August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
Pioneer farmers had neither wood nor brick to build with, but there sure was plenty of good earth
“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.
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:
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.