How precious are Your thoughts to me, O LORD ... how vast is the sum of them!

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Little House Stage

In 1879, South Dakota was not a state; it and its twin, North Dakota, were called Dakota Territory. Pioneers settled Dakota Territory throughout the 1860s and 70s, and in 1879 the Ingalls family moved to a railroad camp on Silver Lake for Pa to work as storekeeper and bookkeeper for the Dakota Central Railroad. They lived in a shanty first, but then over the winter, when all the railroaders were gone, Pa was paid to stay behind and live in the Surveyors’ House to watch over the company property.

This house is still standing! It was the largest house Laura had yet lived in, and the Ingallses stayed warm and busy inside it until spring.

“It was a big house, a real house with two stories, and glass windows. Its up-and-down boards were weathering from yellow to gray, and every crack was battened, as Pa had said. The door had a china knob. It opened into the lean-to over the back door. …

“Laura looked at the large front room. Its boards were still yellow inside, and sunshine from its west window slanted yellow on the floor. A cool light came in from the window to the east beside the front door. The surveyors had left their stove! …

“Spaced on the wall beyond it were three doors. All of them were shut.” (By the Shores of Silver Lake)

I saw those three doorways, lined up strikingly in one wall, only they were all open for visitors to peer at what was beyond: a bedroom taken almost entirely up with a bed and a little box where someone small would have slept; a staircase to an attic, at the top of which was a big mirror that reflected two beds on the other side of the room (eliminating the need to climb the stairs to see what was there); and Laura’s favorite room -- a sunlight-washed white pantry, filled with shelves, jars, and barrels.

As far as I can tell, this house was the oldest permanent structure in De Smet. It was moved from its original location and sided with clapboard; it had been a private residence until restored to the state where it had earned its enduring fame -- like the Ingallses would have had it. There were lots of interesting things inside, including replicas of the whatnot shelf and china shepherdess that made a home out of the Ingallses’ Little Houses. Alas, no inside photography was allowed.

Also on that property was the De Smet schoolhouse where Laura finished her education. (Little Town on the Prairie) Eliza Jane Wilder, Almanzo’s sister and a strict, unreasonable teacher, taught there for a term. The school had been a private home between then and now; when it was restored to a one-room schoolhouse, the original blackboard revealed itself, still intact!

One more building on that site was a replica of the Brewster School (the real name was Bouchie School), Laura’s first teaching position, which lasted two months. (These Happy, Golden Years) My impression of that time in the book was its misery: the school was a thin, ragged shack, the winter was hard, the students were difficult, the residents of that tiny hamlet were unhappy, and Laura was nervous and homesick. All of that came back to me as I stood in the schoolhouse, but I also remembered how Laura and the others overcame the miserable circumstances. They were not afraid to experience extreme discomfort, even danger, in their quest to live. They pursued education through great costs. Their lives were constantly on the line. I wondered if I could do that … labor relentlessly for the far-off image of a better life. It took sheer determination and, for many, great faith in God. And they overcame! How inspiring is that?

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