Your favorite small town probably doesn’t look quite like how Norman Rockwell drew it. Small towns may be united by their modest population sizes, but they’re remarkable for their diversity of character. And so for the sixth-annual round of Smithsonian.com's America’s Best Small Towns, we set out on a quest to find 20 great slice-of-life (and if you’re Rockland, Maine, also award-winning slice-of-pie) small towns full of unique flavor.
To help us on our task, we once again consulted geographical information company Esri (which sorts towns with a population under 20,000) to identify tiny towns chock full of local culture, history and natural beauty. We then narrowed down our list to pinpoint the destinations that are especially worth making the trip to this year—whether they’re celebrating a special birthday, commemorating a famous resident or happen to be smack on the path of the “Great American Eclipse.”
Our top 20 picks range from the well-traveled to the offbeat, but each town shares a special something that makes it ripe for discovery in 2017. Happy travels!
De Smet, South Dakota, Population 1,090
Life wasn’t easy for the original homesteaders who came to De Smet. When the South Dakota frontier town was first established in 1880, there was little there except cornfields and grassy prairieland. Yet for more than a century, De Smet has endured.
The quiet town’s legacy has been shaped in no small part by its most famous residents: the Ingalls. As this year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder, it’s a great time to pay this quirky town a visit.
Wilder first came to De Smet as an adolescent and set the final five books in the Little House series there. Today, the family’s 157-acre homestead, “By the Shores of Silver Lake” where they put down roots in 1879 is still intact, and you can go on a guided tour of it and all things Ingalls with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society year round. If you can, though, come to De Smet in the summertime to catch the beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, which this year will reenact “The Little Town on the Prairie,” picking up Wilder’s story following the winter of 1880-81. Coinciding with the festival, the town will also throw big, birthday bash for Wilder on July 14-16, which will feature a who’s who of “Little House on the Prairie” aficionados.
De Smet might be Laura-crazy, but there’s more to the town than its famous family. Stay at the welcoming Prairie House Manor, and bring your fishing net. The nearby Lake Thompson is the largest glacial lake in the state and a great spot for fishing, not to mention pheasant hunting. See Main Street come alive during South Dakota’s longest-running celebration, Old Settler’s Day in June. Or come in August for the annual Plein Air Event, where artists of all ages gather to paint the rugged beauty of South Dakota.
While De Smet has its feet firmly in the past, the town isn’t just looking backward. Just last year, De Smet won a Bush Foundation Grant for its development vision for the future. But while the pioneer town might have a new shine, never fear, in De Smet, bonnets never go out of style.