of drawings or surrounding the town view as separate vignettes. Another option was to “sponsor” added details, such as the artist adding a sign on your business identifying it as such, even if no such sign existed in real life. Future structures might even be added in, for a price. If few private deals could be struck, these extras would be abandoned. For example, Wellge’s view of Redfield names the local newspaper, The Dakota Sun, as sponsor, and Wellge included a detailed corner drawing of their bustling office, complete with people, horses, and buggies. People and animals were two details that always cost extra.

In a few cases, a wealthy businessman paid for an entire subscription run up front in order for his business to be the only one showcased. Some towns might appear to be so small (not necessarily in size, but in number of potential sales) that it seemed impossible for the town to support the whole idea of a bird’s-eye view. In 1883, however, a railroad line running north and south through De Smet Township had been proposed and was being promoted: the Dakota Great Southern Railroad. As is known to have been the case in other bird’s-eye views, it’s possible that De Smet’s was financed in part by the railroad and it would be used to showcase the town and sell potential settlers on its expansion potential.

According to Aubrey Sherwood in a 1930 De Smet News article, the De Smet bird’s-eye view was “a pencil sketch made by an artist working for the J.J. Stoner Company of Madison, Wis., a concern specializing in this work. The town was solicited for sale of the reproductions and many sold. But a few remain today. This copy [the one reproduced in the article] was made from C.L. Dawley’s picture. M.E. Sasse had one, and possibly there are others in town. Accompanying the sketch was a description naming many of the buildings, and this appears below the picture.”

At 7 by 13 inches, the view of De Smet is the smallest in size (about half as large as his other Dakota commissions) as well as the least detailed of the entire portfolio of Henry Wellge’s signed works. Perhaps the De Smet view was drawn during unscheduled time between larger jobs in Dakota that same year: Aberdeen, Clark, Redfield, and Watertown. Although unsigned, it’s possible that Wellge also did the 1883 bird’s-eye views of Deadwood, Frederick, and Pierre. The average number of known views per year done by Wellge was 20, and he spent an average of 18 days working on each one. It’s not known exactly how long Henry Wellge was in De Smet, but Laura Ingalls Wilder researchers are sure glad he was there; his bird’s-eye view reveals a wealth of information about De Smet at the time of the De Smet Little House books.



In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town: Where History and Literature Meet, John Miller writes the following about bird’s-eye views: The haste with which this kind of picture was done and the way in which artists transformed notes and sketches done on ground level into a single drawing imagined from a vantage point high overhead precluded detailed accuracy.

This is not entirely true. By its nature, the bird’s-eye view is a highly technical perspective drawing that should leave nothing to the imagination as far as placement, size, and shape of buildings and other objects in the drawing. Yes, the De Smet view isn’t particularly detailed, but detail was always reserved for the larger, showcased (meaning that the owner paid extra) stores, factories, farms or private houses in borders or vignettes, and the De Smet bird’s-eye contained nothing extra.

To add detail to an entire drawing would be outrageously time-consuming and result in an overly-cluttered drawing. The idea was to sell copies that would sell someone on the town itself, so the drawing needed to be viewed as clean and uncluttered. It was not what the artist left out – but what he included – that was important. For this reason, buildings were often added to the image if constructed after the preliminary sketch, and proposed buildings were even sometimes included if they would help “sell” the city. The only liberties usually taken were to “nudge” some buildings over slightly if they were hidden by others but were important and needed to be seen, and to elongate vertical elements (such as chimneys) to make them show up. According to Ralph Hyde in Print Quarterly (September 1997), “bird’s-eye artists did not stretch the rules of perspective because they lacked artistic training – their prints were produced in such a way as to show the maximum number of buildings.”

When Henry Wellge did his De Smet drawing, he wouldn’t have started from scratch, having to lay out the town itself, and then add the buildings. There were detailed plat maps of the city and surveys of the surrounding countryside for him to refer to. The earliest known photograph of De Smet dates from 1883, and it may have been taken in conjunction with the bird’s-eye drawing, as Wellge is known to have employed photography in his work.

Because many towns were laid out on with straight roads running north-south and east-west, artists often created a master template of grid lines drawn in perspective, and then used this template over and over. Note the similarities in the drawings of Clark and Aberdeen below; both are by Wellge, and both are similar to the De Smet view.

Once the streets were laid out, Wellge typically sketched each building in a town separately, paying special attention to those buildings that would appear closer to the viewer. He didn’t sketch a strict elevation (front view) but oriented himself so that he was facing that part of the building that would be seen, at the angle it would appear in the final work. For example: the Ingalls building on Calumet, taken from the larger image and shown here, is seen from the side and back in this view. It would have been a waste of time for Wellge to draw the front of it. The most prominent businesses were on the west side of Calumet, so the view was oriented so that these storefronts were seen. The railroad, depot, and lumberyards were extremely important to De Smet, so they are front and center. While we think of heavy black smoke as pollution today, they were signs of progress in the 1880s, so both trains are shown with huge plumes of smoke, each billowing as if the trains are approaching the Depot at great speed!

From individual sketches, Wellge drafted his completed view. He typically included the horizon in his drawings, and one vanishing point fell on the horizon line but out of view. The opposite vanishing point fell unnaturally above the horizon and in view, as if the earth and all the streets had been “curved upward” slightly towards the viewer. His buildings don’t appear distorted because his third vanishing point is quite far below the drawing itself. In the De Smet view, east-west streets disappear into the vanishing point on the horizon far to the west, but Calumet can be continued to a vanishing point above the horizon, while other north-south to the east will be distorted if they are continued off the picture. Every straight line in a perspective drawing should be able to continue to one of the three vanishing points. To see this applied to the De Smet drawing, click HERE.

And it didn’t end there. After Wellge had laid out his drawing and finished it in pencil to such a degree that the townspeople were impressed enough to be willing to pay for their own copy, he added detailed notes, describing in detail all the little things he had seen that might need to be included in the final product. Sketches and notes would be bundled up and sent to the lithographer, who drew or traced the whole image over again, in wax on stone or zinc… and in reverse!



Unquestionably the finest representation of this city is the birdseye view or perspective map which has just been published. Mr. Henry Wellge, of Milwaukee, is the artist, and an inspection of the picture is all that is needed to prove his ability. The spectator is supposed to be looking directly toward the town from a point in the air above. Every hotel and business and residence, every street in the city, are shown with perfect clearness. Mr. Wellge sketched every single building, and so carefully was his work done that a perfect stranger, with one of these views in his possession, could go at once to any designated building and recognize it when he got to it. It will give your friends in the east a better idea of De Smet than a volume of written description.

For years, I looked at the De Smet bird’s-eye view and picked out the church, the schoolhouse, the Ingalls building, the depot, and the cemetery with all its trees. I don’t remember when I finally realized that tree-filled rectangle wasn’t the cemetery. Standing in front of the framed view with a total stranger during the summer of 2010, I listened as he pointed to the church, the schoolhouse and – you guessed it – the cemetery. We had a bond, that stranger and I, and we spent the next hour hovering over that picture with a magnifying glass. The streets are clearly labeled, of course, and anybody who’s been to De Smet can tell you that the cemetery isn’t between Third and Fourth Streets; it’s two miles southwest of town by road (on land donated by Jake Hopp).

That day marked the beginning of a four month obsession with bird’s-eye views.

The tree-covered area on the map is now Washington Park, a lovely place. It was originally part of a quarter section filed on as a tree claim by George Washington Norman in the summer of 1879. Norman relinquished the claim in 1881 and John Carroll immediately filed on it as a homestead, but he converted it to a preemption and paid cash for it in 1882. In March 1883, it was proposed that part of Judge Carroll’s claim be turned into a park, and he readily agreed. In May, Samuel O. Masters surveyed the new Caroll’s Addition to the Town of De Smet into lots and streets, and the park was born.

A lot of attention has been given to the businesses and residences in Blocks 1-4 of the original town of De Smet. Laura Ingalls Wilder drew a sketch of the location of businesses she mentioned in Little Town on the Prairie. A detailed map of De Smet’s business center was included in the De Smet News in 1883, and John Miller reconstructed the map for his publications, as I did for my De Smet webpage in 2004. I blogged about businesses shown in the bird’s-eye view a number of times over the years. The 2010 trip had me wondering if I could figure out what all the buildings in Henry Wellge’s bird’s-eye view of De Smet were, so I sat down with deeds and tax records while I was in De Smet that summer and HERE is the result. Copyright 2010 by me, etc. Please do not plagarize.

At the bottom of his drawing, Wellge included a list of businesses. A through K were also identified on the drawing itself, but I have a feeling I wrote over some of the letters, so here they are. I’ve continued through the alphabet:

A. Church
B. School House
C. De Smet Flouring Mill, G.W. Elliot & Co.
D. Elevator. L.P. Sasse, agent
E. R.R. Depot
F. Exchange Hotel, J.F. Smith, Proprietor
G. Empire Lumber Co., Chas. E. Ely, agent
H. Youman Bros. & Hodgins Lumber Co., Chas. L. Dawley, agent
I. Kingsbury Commercial Bank. T.H. Ruth, cashier
J. V.V. Barnes, attorney, Calumet Ave.
K. Bank of De Smet, Town Lots for Sale
L. Thomas Bros Real Estate, Calumet Ave.
M. G.C. Bradley, druggist, Calumet Ave.
N. Waters & Anderson, attorneys, Calumet Ave.
O. F.M. Harthorn & Sons, General Merchandise, Calumet Ave.
P. Loftus & Broadbent, General Merchandise, Calumet Ave.
Q. Geo. Wilmarth & Co., General Merchandise, Calumet Ave.
R. Pierson [sic] & Cooley, Meat Market, Calumet Ave.
S. E.R. Bennett, Grocery & Provisions, Calumet Ave.
T. Peter Holburg, Real Estate Dealer, Calumet Ave.
U. C.H. Tinkham, Furniture, Calumet Ave.
V. Lyngbye Bros. Blacksmiths. Calumet Ave.
W. Frank X. Schaub, Harness, etc., Calumet Ave.
X. H. Hinz, Billiard Parlor, Calumet Ave.
Y. C.S.G. Fuller & Bro., Hardware & Farm Machinery, Calumet Ave.
Z. Hopp & MacDonald, Editors The News, Calumet Ave.
1. De Smet Publishing Co., Publishers The Leader, Calumet Ave.
2. G.H. Scofield, General Merchandise, Calumet Ave.
3. J.J. Schockley, Blacksmith, Cor. First St. and Joliet Ave.

I identified property ownership based on the 1883 tax records and verified by a deed search. There are only a couple of discrepancies between my findings and those in the 1883 newspaper; these always could be explained by the fact that I identified property owners, not renters (most of whom I knew by newspaper blurbs). It was interesting to discover that in 1883, Almanzo Wilder owned the lot north of Peirson’s Livery Barn. And while I didn’t include notes from tax records or deeds, I did gather a few of my own notes HERE before I tossed them.


De Smet bird’s-eye drawing