Have you ever taken a guided tour through a museum or historic site and wondered what it was really like to be a tour guide? Could it really be as glamorous and exciting as it seemed?
Like most jobs in the tourist industry being a tour guide is an incredibly rewarding, if not occasionally frustrating experience. There are painfully slow days, lightning-fast busy days, and days that are combinations of the two and feel like they’re going to last for the rest of our lives. But how many other jobs are there where you can get paid to talk to people about history all day? In the end, the benefits of working as a tour guide always outweigh the drawbacks. “The best part about being a tour guide,” according to Heidi, who has worked at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society for four years, “is that you get to meet people from all over the world.”
Of course, a major part of being a tour guide is interacting with the guests of the museum. People from all over the country and even the world come to visit, and whether De Smet is a destination or a pit stop for them, they all bring something new and interesting to each tour. Some groups will know a lot about Laura’s life, some only know about her from the television show, some have almost no knowledge of her at all, and some will be a mix of the three. While that gives the each tour some variety, it also contributes to one of the biggest challenges of being a tour guide. Our executive director, Tessa Flak, has also worked as a tour guide at the Laura site in Burr Oak, Iowa. “I’ve spent eight years as a tour guide,” she says, “And none of my tours have ever been the same.” Tour guides are not only responsible for memorizing the stories of each “Little House” book and the tour script, but often have to adapt each tour on the fly to fit a particular groups’s interest and knowledge level.
However, there is much more to being a LIWMS tour guide than just giving tours! A typical day will start with opening each of the buildings and checking to make sure everything looks ready for the day ahead. The gift shop will need to be vacuumed and restocked. During the day there is generally someone posted at the front desk, in order to answer questions, handle transactions, and get people signed up for tours. At the end of the day, each building needs to be cleaned, swept, and locked up for the night.
Beyond these daily chores, however, the most typical thing about a tour guide’s day is that there is no such thing as a typical tour guide day. One of our summer interns, Melanie, put it best: “My favorite part of a regular day is the random things we do, like decorating covered wagons or rearranging display cases in the exhibit. Life is always exciting here at the Society!” Sometimes you might find yourself pulling an 1880’s covered wagon across a parking lot, rearranging porcelain dolls in our gift shop cases, or struggling to fix a weed-whacker. During a summer thunderstorm this year, we ended up serving fruit punch and some of Laura’s leftover birthday cake to guests as we waited for the rain and hail to stop!
The craziness of some of these days brings all of us tour guides together into a sort of family. But what brings us together the most is our desire to bring the world of Laura to life for our visitors. Dianne, our assistant director, states that being a tour guide is important “because we are the ones who are passing along her stories and keeping them alive.” Without tour guides, the experience of visiting Laura’s “Little Town” would be far less personal. “We spend a short time with people on our tours”, Dianne says, “but sometimes they leave a lasting impression on us as we hope we do for them.” And every tour guide can agree, one of the most special moments during a tour are when visitors are overwhelmed with emotion from visiting the buildings of Laura’s childhood. We get to feel like we are helping to make dreams come true. How’s that for a summer job?