Little Stop on the Prairie

When Pa Ingalls made the journey from Walnut Grove, Minnesota to his homestead near what is now De Smet, South Dakota, it took him more than a week by horse and wagon. Friday evening we made the same trip in two hours.

Back in his day, the settled lands had been hunted out. There was no longer a rabbit to be seen, shot, or eaten. Pa dreamed of homesteading in the Dakota Territory and when his brother in-law offered him a job with the railroad, it was his chance to push toward the very edge of the frontier and claim his perfect piece of land.

The American government needed ways to populate and settle the vast new land it acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, and so they started giving it away to willing souls like Pa Ingalls in the Homestead Acts. To be clear, there were already people on the land, but they weren’t European.

In order to homestead, you needed to be 21 years old, the head of your household, and an American citizen (or pledged to become one). You could receive title to 160 acres if you met those requirements, lived on your chosen land for five years and made improvements like tilling the soil and cobbling together a modest structure or two.

And that’s what Pa Ingalls did. We know quite a bit about Pa Ingalls because his daughter Laura grew up to be a writer. And because Michael Landon wasn’t a pioneer, but he played one on TV. I watched that show faithfully as a young boy. I devoured the books. I read On the Banks of Plum Creek from cover to cover while soaking in a tub to relieve the itching of my third grade chicken pox. The theme song from Little House on the Prairie was the first tune I learned on the harmonica.

We pulled onto that very same piece of land late Friday night. The Ingalls Homestead. There was a note taped to the door of the visitor center with directions to our accommodations. We left the climate controlled, upholstered seating of our van, walked out under the big, dark sky, and found our covered wagon waiting.

It made me think of an old commercial for insurance. A homesteader and his wife stood on a hillside under a Maxwell Parrish sky. The couple surveyed their property to a soundtrack of symphonic strings, gazed dreamily into one another’s eyes and said, “And the land will give us all that we need.”

I always wanted that commercial to revisit them in, say, a month or two. They’d be on the same ridge, unkempt and bedraggled. The glowing clouds replaced by swarms of locust. The strings off key or silent and the script would simply read, “Oh, crap. This is hard.”

There is a sense of wonder and awe in our nation’s westward expansion. There is plenty of ugly, too. It often gets painted with rose colored patriotic brush strokes or imperial doom, but for me the history makes more sense when we acknowledge shades of both. As I lay in bed under the cover of our modified sheep wagon I just tried to wrap my mind around exactly what it would have been like to be Pa Ingalls.

The wind blew hard all night, as it does in those parts. The rain came too, with rolling thunder. And I had trouble sleeping. Not because I was alarmed. Not because the wagon was pretty cramped, though it was. I stayed awake because I wanted to feel the place. I wanted to touch just a small moment of this piece of earth that lived so large in our national identity and there was no other place where I would ever get so close.

When the alarm sounded at 5 am I was already awake. I grabbed a camera and walked out across the Ingalls homestead waiting for dawn to catch up. Low clouds tumbled over the prairie. The rain was gone but there was no promise of sun.

I stood quiet and alone. The wind on my face chased away any last thoughts of slumber and the long grass was wet on my legs. I watched the swallows and breathed in the damp earth that Pa Ingalls once farmed.

For a glorious 10 minutes the sun shone through holes in the clouds. Pools of warm dawn light danced across the wheat fields and native grasses. And for a few minutes, the hint of a rainbow showed against a dark and billowing sky.

It was a quick stay at the homestead. We arrived at 11 pm and were gone by 7 the next morning. We barely saw another soul, but I suppose that’s the way you’d want it.

Just before we drove away, we stopped at a grove of five large cottonwood trees that Pa Ingalls planted on the corner of the property. Their trunks were massive. The branches spread low and wide. We Noltners have planted plenty of trees…about 18,000 so far at our farm. I long to see them tall and strong like Pa’s…but when I think it through I realize that their maturing will bring me closer to the end of my time on earth. So standing among Pa’s trees 140 years after he planted them made me smile because he did something simple I’ve always hoped to do. He worked hard, he made a home for his family and he left something good behind.

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