Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sod Houses


By Anna Kathryn Lanier

When we think of the pioneer, we usually imagine a log cabin, but what was a pioneer to do when they lived in a place with few, if any, trees…such as the plains of Kansas or Nebraska? The alternative was sod houses, built by sodbusters, a name given the first farmers to break virgin soil on the grasslands of the Great Prairie.  The houses were often built into banks or hillsides, “dug in like coyotes,” as one woman described it.  Other sod houses were free standing. 



The houses were literally made of sod…soil.  They settlers would look for densely packed grass, such as buffalo grass, wire grass, Indian grass and wheat grass. Once found, the sod would be cut into strips between twelve and eighteen inches wide and eighteen inches long and were usually three inches deep.  When building the house, the bricks would be placed lengthwise, side by side to make the walls two feet thick. Every few layers, this process would be reversed, so that the bricks were laid crosswise to bind the walls and make them solid.  The bricks were laid with the grass side down.



Wood was used for door and window frames, with the door frame set into place before construction began.  Once the walls reached the proper height, window frames were put in.  Sod was laid around the sides and boards were place above the window frame. A gap, left at the top above the frame was filled with rags or grass. This allowed the sod to settle without crushing the glass window panes. Pegs were then driven into the sod through holes in the frame to hold it in place.

Often the roof was made of sod, but if the sodbuster could afford it, lumber would be bought. A combination of 2x6’s for a ridge post, 2x4’s for rafters and wood sheathing nailed over the rafters was used to build the roof.  When lumber was too expensive for a roof, sod bricks, usually thinner than those used for the walls, was used. Tar paper could be used to help stop the leaks, but a sod roof wasn’t the best for keeping out the rain.

Chicken coops and ‘caves’ for keeping provisions cool in the summer and to keep them from freezing in the winter were also made of sod bricks.  The temperature on the plains could fluctuate between -10° and 110° Fahrenheit.  Because of the thickness of the walls and insulating ability of the material, sod houses did an excellent job of keeping the houses warm via the stove during the winter and cool during the heat of the summer.

A solidly built sod house could last seven or more years.  Whitewashing or putting stucco on the exterior could improve the longevity of the house.  Most sod houses were simple in design, but Isadore Haumont built a two-story sod house north of Broken Bow, Nebraska in 1884-85.  The house stood until the mid-1960s when it was demolished.



For the most part, people seemed satisfied with their sod homes, though certainly some people found the dirt floors and leaking roofs unbearable. Still, given the lack of lumber in the region, a sod house had to be better than no home at all.

Works Cited and for further reading:

HOW THE WEST WAS WON: THE WILD WEST by Bruce Wexler


Never let your memories be greater than your dreams. ~Doug Ivester 


11 comments:

  1. Great post, thanks for sharing. Last week I read a book where people lived in sod houses and I had to google it because I had a hard time imagining a house like that :)

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  2. Oh, goodness, what a tragedy, demolishing that two story soddie. What a beautiful house it was. Although it's hard to imagine living in one, what an innovative structure!

    Great post today!

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  3. Anna Kathryn--fascinating. I think most of us knew a few basics of building a sod house, but not in this much detail. It's always amazed me that some of the houses had windows. Curious, that some builders put together sod bricks very precisely, like the two story house--but others seemed to just slap it together so it looked lumpy and lopsided.

    My husband's step-great-grandmother lived in a cave in N. Texas--This cave was somewhere around Granbury, and it's been decided that probably it was destroyed when they built Granbury Lake--anyway, it's close to the theory.
    She had children in that cave, and twin boys, too. Their last name was Stephen, and one of the twin boys grew up to be the founder of Stephenville. (I believe I have all this correct.)
    But while they lived in the cave, a large animal the mother called a lion came visiting and became a guardian of the cave. It slept on top and would growl when danger neared.

    We have a very old manuscript, hand-written, faded, in which this woman wrote about the cave and the "lion." I need to get that out and read it again.
    Thanks, Anna, for a wonderful post...and also thanks for listing the sources you used.

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  4. H, Natalija. I think I had a vague idea what a sod house was, but, like Celia, I never knew exactly how it was built. I think one built into a hill would be interesting to look at, too. And I wondered about the ones built in the river wash....wouldn't flood during the rainy season? Thanks for stopping by.

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  5. Tanya, I know...you'd think they could have done something to keep the house up. But for a house made of sod, it certainly lasted a long time. One of the links I provided includes a letter written by, I believe, the son of the builder, who explains about the house. It was interesting.

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  6. Celia, what an interesting family story. I would certainly get the manuscript out and read it, maybe even write about it, not that anyone would believe you, lol.

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  8. If you visit Fort Robinson in the NW corner of Nebraska, they have a free standing sod house replica built in 1984. The day we visited, the temperature was over 100 degrees but once inside the sod house, it was cool and comfortable. I understood immediately how important the sod was for insulation from the heat and cold on the prairie.

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  9. My grandfather built a sod house in Nebraska which was still standing when we visited there in 1968. It was solid and straight, and had been inhabited until two years before. The whole family agreed it was the best house they ever lived in. It had wooden floors, covered with carpet, and a ceiling, though. Not sure how I'd like living in some of those rickety looking houses, and I definitely wouldn't make it very long in a lean-to. No where to put the dishwasher.

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  10. It's amazing the living conditions those early pioneers endured. We actually have a friend where we live who's house is built in the side of a hill and the roof is dirt with grass growing on it. My hubby went bananas when he saw it and walked around on the roof checking out the pipes sticking out the top. It definietly kept cool during the summer.

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  11. Anna Kathryn, I'm glad I don't have to live in a sod house. You're right, though, one certainly beats no house at all, or life in a tent.

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