That Zenith Of Prairie Architecture—the Soddy

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“My father was one of the early homesteaders in Red Willow County, Nebraska. His homestead was located a few miles north of the Kansas line on high, flat divide land. … If he looked toward Kansas, what did he see? He saw nothing but sod. If he looked to the north, what did he see? He saw the sod. In all directions what did he see? He saw the sod. Consequently he used the sod to build his home.”

It was as simple as that to Flora Butcher when she wrote more than a half century later about her pioneer parent, a member of that hardy and independent breed who settled the western prairies in the decades following the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862. Father Dutcher’s gift from Uncle Sam was strikingly similar to countless other claims in the Plains states—a hundred sixty lovely flat acres of free farmland, with not a tree in sight. There was nothing that one could use for building a log cabin, or a stone or brick one either. As far as the eye could see, in every direction, there was only the waving buffalo grass. However, the new settler had heard that a superior quality of turf is formed by the tough, matted roots of buffalo grass. So he took a few lessons in sod-house building from an experienced hand, borrowed or rented a special sod-breaking plow, rolled up his sleeves, spit on his hands, and went to work.

Before he could start his house, the homesteader first had to mow an acre or so of grass to get down to the sod. This done, he hitched his horses or oxen to an ingenious implement called a grasshopper plow, which gently turned over a uniform strip of sod from three to six inches thick and a foot or more wide. With a sharp spade he chopped these long strips into convenient lengths for handling and hauled them to his building site.

Except that there was no mortar, the pieces of sod were laid much as if they had been oversize bricks. For the walls they almost always were laid with the grass side down. An entire first course was put in place, forming the outline of the house, then carefully levelled, with excess soil being pushed into the cracks, before the second course was laid. The second was staggered to cover the vertical seams in the first. In addition to keeping out the wind, a good tight wall discouraged unwanted visitors such as mice and snakes. Most walls were of double courses of sod and thus about thirty inches thick. Slightly moist sod was the easiest to work with and gave the best results.

 

Window and door frames were nailed together from old packing boxes or planking, provided the latter was available in the nearest town and the sodbuster had the wherewithal. The door was three or four boards nailed together with crosspieces. Hinges more often than not were strips of old leather or canvas belting. The builder had to buy his glass windows or do without, using gunny sacks or heavily oiled paper until finances improved.

Planks or poles were placed above the window frames to keep the weight of the sod above from cracking hard-to-come-by glass. But since the house was bound to settle, a careful workman raised these supports several inches above the top of the window frame and filled the intervening space with wadding of some sort that would compress with the settling.

Interior walls usually were plastered and sometimes whitewashed as well, or papered with old newspapers. Most floors were of dirt, pounded hard. If there was any money around, it was wiser to spend it on the roof than on floorboards.

The roof was the big problem. For a small house a ridgepole was rested on the sod peaks of the two gable ends, and planks were run from it to the top of the front and back walls. If tarpaper could be had, it was laid over the planks. Then, tarpaper or no, came a layer of sod, this time with the grass side up. As the sod, particularly when wet, placed a great deal of weight on the gable peaks, supporting posts often were placed under the ends of the ridgepole, either inside or outside the house.

Such a roof turned green with the spring rains, even sported wildflowers. But many a sod-house dweller has said it leaked like a sieve, especially a roof with only a slight pitch. When there was too much pitch, the sod had a tendency to slide off. Homesteaders who could afford shingles often added a layer of sod regardless. Along with being good insulation, both winter and summer, the sod weighed enough to keep the housetop from sailing across the prairie when a strong wind blew. Narrow eaves, or no eaves at all, also were considered good insurance against the wind.

A gable roof offered a great advantage over a hip or pyramidal roof when the homesteader’s family grew and he needed to enlarge his house. He simply built another room at the end and extended the roof over it. Another method of expanding was to attach a low shed in the back and extend one side of the roof downward over it.