Contact: Rich Kurz   Page content last updated March 23, 2016


  Our family, like many others, rediscovered the Little House on the Prairie books when our children were young. I had not heard about them when I was a boy, and I certainly did NOT want to watch the TV show when I was a twenty-something. Just as well I did not. The Hollywood treatment warped the stories. So we started reading them, and lo and behold, we ended up reading them all! And them rereading them a year later!!
  Well, my own interest in history led me to begin collecting what tidbits I could about items in the stories. How true was it? The final answer is it was both true and exaggerated or outright made up. But on the whole, it WAS true!
  We eventually visited the actual location of the cabin in Little House On The Prairie, and visited De Smet and saw one of the open-air dramatizations of the story held each summer. Although there are trees now where there was only prairie before, and an established farming town where tent and timber stores sprung up, it DOES help visualize the stories thru the settings.
  Well, I became semi-driven to recreate some of the significant buildings from the stories. The Surveyor House was easy. It still stands. But what about the actual little house on the prairie, or the big woods, or on Plum Creek? How big was Pa's store or their claim shanty? It was more than mere curiosity. I suspected that they were smaller than we imagined--much smaller. It was my guess that we saw them in our mind's eye with the apparent dimensions perceived by the children who lived in them. I, too, have been very surpised how small objects were when I rediscovered them as an adult. I remember those objects or toys to have been at least twice as large as they now were for me as an adult.

  With all that said, presented here are my explorations of the world of the Little House series. Here is the surveyor house, complete with an interior. Pa's store is now pretty well nailed down (so to speak). It CAN be known what it looked like and how big it was! You can now buy a paper model of it in the "Loftus" store, the Ingalls Homestead gift shop, or in the Walnut Grove museum. Others have explored what the De Smet claim shanty/home was like. This now-broken LINK was a well researched site about all things Laura shared in her blog.
  And what will be the next building? Don't know yet.

The Discoveries

Discovery #1:
The Surveyor House

Discovery #2:
Town Map, 1883

Discovery #3:
Pa's Store

Discovery #4:
The Earliest Photo ? ? ?

Discovery #4:
Ma's House

DISCOVERY #1--The Surveyor House

I began my discoveries with an easy one...the Surveyor House, which still stands as the oldest structure in De Smet. It had been moved decades ago from its original location. Now it is lovingly maintained in a state much like it was when the Ingalls spent their first winter in Kingsbury County by the shores of Silver Lake. There is a simple guided tour of the first floor, but the upstairs is off limits. No photos are allowed to be taken, so I had to satisfy myself with pacing off the main room. It was 12 by 13 of my feet.

Having discovered paper models in 2004-2005, I thought this would make my first original creatiion. I found photos to give me near elevation views of the front and north side (it faces east now). Photos of an outside model of the house in its original configurations helped me find proportions and details to establish dimensions. I also wanted to have an interior. Those dimensions were deduced from the interior photos I found. I colored the structure as bare unpainted wood that was starting to gray with weathering. You cannot see it, but I used photos from around De Smet as views in the windows on the interior. Finally, I made quick models of the Ingalls girls from a family portrait of them and added my own children for comparison. Guessing the Ingalls' heights was just that. I think Laura's adult height was only 5'1", and she was only 12 or 13 during the "Long Winter" - not fully grown up.
It was a successful project that did give me the comparison result I was looking for. By the way, the model was made in 1/4"=1foot scale.

The front of the Surveyor House from the street.
The right (north) side from the street.
The model of the house as it might have looked originally.
The model displayed out doors, front door elevation.
This look-down view shows the interior. I made the upper floor to be removable.

EXERCISE#2--Aerial Map of De Smet, Dakota Territory, 1883

This birdseye view of De Smet in 1883 was drawn by Henry Wellge of Wisconsin. For a hand drawn illustration with no need for correct perspective, it rectifies pretty well. BTW, the block of trees is not the cemetary, but a park. The scan was downloaded from Nancy Cleaveland's Pioneer Girl website. She has a wealth of collected and original research into all things Laura. It will be worth your time to browse thru her blog and pages - if she posts them again.

This was just a "let's see if..." exercise. Nothing was really discovered by it. Maybe you, the reader, can find some utility from it.

This image linked to the map file on Nancy Cleaveland's "Pioneer Girl" website (dead link).
The rectified map corrected to the vertical frame the and horizontal baselines of the text.
Then I "rotated" the image to look down on the town as though it were a map. One quickly discovers that this was not a tightly drawn perspective. I focused on the central four blocks and made them to be rectangular. I need to bring the rotated image into Photoshop in order to disproportionally scale it so that the blocks would be square. Out of Hugin, they were taller than wide.
And that's how I got to the final result.
And if I take the look-down image and rotate and skew it so Calumet is horizontal, I get the storefronts on the west side of Calumet Ave. (Vertical scaling is arbitrary.)

EXERCISE#3--Pa's Store: a RE-creation


One of the biggest challenges to my imagining Laura's experience is Pa's store in De Smet. They lived thru a brutal winter in it their second year in the De Smet area. I imagine Pa's store to be... well... store-size. But how big was it really?

It turns out there are two public domain photos of it taken in 1912 as seen in two panoramaic photographs. These can be found at American Memory here and here. You can find these there by going to the panoramic photos section and searching on the photographer's last name, "McKibben" or on "South Dakota." The first shows a 3/4 front view of the building and the second shows a nearly complete side elevation of it. It had been moved from its original location to the back of the lot when the First National Bank of De Smet building was constructed. That building today houses the Gass Law firm. There also exists a number of private photos of it. One researcher graciously took interest in what I was doing and shared a few more.

My procedure was to compare Pa's store in the photos, whose dimensions were unknown, to the bank building/Gass Law firm building, whose dimensions can be known. So a good orthographic reconstruction of the bank would also yield one for Pa's store and provide dimensions by comparison. Because a rectified image is not necessarily in correct proportion width to height, I needed to compare the 1912 photos to my own modern ones. I am using my photos of the bank/Gass Law building taken when we visited in 2003 in Hugin to get a present day comparison of the building. I then Huginize the bank building taken in 1912 to match the two. I will then be able to use the same Hugin file to make elevations of Pa's store (So goes the theory, but measurements trump theory).
I have done this by hand and came to the rough conclusion that Pa's store was about as big as the Surveyor House! In other words, it was small. Pa may well have used the Surveyor House as his model when he built the store. Maybe. I wanted to order up large files of the panoramas and Huginize them to get better detail thru increased resolution, but what is on line is all one can get digitally.


A 2nd round of Hugin produced the bottom row. What really helped was having the basic aspect ratio of the floorplan - or in this case the roof plan. I found that on Mapquest, and established the front/side ratio to be 1:1.73-ish ("-ish" because of not very great resolution). With that in hand, I was finally forced to admit that my belief about rotating the image in Hugin until I had two rectilinear side views which would be in the same proportion to each other was FALSE! I don't know why. It should be to my way of understanding. But it simply never worked out that way. But now I had some confidence about how to disportionally scale the two sides. I scaled the Calument (front) side to my own photo I took face on. I then scaled the 2nd Street (north) side in height to the front, and in width to my aspect ratio in which the front equals the "1" of 1:1.73. You get the idea. Then I scaled the side of Pa's store from the front view to match the height of his store in the side view, and violá, I had his store to scale to the Gass Law building today. Its aspect ration was very close to 1:1 for the front, and 1:1.5 front width to depth. The second story was barely tall enough to stand up in. The two outside corners of the store front 2nd story windows HAD to be touching the rafters! The peak of the roof barely comes up to the top of the 1st story windows of the Gass Law building. If we assume the front door is 6-1/2 feet tall, then that height would be just over 14 feet tall!! Yup. It's small.


ROUND 3 - This is the reason I have not posted in over a year - I have been trying to arm-wrestle this to the ground. I shared my findings from an 1883 so-called earliest photo with LIW researcher, Nancy Cleaveland, and it resulted in an excellent critique of my conclusion. I had identified one building as being Pa's store and thought it was reinforced by one of the cartouches in the "Little Town on the Prairie" book. So back I went to REALLY work over the so-called earliest photo that I found on the web. Better files were shared, but cannot be reproduced here cuz of copyright permissions. Sorry about that, but it a nuisance worth protecting... especially some day when it is one of your OWN images! Long story short, she is right! It was NOT Pa's store, but what was later the meat market three doors down. You can see it in the 1912 panorama. But wait... after trial upon trial, I got a good elevation of the entire two blocks of Calumet from the earliest photo, and lo and behold (drum roll)... PA'S STORE IS NOT THERE!!! Given all the buildings one CAN see, it is our opinion that this photo would be from some time in the late spring/early summer of 1886. Pa's store was moved to the back of the lot to make way for a new brick bank building. The bank was completed later in the fall of '86. So, what we have is a photo of Pa's store and the new bank, neither of which is visible. Some days ya feel like Thomas Edison waiting for the light bulb to turn on.

ROUND 4 - Back to the drawing board, or, to the McKibben 1912 panoramas. Unlike a regular photo, the panoramas seem to have a disproportional stretching. By that I mean that when I rectify them and look at the entire block, the width of each lot increases with distance from the camera. The more distant ones are wider than the nearer ones. It should not do that, and does not in a well-done rectified photo. I tried determining the camera position and ended up wandering all over the intersection. I tried looking down on the intersection, but even knowing its dimensions (which I learned much later - 80x100 feet building corner to building corner), I could not get it level and rectangular. If you study the panorama you will notice something is off-quilter. The left and right ends of the photo, which are the street corners just across from each other, have a big elevation difference! For a rotating camera, it will (should) return to the same position. In other words, the greatest elevation difference should NOT be at the opposite ends of the panorama. The right end should be approaching the same elevation as the left end. Note that this was not a complete 360 degree panorama, but it was close - I guess between 310-330 degrees. But if one crops the panorama to about a 100 degree field of view (this encompasses over one block), one can get a fairly well rectified image. So I settled for that.

ROUND 5 - I next started working on some loaned images (not shown - copyrighted). But again, lacking known dimensions stymied my ability to know if my width and depth proportions were correct. But I COULD get details about the placement of windows and such, so they proved useful. Then, I was provided with measurements of the Gass Law Office building, so now I could check proportions over an entire block. I also had access to a Sanborn Insurance map, which showed the locations and dimensions and heights of all the buildings in De Smet. Big Help! And Google and Bing now had better resolution aerial views of De Smet today. Things were coming together and I could make an educated guess to the basic dimensions of the building - safely to within inches I hoped.

ROUND 6 - But the clincher was a new direction I explored to verify my dimensions. I don't know why I did not think of it before, but I realized the best way to verify anything was to rebuild it! And so I did. Digitally! In effect, I created a blueprint of the structure. You could draft it or use a good drawing program or a simple CAD program. But how did they build structures back then in the 1880s?

It turns out they used a technique called "balloon framing", which had been recently developed around 1860. It is closely related to our modern platform framing, which is really just an improvement of it. It used 2x4 lumber and 16 inch on-center stud spacing. The studs though were full height. It was a dramatic breakthrough in construction, producing a sturdy but light structure. More importantly, all one needed were basic carpentry tools and a helper! It made possible the overnight building of prairie towns along the railroad lines.

AND THE KNOCK-OUT! - And so I began, using my derived dimensions as my rough guide, and, EUREKA! It worked beautifully! The structure I came up with matched well my derived dimensions and the photos. The roof angle worked (30 degrees) and even the lap board siding (5 inch boards with an exposure of 4-1/2 inches). The door sill height indicated a floor on an 8 inch joist. The top windows extend down nearly to the attic floor, permitting an 8-foot main floor ceiling height to the bottom of 8-inch attic joists. One final confirmation I came across while searching for more birdseye maps by Henry Wellge, who created the De Smet 1883 map. He did many, which may be found at American Memory, but the one for Redfield, Dakota (now South Dakota) had a print shop in a corner cartouche. It looked exactly like Pa's store! Apparently Charles Ingalls built to a standard model. And so we had it cornered and it was just a matter of finishing it off.

There are still some assumptions and unknowns, of course. Reading thru Laura Ingalls Wilder's writings yields clues. From them we learn that:
• the store was left unpainted, inside and out
• It was ceiled and sided inside and out
• It had a root cellar somewhere under it
• The attic trap door was where the back door was, because the ladder to it was by the door
• The front room was large and the back room was small - very small

But just how small is unknown and can only be surmised from how it was furnished. That, and the fact that eight people lived in it by day. Yes, eight! It turns out that the Ingalls boarded (hosted more realistically - their guests never paid more than a token amount) a young couple they knew from Walnut Grove, plus their newborn who was birthed there that winter.

Then, there is the lean-to shed on the back. Wellge's drawing shows one less than half the width of the back of the store. But the 1912 photos show it now on the side and about 2/3 the width of the back. But look again and one sees a difference in texture or surface shading dividing it evenly in the middle, indicating that maybe, just maybe, it was expanded when the store was moved! That affects the back room layout significantly. The back door would now be well off center, and it would move the trap door closer to the south wall where a person going upstairs would encounter the sloping roof. That is a project I might pursue later to try different arrangements.

It was a good project because it finally came to a conclusion. And I learned to use Hugin much better and quicker to pull elevation views out of photos. And, I think I have made a small but real contribution to the Little House knowledge base.


"De Smet, South Dakota, corner of 2nd and Calumet Ave."
J174028 U.S. Copyright Office / Copyright deposit; C. S. McKibben; October 10, 1912; no known restrictions on publication.

"View of Desmet [sic], S.D. from Court House"
J174029 U.S. Copyright Office / Copyright deposit; C. S. McKibben; October 10, 1912; DLC/PP-1912:44504; no known restrictions on publication.

"Ten men building a wood frame house, Omaha Reservation, Nebraska, 1877"
Photo by William Henry Jackson; The National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

"1883 Bird's Eye View of Redfield, Dak." Drawn by H. Wellge. Copyrighted by H. G. Rising
Digital Id: G4184R Pm008910 Http://Hdl.Loc.Gov/Loc.Gmd/G4184R.Pm008910

This is the 3/4 front view of Pa's store. Click on the photo to see a portion of the panorama it came from.
This is a portion of the 2nd panorama. Pa's store is behind the bank on the left, street side of it.
Here is the bank building today. This is the Hugin corrected view incorporting barrel correction calibrated to the digital camera. I use this to make elevetion comparisons.
This is the working photo I will mostly use. The 3/4 angle allows one to derive both front and side theory. I have been having difficulties doing that, working on the assumption that the two sides should be at a right angle to each other.
This is a rotated view looking up, which shows the proportional relationship of the two sides. As you can see, the angle between the sides is slightly off, and by a bothersome amount. I use this as a check on dimensions between the two sides.
Here is the bank building today with a semitransparent overlay of the 1912 bank building overlaid onto it, grace à Hugin. I was pleased to find they aligned very well considering the photos were made with two very different cameras.
Here are the two sides Photoshopped together side by side. It was necessary to proportionally scale (i.e., same scaling for both X and Y axes) one side to match the height of the other. As a check, the brick moldings and window heights matched.
(LEFT) This is a screen cap of the Gass Law building from Mapquest.
(CENTER) The best image I found that in Hugin matched the aspect ratio established in the aerial view without unequal scaling. Click image to go to the source on Flickr. The image may be viewed in the "Great Interior Tour" set. I worked with a screen capture of the large image size.
(RIGHT) I adjusted the exposure and sharpness to enhance the detail.
Panorama of the combined rectified views (2nd Street and Calument Ave) of the 1912 McKibben photo.
(LEFT) Assembled 2nd Street/Calumet views of De Smet National Bank (1912)
(RIGHT) Assembled 2nd Street/Calumet views of Gass Law building (2010)
(LEFT) Assembled view of Pa's store from McKibben's photo (1912)
(Right) Overlaid control lines on assembled image.
Here is the intersection of Calumet and Second Street
The east side of Calument, block 4
The south side of Second Street, block 4
(1st) An example of balloon framing, circa 1877 (see "REFERENCES")
(2nd) Pa Ingalls' store, circa 1912, as seen from the courthouse
(3rd) The cartouche of the print shop in Redfield, from Wellge's map (see "REFERENCES")
(4th) The north and east elevations of the framing of Pa's store from my recreation
(5th) And the floor plan of the ground floor and attic. The attic partition location is surmised.
(1st - 4th) General views of the model
(5th) And a comparison to the Gass Law Office (formerly the De Smet National Bank) building

DISCOVERY #4--The Earliest Photo

This was cited as the earliest known photo of De Smet in Aubrey Sherwood's "Beginnings of De Smet" and likely was taken by Mr. H.W. Cooledge, one of the town's first photographers. But is it really? How can we tell? Oh! I know... I will look for Pa's Store. It should be easy to see and was there from April of 1880, the year the town was settled. But for the life of me, I could see other buildings I recognize, but not Pa's store! It simply was not there! How could that be?
I tried doing perspective correction on photo of this photo three years ago. The photo was taken not only from an off-center angle, but of a curved photo print. But the left half where Pa's store should be was pretty flat and so I was confident of my correction of that part. And sure enough it too showed an empty space where Pa's store should be. But I could not be absolutely sure.
So last year I attended the Laurapalooza in Brookings. I took a half day to drop in on the Laura Ingalls Society in De Smet and met with the director, who graciously allowed me to look at some original photos in their collection. The earliest photos was a top item of my interest. And she even more graciously allowed me to scan the photo! And I did.
Returning home, I eventually started working on my high-res scan doing perspective correction. And still I found an empty lot where Pa's store should be. I did a back-and-forth dialogue with my go-to researcher on the matter who was still not sure my technique was working. So I reverted to a mechanical perspective analysis. I found the vanishing point and the perspective rays along the street and storefronts. I then tediously established each of the 28 lots along the two blocks shown in the photo. I then tinted each one to stand out and then ran the photo thru the Hugin perspective correction technique. And sure enough, once and for all, demonstrated that there is NO STORE where Pa's store should be.
So how could that be? What does that mean? Only one thing I could think of: the store had been moved. That event happened just before the new bank building construction was begun. But there is also definitely NO BANK in the photo either! Ahah! There was only one brief period of time when neither building occupied that location - after Pa's store was moved and before construction was begun on the bank. And when was that? In the summer of 1885.
So now we know when this so-called earliest known photo was taken. And from the location of the camera, it was taken from Cooledge's shop.
BUT WAIT!... about a year before this, my go-to researcher had established that another photo I was working on was taken maybe even earlier! Yes - even earlier!! That photo was of a celebration of some sort and the people were in strange-faced costumes. It turned out that Pa's store was hidden just behind the crowd, but one other detail showed up on close examination. Are you ready for this....? It showed the upper story of Pa's very first store!!! And when was the photo taken? Well, the costumes are typical of those worn by the Odd Fellows, which held gatherings in De Smet in 1883 and 1884. And Pa's first store was moved in April 1886 to make way for the Couse Opera House completed in October of that year. So the photo was taken some time between 1883 and April 1886.
What is most interesting about it is that is looks exactly like his more famous store from "The Long Winter"! Well, that does make sense. They were built in the same year, so why not make them the same? There was no reason to make them different. He could order the same amount of materials. And it would be easier to make two from one plan rather than two from different plans. Surely there must be photos of the first store after Couse moved it before building his opera house!

BUT WAIT! I have heard told that there were photos taken on July 4, 1883! I would love to see those!

Aubrey Sherwood's earliest known photo
The photo with the two blocks of lots (east side, Blocks 2 & 4) plotted in perspective
Hugin-ized so the two blocks are face-on to the viewer orthographically
The other candidate for the "earliest" photo
Hugin-ized so Block 1 (west side) is face-on to the viewer orthographically
Close-up showing the top of Pa's very first store!
It looks just like the other, more famous building from "The Long Winter"!

EXERCISE#5--Recreating Ma's House on the Claim

While visiting the Ingalls Homestead in De Smet in 2015, I asked if there was a building I could make a model of for them. "Ma's House!" was the enthusiastic answer. There are, of course, no photos of the building. All we have to go on are other claim shanties as well as the dimensions listed on Charles Ingalls' claim proof document. The Ingalls Homestead worked off of those plus Laura Ingalls Wilder's description of how the house looked and was added to.
So I headed down to their recreation of it and took some documentation photos of the building inside and out. Things are hopping there, so it took two years to complete it and get the final approval, but you can buy it there now.

Instead of relying on Hugin to get my orthographic views, I loaded my photos into a Photomodeler project and began marking points. The exterior plotted nicely, but I needed more interior photos to get the same accuracy. Still, I had enough to do what I needed to make the model. From Photomodeler, I export the different orthographic views as pdfs. Because the artwork in the pdf is in vector format, I can open the pdf in an illustration program like Illustrator or CorelDraw or Inkscape and begin creating my line drawings. Once I have all my walls detailed and sized together, I can then lay them out for cutting and folding onto 8-1/2" x 11" sheets. The final model closely matches the building constructed at the Ingalls Homestead . . . but you will have to visit them to confirm it for yourself!

This is a set of walk-around photos of the building.
Here is a Huginized orthographic view of the north kitchen wall. This allows me to locate and scale the doors and other details.
The northeast bedroom
The northwest bedroom
Screen captures from Photomodeler. The top view is on the right.
This is a set of "walk-around" photos of the model.