Day in the Life of a De Smet Tour Guide

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?

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LIWMS Director and tour guides visiting the Walnut Grove, MN, pageant.

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. 


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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!


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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?


Bessie Coleman- A Pioneer For Black Pilots

Bessie was born Bessie Coleman on January 26th, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. She was the tenth of thirteen children born to George and Susan Coleman, who were sharecroppers. Although her childhood was undoubtedly a difficult one, Bessie was a happy child, and an extremely intelligent one. She had to walk four miles back and forth to school everyday to her one room, segregated schoolhouse, but she excelled in math and was an avid reader. When she was still a young child, her father, who was half-Native American as well as black, left the family to pursue better economic opportunities in Oklahoma. Susan Coleman and her children elected to stay in Texas, and Bessie often ended up pitching in to help with her younger siblings or to pick cotton. 


Bessie completed her schooling up to the eighth grade, and then she began saving for college. In 1910, Bessie entered the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, but she was only able to attend for one term before her money ran out. Bessie, who always had her sights set forward, saved up again and moved to Chicago, where she lived with her brother and opened a manicurists shop. One day her brother, looking to tease her, told Bessie that women in France were doing something that Bessie could never do- fly a plane. In response, Bessie began learning French.

Just a few months later, Bessie crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a steamship. She was going to be trained as a pilot at the Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Cadron et Le Crotoy, the most prestigious flying school in France. Seven months later she passed the test for her international pilot’s license, making her the first licensed black female pilot in the world. Bessie returned to America intent on purchasing her own plane and starting a flying school for African Americans. However, she soon ran into money problems. She found that pilots could make more money performing stunt shows on rural tour circuits, Bessie_Coleman_and_her_plane_(1922).jpgknown as barnstorming. She returned to France in 1922 for advanced aviation training, and began touring as soon as she returned to the U.S. Bessie performed dangerous stunts like wing-walking and parachute jumping to amazed crowds all across the country.

Throughout her increased popularity- among both black and white Americans- Bessie remained true to her goal of increasing equality for African Americans in the world of flying. She refused to perform in a show that didn’t allow black and white people to enter through the same gates, and insisted on desegregation for her audiences. She encouraged fellow African-Americans to fly, believing that “the air is the only place free of prejudice.” Unfortunately, Bessie did not live to see her dream of opening a flight school for black pilots. By 1926, Bessie had finally made the last payment on her own plane, a used model with a lot of engine troubles. One night, she and her mechanic took the plane up in the air for a test run before a show in Jacksonville, Florida. Over three hundred feet in the air the plane malfunctioned, and both Bessie and the mechanic were killed in the crash.

Thousands of people showed up to Bessie’s funeral, held in Orlando, and an additional 15,000 showed up in Chicago to pay their respects. The poor, black daughter of Texas sharecroppers grew up to inspire an entire country in her short life. She proved that not only could black women fly planes, but that they could excel at it. Her legacy inspired black flying groups like the Five Blackbirds, the Flying Hobos, and the Tuskegee Airmen. Her fight for racial equality in the skies caused her to break boundaries, and makes her a true pioneer.

Book Recommendation- Our Only May Amelia

Author: Jennifer L. Holm

One of my favorite childhood books, Our Only May Amelia, gives readers an insight on the life of a young girl and her family who were Finnish immigrants in 1899 Washington State. Besides being the youngest (and only) girl in a family of seven boys, May Amelia also has the misfortune to be the only girl born in the entire Nasel River settlement. Despite her family’s insistence that she behave like a proper young lady, May Amelia is more interested in exploring the forest or swimming in the river than in learning household chores. Although this book is lesser known than other examples of historical fiction, it is written in prose that brings the personality of the title character to life.  This book is a surprisingly emotional and impactful experience.  The journey continues in a sequel, The Trouble With May Amelia, creating a portrait of a young pioneer girl that is at turns heartbreaking, funny, and hopeful.


Book Recommendation- Young Pioneers

Author: Rose Wilder Lane

Many readers may not know that Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was also an author of some renown. Although Rose mostly focused on newspaper articles and serial stories, she also wrote short novels based on her mother’s pioneer stories. One of these, Young Pioneers, is perfect for readers hoping for another inspiring story of settlers beating the odds to make a life for themselves on the prairie. Newlyweds Molly and David are still teenagers when they make the journey west to the open prairie in search of free land. Over the course of the year, Molly, David, and their newborn son endure harsh blizzards, mounting debt, and grasshopper plagues to make their dreams come true. Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder will find that much of Rose’s message of resilience and self-reliance will resonate with them.


Clara Barton- Pioneer for Women and Aid Agencies

The Battle of Antietam had been raging for what seemed like days. The battlefield was loud, chaotic, dirty, and filled with the sounds of suffering from wounded soldiers. Through the haze of musket fire and smoke, a young woman in a red bonnet called Clara made her way to every injured man she could find, providing care and supplies. While offering a dying man a drink of water, Clara felt a tug in the sleeve of her dark dress. When she looked down to see what it was, she found a perfectly formed hole in the fabric near her elbow. A musket ball had gone through her dress and hit the man lying beside her, killing him instantly. Clara could afford herself only a moment to grieve before moving on to the next person in need of her help.

Clara was born Clarissa Harlow Barton on Christmas Day, 1821, in the central Clara-Barton-181468210a-56aa233b3df78cf772ac870cMassachusetts town of North Oxford. The youngest of four siblings by at least ten years, Clara grew up as a tomboy, learning “unladylike” activities and games from her older brothers and preferring school to domestic chores. She also grew up painfully shy, sometimes getting so anxious and overwrought that she refused to eat. However, in a pattern that would continue for the rest of her life, Clara was able to overcome her shyness completely whenever someone was in need. When her brother became ill, she stayed by his side and learned to administer his medication, including what she thought of as “great, loathsome, crawling leeches.”

Despite this early inclination towards nursing, Clara’s inner drive to help first lead her towards being a schoolteacher. She taught for several years in her hometown before moving to New Jersey, where she taught at a so-called “subscription” school. Such schools operated on fees paid by student’s parents, and there were many children denied from receiving an education because their parents couldn’t pay the fees. Clara believed this was wrong, and offered to teach school for free if the town would provide her a building. During her first week of running the first free public school in New Jersey, six students showed up; by the end of the year, there were over a hundred. Despite capably founding and leading the school for over a year, Clara was let go in favor of a male candidate. Undeterred, she moved to Washington D.C, where she worked as a clerk in the U.S Patent Office, during a time when it was rare for women to have government jobs. Soon after, the civil war broke out, and Clara’s life changed forever.

As wounded soldiers began appearing in the capital in droves, Clara saw firsthand the desperate need for supplies. She petitioned the army for the right to bring her own supplies to the battlefield. As a woman, it would be easier for her to bring relief working from outside the system then from the inside. In 1862 her pleas found a sympathetic senator, and Clara received permission to bring wagons of supplies to doctors and generals in battle. Clara and her volunteer service were at the front lines of some of the worst battles seen during the Civil War, including Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, and Antietam.


Those who might’ve known Clara as an anxious and shy young girl likely wouldn’t have recognized the single minded, confident woman dodging gunfire as she brought relief to hundreds of soldiers. Her toughness, spirit, grace, and timeliness on the front lines earned her the nickname “angel of the battlefield.” After the war was over, Clara lent her extensive knowledge of the soldiers and regiments she treated to help identify some 30,000 soldiers graves.

Her time with the army had taught her the importance of neutrality when it came to field nursing. Clara took what she had learned and traveled to Europe, where she worked with the International Red Cross based in Switzerland. She spent time providing aid during the Franco-Prussian war, and the experience galvanized her to action again. Upon returning to America, Clara began advocating tirelessly for the creation of a Red Cross branch in the United States. It took three presidents, but Clara finally got her wish in 1881. She served as its first president until 1903. During the first twenty years of it’s existence, the American Red Cross was largely devoted to disaster relief. Clara and her volunteers assisted in crises like a forest fire in Michigan and hurricanes in South Carolina and Galveston, Texas.

Clara Barton’s incredible legacy extended even further than the barriers she broke as a female combat nurse. She opened up new paths in the emerging field of volunteer service, and created an agency for service that would outlast her. Despite her accomplishments, she remained humble and committed to the service of others above her own well being. Of her time as a Civil War nurse, Clara wrote “I always tried… to succor the wounded until the medical aid and supplies could come up. I could run the risk; it made no difference to anyone if I were shot or taken prisoner.”

Dorothea Lange- Pioneer for Documentary Photography

In 1933 San Francisco, a portrait photographer named Dorothea was starting to get restless. The neat, orderly world she saw inside her studio and her camera lens was not reflected outside the windows, where hundreds of unemployed men and women were filling the streets. As a woman, it was not guaranteed that Dorothea could gain their trust enough to photograph them. But one day, she simply couldn’t sit on the sidelines any longer. She walked the streets of San Francisco armed with her camera and a deep respect for her subjects, and a new career in documentary photography was born.   

Dorothea Lange was born Dorothea Nutzhorn on May 26, 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1902, when she was seven, Dorothea contracted polio, which left her right leg and foot considerably weakened. She later attributed this experience as the “most important thing” that had ever happened to her, giving her humility and compassion for others. Although she was physically disabled for the rest of her life, it never slowed her down, and many people who met her had no knowledge of her disability.  The ther childhood trauma leaving a profound impact on Lange was the separation of her parents when she was a teenager. She and her brother went with their mother to her maternal grandmother’s house. Dorothea attended six years of public school in New York City.  She would spend the majority of her time walking in the city, observing the way people lived and the differences between rich, middle class, and poor. She later credited this experience with being what taught her to “see” rather than just to look. With such an intense interest in seeing and understanding the world around her, it’s no wonder that Lange felt so drawn to photography.



Lange enjoyed a successful career as a portrait photographer at her studio in SaFrancisco, but in the 1930’s she turned her camera to a darker subject. The Great Depression left thousands of men and women unemployed and/or homeless. Dorothea began traveling through the breadlines, labor demonstrations, and soup kitchens of San Francisco, documenting the suffering and resilience of those affected by the financial hardships. This bold and compassionate approach allowed her to get close to her subjects, and to capture pictures that few other photographers were able to get. Pictured right is her most famous photo of the San Francisco breadlines, titled White Angel Breadline. 



Her photographs earned her national attention, and in 1935 she began a four-year commission with the Farm Security Agency (FSA). The Great Depression in America coincided with a major agricultural crisis in the Midwest, known as the Dust Bowl. Hundreds of thousands of farmers were forced to leave their land and make their way west in search of migrant work in places like California. These families were usually destitute, often on the verge of starvation. It was this beaten-down and desperate landscape that Lange was sent to document. She stayed in several migrant camps across the lower-midwest, getting to know the families that lived there. It was in one of these camps that Lange took what is arguably her most famous picture, and indeed one of the 201307F03-KC-MigrantMother-Photo-Portrait-thumbnail-1200x1200most famous American photographs, Migrant Mother (pictured left). Migrant Mother profoundly affected the American public. The photograph put a human face on the suffering that thousands of Americans were facing in a part of the country that could sometimes feel very far away from the cities and coasts of America.

After her work with the FSA, Lange was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. Her experiences working with the marginalized and forgotten people of the country inspired her to eventually reject that fellowship to photograph the realities of Japanese internment. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, anti-Japanese fear and racism in America grew to a fever pitch. In 1942, President Roosevelt issued an executive order that allowed for the internment of thousands of people of Japanese descent, simply for the reason of being Japanese. Lange was hired by the Office of War Information (OWI) to document the process, but her photographs of confused and frightened Japanese families being rounded into trains or barracks like cattle proved to be too incendiary. The OWI suppressed Lange’s photographs and they Dorothea Lange - Family of Japanese ancestry arrives at assembly center at Tanforan Race Track. 1942weren’t published for the first time until 2006.

Lange has been called a truly democratic photographer. Her work captured the lives of workers all over the country, no matter if they were black, white, Chinese, Mexican, or Japanese. The legacy she left behind didn’t just enrich the photographic world, but the wider world of American public conscious. She continued to work on social justice issues through her photography until her death in 1965 from esophageal cancer.


Book Recommendation- Dear America Series

Author: Multiple authors

In third grade, I set a goal to read every single Dear America book in my elementary school library. The books took up two full shelves, so it was a daunting task, but I soon found out the problem would be what I would do when I finished them all. Each book in the series is written in diary format, from the perspective of a young girl living through an important event in American history. Each girl has a distinctive voice and personality, making each book a joy to read. The topics run from immigration to New York to escaping concentration camps and fleeing to America, along with everything in between. I would recommend any of them, as there are plenty of stories to satisfy any history lover. However, for those looking for pioneer stories like Laura’s, there are a few options. Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie is written from the perspective of a young girl encountering hope and hardship on the Oregon Trail. West to a Land of Plenty describes the life of a young Italian immigrant girl moving to the American West. My Face to the Wind is the diary of a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse on the prairie. (And if you’re looking for something for a young boy to read, a spin-off series called My name is America is told from a male perspective).