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