De Smet sees decrease in tourism this year

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Tourist season in the little town on the prairie looks quite a bit different than usual this year in the midst of a pandemic.

The live performances of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant were cancelled this year. The pageant typically brings a large cast and crew in close contact with each other for most of the summer with auditions and rehearsals in the spring. The nine live outdoor performances, normally held over three consecutive weekends, bring spectators from all over the world. This year, with COVID-19 concerns, the pageant board came up with a safer plan, and organizers, with the help of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, put on a livestreamed radio play based on historical records from the winter of 1880-81. The performance, which included only a handful of cast and crew, was not open to the public, but it may have reached a bigger audience, as people from all over the world could view the livestream from their homes.

Numbers are down, but tourists still visiting

Tessa Flak, director of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, said there have not been as many visitors as usual this year, but the numbers are higher than she expected, and, “they are spending money.”

“We are encouraging people to wear masks and practice social distancing,” said Flak, adding that most, but not all, people go along with their request. They also limit each tour, which takes people inside the Ingalls family homes, gift shop and schoolhouse, to 14 people. Flak said because of this limit, they are encouraging people to make reservations, but if someone shows up and they have not reached the limit for the next tour, they are welcome to join it.

The Homestead is not seeing a typical year either, but Ann Lesch, whose family owns the homestead east of town along with the Wilder Welcome Center on Calumet Avenue, said there are still quite a few families with young children visiting. Although visitors come from all over the country, she has noticed more people from eastern South Dakota making day trips. She met one family from Garretson who had originally planned a trip to New York this summer, but they scrapped that idea for nearby destinations, including De Smet. Lesch said they are fortunate at The Homestead that so many of their activities are outdoors. They are limiting the number of visitors in the gift shop and other buildings at one time, and Lesch said that everyone is very respectful and conscientious of social distancing. She said she won’t be able to estimate numbers until later in the year.

Some other establishments see a sharper decline

Scott Myers, owner of the Oxbow Restaurant on the corner of Highway 14 and Calumet Avenue, and Patti Slater, owner of Ward’s Store and Bakery on Calumet Avenue, both said their customer numbers are down about 80 percent this summer. This includes tourists and local customers.

Chad Kruse, owner of De Smet Flowers & Gifts on De Smet’s main street, echoed Myer’s and Slater’s estimates of having about 80 percent fewer customers. “It’s not been good,” he said.

Jenny Todd, who along with her husband, Andy, owns Prairie House Manor Bed and Breakfast in De Smet, said that when the pageant cancelled their live performance, everyone cancelled their July reservations. However, they had a second round of guests who were not as concerned about the virus. Todd said they have had more last-minute reservations.

“I think people are watching to see what changes are happening with the virus before they leave on vacation,” said Todd.

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