That Zenith Of Prairie Architecture—the Soddy

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Apparently because planking was unavailable, in certain regions willow brush was incorporated into the roof, as was the case with the roof of the Butchers’ sod house in south-central Nebraska. “The ridgepole of my father’s house was of cottonwood … rough hewn by hand,” Flora Dutcher recalled in an article forthe Journal of Geography in 1949. “It was supported by strong four-by-fours of lumber. The rafters were rough-cut poles laid from the ridgepole to the walls. These rafters were overlain with willow brush. This was in turn covered with carefully placed sod. All cracks were chinked with sod, and in time weathering rounded the roof surface to a smooth gentle oval which carried away the rain. Many times I have seen my father hoeing the weeds from the roof. The wind and birds carried the plant seeds up there. The growing roots opened the sod enough to carry trickles of water down through the roof and cause leaking … which was the bane of our lives.”

There were times when the roof couldn’t take it, as in the following account supplied by Mrs. Jane Shellhase for Sod House Memories , published in 1967 by the Sod House Society of Nebraska. Her parents built their soddy in 1878 near the Platte River in Phelps County.

“In June, after the folks were nicely situated in their new one-room soddy, it commenced to rain, and continued to rain for four days and nights. The roof was laid with willows, with sod on top of them, and naturally it began to leak.

“Father said, ‘Let’s get under the table.’ So we did. The long ridgepole of the roof began to crack from the heavy weight of the wet sod and finally the roof caved in, with the pole resting on the table. We were buried beneath the sod and muck. Finally Father saw a patch of light and dug his way out.”

Sod-house living included more inconveniences than a leaky roof. Bugs and mice not infrequently dropped from the ceiling into the soup or the baby’s crib. A housewife could prevent this by tacking an old bed sheet to the underside of the roof.

An anonymous prairie poet once described additional perils:

How happy am I when I crawl into bed; A rattlesnake hisses a tune at my head! A gay little centipede, all without fear , Crawls over my pillow and into my ear .

But it was not all bad. A soddy was cool in summer and easy to keep heated in winter, although because of the shortage of wood on the plains, fuel for the stove was likely to be tightly twisted hay, corncobs, or cow wood, the polite name for the dried droppings of cattle or buffalo. A prairie fire that would quickly destroy a frame building had little effect on one made chiefly of earth. Furthermore, a dwelling with walls thirty inches thick was unlikely to be toppled by a howling blizzard. And provided one did not count the backbreaking labor involved, a soddy was cheap. Mrs. George H. Alexander of Omaha wrote in Sod House Memories that in 1886 her grandfather built a 12-by-14-foot sod house in Lincoln County, Nebraska, for a total cost of $ 13.75, which went for lumber, a roll of tarpaper, and nails.

 

Poorly built soddies collapsed within a short period. Some that were built well lasted for generations. Thousands of rugged men and women spent much of their lives in them, brought their children into the world in them, died in them. Although given short shrift in books on American architecture, by helping to extend the frontier the humble soddy served a highly useful purpose. That so many people had the courage to build and live in them is a marvellous demonstration of old-time American ingenuity and determination.

Nebraska has most of the survivors of the hundreds and hundreds of sod houses that once dotted the Great Plains. Professor Roger L. Welsch, a folklorist and the author of Sod Walls: The Story of the Nebraska Sod House , estimated that as late as 1970 between 150 and 200 families in the Cornhusker State still lived homesteader-style—no doubt with tight roofs and certain other modern conveniences—behind the sturdy walls of antique soddies. The greatest concentration was in the vicinity of Broken Bow, Custer County. The newest soddy Welsch was able to find was one built in 1940—equipped with a shingled roof and a brick chimney—at Dunning in Blaine County.