In the decades since it was founded, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society has grown from a one-acre memorial to a thriving, multi-site center with a large, archival collection pertaining to the Wilder-Ingalls families and the American frontier. The society’s historic buildings, in which Wilder lived and learned and about which she wrote, preserve the history of Western frontier settlers. National Endowment for the Humanities grants have provided the organization with critical preservation support, helping it protect its historical collections and restore one of its featured buildings.
“Our main goal is to preserve Laura’s legacy. That doesn’t just include Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family. We always try to include more about U.S. history and what it was like to homestead on the Western frontier.”
With the Ingalls Homestead, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society is the major tourist draw for De Smet, South Dakota, receiving more than 15,000 visitors per year. Tourists have come from every state in the U.S. and countries around the world. Visitors to the society can take a guided tour of the organization’s various sites, where they learn not just about Wilder, her novels, and the history of American Western expansion, but also about historic preservation. Funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities helped the society restore one of these sites, the First School of De Smet. The society was able to hire a conservator who assessed the First School’s original blackboard and, while peeling back the layers of wallpaper covering it, discovered the building’s original paint color.
NEH funding also helped the society safely house its archival collection, having an impact on its ability use historical items at sites and in rotating exhibitions at its Discovery Center. And writers have used the collections, which include Wilder’s correspondence, historic newspapers, and personal items, while researching a number of books related to the author, among them the best-selling Pioneer Girl and Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Ultimately, these items and the society itself tell a story that is bigger than Wilder’s. As Tessa Flak, the society’s executive director, explains, “Our main goal is to preserve Laura’s legacy. That doesn’t just include Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family. We always try to include more about U.S. history and what it was like to homestead on the Western frontier.”