Tuesday, January 22, 2013

LIFE IN A DUGOUT


By Charlene Raddon

Author Charlene Raddon

Unbelievable as it might seem, some pioneer settlers liked living in dugouts. Letters and diaries of pioneers recorded that these dwellings were surprisingly comfortable; cool in summer, snug and easily heated in winter. Thick walls and sod roofs supplied good insulation at a time when few people knew the value of insulated homes, and wooden houses lacked in this feature.

Most dugouts consisted of a single room (average 12’ x 12’) dug into the lee side of a low hill. Walls were created by cutting and stacking sod blocks to a height of seven or eight feet. Some dugouts had windows, usually store-bought and hauled from the nearest town. For a roof, cottonwood poles were placed side by side and spread with a thick layer of coarse prairie grass for insulation and to cut down on the dirt that sifted through. Over the grass a double layer of sod building blocks was carefully fitted. The first good rain prompted the sod to grow, and a tall growth of waving prairie grass soon covered the roof, almost concealing it.

Rough wooden planks were laid to provide flooring, if the family could afford to buy them. Otherwise, the floor was dirt sprinkled with water daily and swept with crude grass brooms until the surface was as hard and smooth as finished concrete.

Elaborate Dugout


Walls were lined with newspapers pasted or pinned up with small, sharpened sticks to keep the, dirt from brushing off. Some more ambitious families located outcroppings of limestone rock which was burned and mixed with screened sand to provide a plaster coating for the walls—a vast improvement over untreated walls that could not keep out all the dirt, or insects.

Unfortunately, the pioneer dugout couldn't stand up to the demands of prosperity. The fertile prairie sod—turned over in the fall and broken down to mellow richness by winter snows, freezing and thawing—produced bumper crops of corn and small grains. Once a pioneer family had money in the bank, construction of a clap board house became the major goal. Grandma couldn't wait to get her family out of "that hole in the ground" and into a “more suitable” uninsulated clapboard structure: A house that was stifling hot in the summer and poorly heated in the winter by buffalo chips in the kitchen range or costly store bought coal that had to be hauled from town, carefully hoarded and sparingly doled out.

Log and wood supplemented dugout


Money provided the means to build wooden houses, but it was the desire to improve the family’s status and supposed living conditions that was the driving force that ultimately destroyed the dugout. Most lasted little more than a decade, but a few pictures still exist, and memories and journals provide records of the dugout's comforts and advantages.  Of course the disadvantages were also recorded.

It might be pointed out that dugouts were the first homes of many homesteaders well into the twentieth century. My paternal grandparents moved from Kansas to the Oklahoma panhandle in 1916 and lived in a dugout until a house could be built. I’m not sure when my mother’s folks did the same thing, but it would have been a bit later. Mother was the eldest of twelve children. Her father was a great farm worker and was in much demand by other farmers. Unfortunately, Grandfather didn’t want to work for other people; he wanted to farm his own land. But without someone to tell him what to do and when, he couldn’t quite seem to succeed at farming. Poor living conditions and sparse food was the result, so the family frequently lived with other family members or inhabited abandoned homes. Many of these homes were dugouts.

Cellar-type dugout 
Mother told me numerous tales of life in such dwellings and didn’t seem nearly as enamored of them as some pioneers. I used a few of these in my book To Have And To Hold, which will be released in e-book format on January 24th. One has to do with 7” long centipedes that managed to find their way down onto the newspaper Grandmother tacked onto the ceiling to keep out some of the dirt. The sound of their feet scratching on the paper drove Grandfather crazy. Mother’s complaint, besides the dirt, was snakes. She hated it when her mother asked her to fetch wood from the wood box because too often a resident rattler would be hiding inside. Of course, snakes liked nice warm beds too, and the pallets laid on the floor where the children slept were very convenient. Frankly, I’m glad it was my mother and not me who had these experiences.

Have any of you heard any similar stories from your grandparents or great-grandparents?

Be sure to leave a comment, and include your contact information, for a chance to win a $5 Amazon gift card and a free copy of To Have And To Hold.


Charlene first serious writing attempt came in 1980 when she awoke one morning from an unusually vivid and compelling dream. Deciding that dream needed to be made into a book, she dug out an old portable typewriter and went to work. That book never sold, but her second one, Tender Touch, became a Golden Heart finalist and earned her an agent. Soon after, she signed a three book contract with Kensington Books. Five of Charlene's western historical romances were published between 1994 and 1999: Taming Jenna, Tender Touch (1994 Golden Heart Finalist under the title Brianna), Forever Mine (1996 Romantic Times Magazine Reviewer's Choice Award Nominee and Affaire de Coeur Reader/Writer Poll finalist), To Have and To Hold (Affaire de Coeur Reader/Writer Poll finalist); and writing as Rachel Summers, The Scent of Roses. Forever Mine and Tender Touch are available as e-books and after January 24, To Have and To Hold will be as well. When not writing, Charlene loves to travel, crochet, needlepoint, research genealogy, scrapbook, and dye Ukrainian eggs.
Find Charlene at:


19 comments:

  1. I haven't had any relatives tell about living in a dugout. The closest I've come to experiencing a dugout would be the cellar we had when I was a child. It was dug into a small hill in the back yard and we stepped down in to the earth to get the canned and dried goods kept there.

    Great post on an interesting part of our past.

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  2. Charlene--My husband--11th of 12 children--had a step grandfather who was a twin. They were born in a dugout in North Texas, near Granbury. His family found hand-written notes by the mother about living in the dugout in the side of a hill. It's barely legible, but the odd flow of words and the descriptions are just riveting. She tells of a "lion" that comes to the dugout and takes up residence, usually sleeping on top of the dugout. The "lion" would roar to announce danger or someone coming. She claimed it protected her and her children, two of which were the twin boys.
    None of us can figure this out--probably it was small cougar or mountain lion--we wondered if it might have been a big yellow shaggy dog. It's a mystery.
    In any case, the idea of living in a dugout never appealed to me at all, and only believe people used one if they absolutely had it. It just give me shivers thinking about it.
    Your novel sounds intriguing--I love such stories.
    And Welcome to the Sweethearts of the West!

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  3. Paty, a lot of dugouts were turned into fruit & vegetable cellars after the family moved into their new house. Thanks for stopping by.

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  4. Thanks, Celia. Loved your tale of the "lion" that protected the family. What a good detail that would have been to have added to my story. Maybe because the family lived in a "cave" or "hole", the lion felt connected to them. It's not unknown for wild animals to make such connections, though it's usually to domesticated pets rather than people. I imagine it was a young mountain lion. Sometimes a semi-cave was used as a base for digging a dugout. Maybe this is what happened and the semi-cave was where that cougar was born. Who knows. Fascinating.

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  5. Wonderful post, Charlene! I'm originally from Kansas, and although none of my ancestors lived in dugouts, I've read diaries of pioneer women complaining about the bugs dropping down from the ceilings just as you described.

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  6. Thanks, Alison. I can sure tell you I wouldn't have liked living in a dugout.

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  7. Great cover art, Charlene, and interesting info about the dugouts. I shudder to think of living in one, but I guess the real adventurers would get along just fine.

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  8. No, I never knew my grandparents, and my parents never mentioned anything like that. I imagine the closest they came to a dugout was a shotgun house, which is what most poor people in this area (Miss)lived in back in the day!! Very interesting post, I always enjoy reading them.

    mlawson17 at hotmail dot com

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  9. Lofty,the very thought of those critters crawling around gave me the creeps. It was interesting to learn that sod houses were better insulated than conventional housing.
    My paternal grandparents bought a little red school house next to St. Paul's graveyard. They had a hand pump next to the kitchen door and used an outhouse. They lived there happily until they died. They used their money to send their three sons to collage. I guess they had their priorities. LOL
    I liked your blog and some of your family history.
    All the best to you...
    Sarah
    starcriter@yahoo.com

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  10. Martha, is it true that houses like your parents owned, a shotgun house, was so called because you could stand at the open front door and shoot straight through and out the back door?

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  11. Sarah, just noticed I've been misspelling your name. Sorry for that. Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed the blog.

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  12. Fascinating post. We have a lady here where we live in the Sierra Mountains who has more than half her house in the side of the mountain. My hubby said when you walk on the roof you are actually walking on a dirt-like road with air pipes sticking up. She says it is so cheap to keep warm and/or cold. I've also been inside houses where there is a dirt floor. Amazing how people still stick to the past in certain ways.

    Enjoyed reading all the information you provided.

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  13. You're so right, Paisley. I'd love to see that house in the Sierras. Sounds interesting. Thanks for stopping by.

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  14. Charlene, the cellar-type dugout looks like the storm cellar my grandmother had when she lived on an Oklahoma farm. It was never a home, but my grandfather was afraid of tornados and "went to the cellar" practically every time there was a thunderstorm. My mom hated it, and I wasn't allowed to go into it. I know a lot of farms there are elsewhere had a storm cellar, most with a concrete roof eve if they had dirt walls. My uncle's storm cellar was all concrete with vents. I don't think people build them nowdays with the improved weather alerts.

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  15. I don't think I'd like cellars much, Caroline. For a year I lived in a turn of the century house with my sister and we had to go down to the half-basement to shovel coal into the furnace. I hated it. Cellars have spiders.

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  16. I will announce the winner of the giveaway tomorrow morning. Thanks to all of you who visited the Sweethearts of the West and left comments.

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  17. WINNER!! Congratulations to Martha Lawson. She's the winner of the giveaway. I'll be contacting you today, Martha.

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  18. Thanks for the insight about this life style , I am writing a tribute to a WW2 Veteran , Mr. Edward L. Whittenburg . He grew up in Hockley County Texas and lived and raised in a Dugout. Like thousands of Texas farmers , they lost their property to Taxes via the Dust Bowl experience. At age 16 he became a Pilot in WW2 , later would own many aircraft including Jets himself. He would run for Governor of Texas , he lost 300 Million in the banking collapse of 1985. He did so many things , yet he got his life beginning in a Dugout . His poverty was way beyond being poor, having worked the farm fields at age 6 years old , being paid wages of a man at age 12 . He would grow to own 265,000 acres of land himself and much high value real estate in Houston . He paid for his room and bored and the GI bill paid for his College at Texas Tech . His life story is amazing , "Out of Dugout ""

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