Thursday, August 31, 2006

Red Rock and a Little House

Greetings from Pierre, South Dakota. We didn’t make it very far, geographically speaking, today, but we did have a great day.

We started out with a visit to Pipestone National Monument. To be quite honest, we had absolutely no idea what this place even was. Was it some unusual rock formations, or perhaps just a statue commemorating an Indian battlefield? Really, no clue. We just saw the national monument noted on our road atlas, not more than ten miles from our intended route, and since we have a national parks pass that is good through the end of September, we thought we would check it out.

We are all now experts on Pipestone.

Turns out, pipestone is a type of very soft, red rock that is really just compressed clay. It is buried in the ground under a much harder layer of rock, often up to ten or twenty feet thick, called Sioux quartzite. For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, Native Americans have been chipping away at this quartzite to extract the pipestone underneath—all in this one area of what is now western Minnesota. It is the only known quarry containing this rock. Indian legend says that the Great Spirit himself showed them where this rock was buried and told them that it was sacred ground, the very flesh and blood of their ancestors. He commanded them to use it for pipes and other religious instruments, and that they were always to share it with other tribes—no fighting should ever take place in the area of the quarries.

Well, in an unlikely move by the U.S. gov’t, the quarry is now protected as a national monument and belongs solely to the Native Americans themselves. They are the only ones allowed to mine there and may do what they wish with the precious pipestone. The area is open to park visitors to stroll through and observe, but there are strict warnings not to remove any stone.

The pipestone is so soft and malleable, that my son was able to saw through a piece with a standard handsaw in the visitor’s center. It must still be mined the old way, with hammer and chisel, as it is so fragile that it will break if power tools or explosives are applied to it. It can be filed with a simple rasp and carved into any shape fairly easily. It is then sanded to a 400 grit finish and rubbed down with a little beeswax to give it a deep red luster.

My kids were admiring some finished products in the gift store, but they were so expensive. Driving away from the monument, we noticed that another gift shop was selling large pieces of rough cut pipestone by the pound. We thought it might be interesting to try our own hands at working the stone, so we bought a several pound rock, which we will separate into four pieces when we get home, to try and make our own treasures. We’ll see. But it will be fun to at least try, knowing that this is such an ancient and revered craft.

After spending more time than we had intended at Pipestone, and after I ran us out of gas in the middle of Friggin-Nowhere, South Dakota (thank-you, dear farmer, whoever you are, who sold us a gallon of gas), we finally arrived in DeSmet, at the homestead of the Ingalls family. As my kids loved the Little House books when we read them aloud recently, they were all over this place. Dear Elli was beaming as we drove down the little country road, following the signs. “This is my dream come true!” she kept repeating.

Her dreams did come true. That was one of the best, maybe THE best tourist attractions we have ever been to. The staff was so knowledgeable and gracious; they made you feel as if you were an important visitor to their personal homestead. The posted rules stated that kids must be allowed to touch, explore, and climb on anything they wanted.

We wandered the grounds, looking in the examples of all the different kinds of homes the Ingallses lived in over the years. The kids climbed on wagons and farm equipment, explored the barn loft, and petted horses, kittens and a young calf kept on the property.

As a family, we went on a ride in a covered wagon (the kids even got to take turns driving the team of draft horses) to the far side of the acreage, where an old one room school house had been relocated. Upon entering the school house, the kids were dressed in period costumes and all of us were seated in antique school desks, where we were given a sample school day by a teacher well-versed in her history.

Later, the kids got to make rope, make corn cob dolls, grind wheat, twist straw into bundles for make-shift firewood, ride a pony down a trail, and even ride in a buggy drawn by a miniature horse.

Elli spent most of the remainder of her souvenir money on an old-fashioned bonnet, just like Laura’s might have been. It looks so cute on her. She is back to calling us Ma and Pa, and insisting that we call her either Laura or Half-Pint.

We drove on into the sunset across the back roads of rural South Dakota, and have finally stopped for the night, Wednesday night, here in Pierre, the capitol. I’m anxious to see it tomorrow, in the daylight. The promised free wireless internet is not working well, so I will have to publish another time.

The kids’ ears are finally feeling a little better, but now Andy has a cold. I’m hoping I can escape it, but I doubt I can. We’ll see.



Anonymous said...

Dear Sherry & FAM, We are enjoying your posts so much and are following along on our big U.S. map. It's impressive how much you're seeing and experiencing. Are you on "sensory overload" yet? What wonderful memories you're making and enriching life experiences for the kids. It's great that you are doing this blog from the road because I imagine it would be too time consuming to write all of this when you're home. Stay well, Sherry-and we hope that Andy & the kids recover quickly. Our love to all..........Mom C.

Eagle-eye Di said...

I am so happy to hear Ellie and Tano's ear problems are letting up.Andy's head cold is probably just a result of stress of the two week class and being litterly out of order.Love you and am still praying for the rest of your journey to go well and you all to remain safe.