Saturday, July 16, 2016

Digging your own Home by Linda Hubalek

Can you imagine digging your own home and living in (and around it) during our current summer heat and humidity?
My own Swedish ancestors did this very thing for their first home on the prairie.
Our family doesn’t have a photo of the original dugout dug in 1868 which was on the “Butter in the Well” farm, so here’s a photo from Kansas Memory to give you a visual view to contemplate while reading a passages from my book Butter in the Well. Young Swedish immigrant Kajsa Svensson comments on the building of their first “home”…
April 8, 1868 I’m so hot and sweaty today. But I need my long-sleeved dress to protect me from the sun’s burning rays and the insects. We’ve been digging on the well for days. Carl fills the bucket up with dirt from the bottom of the hole, then I pull it up by a rope, dump the bucket and send it back down to him. He is very discouraged. First we almost get flooded out by the creek, and now we can’t find any water.  
 April 9th“I give up,” Carl said as he slumped at the bottom of the hole. “There’s no water here. We’re going to have to move to a different site.” We’re both tired, sunburned and disillusioned with our first week on our land. Tonight Carl took a walk to the river and shot a turkey for our supper. He needed a walk to cool down and I needing time to sit and rest my weary back and arms. We have so much digging ahead. I’m going to have to get used to doing hard physical work again. Life in Jacksonville softened my body. Christina is getting tired of being in the wagon but that’s the way it will have to be. If she wanders away in this tall grass, we could lose her forever.”
April 15th
The creek runs through our land, across the south and up the west side until it empties into the river on the next section to the north of us. We moved our little camp into the middle of our farm on the far east edge since we know the creek can surprise us with a flood. Again we started the process of digging the well, one scoop at a time. Today we were rewarded with water.
April 18thToday we start digging our home. I hate to live in the ground, burrowed in like a gopher, but we can’t afford the lumber it takes to build a house. What lumber we did find money for will be used sparingly. People say being in the ground protects you from the heat of the summer day and the freezing cold of winter. It will only be about 10 by 12 feet in size, just enough for our bodies and belongings. I’ll continue to cook outside on an open fire. We’ve scoured the creek for rocks to reinforce our walls. For our dugout to be a legal homestead house, we must have one window in it. We bought a small pane of glass in Salina that Carl will frame and put next to the door.  
April 23rdCarl left ledges along the inside walls of the dugout to use for sitting and sleeping. He dug two additional recesses, one for a safe spot to sit a candle and another to hide our food away from the vermin.We cut strips of sod, about 12 by 18 by 2 inches, and laid them around the edge of our hole to build walls 3 feet high. This will give us the extra height to stand the door upright on the south end. Carl chopped down one tall straight tree by the river for the ridgepole. Fallen timber from the river and a few boards make up the roof rafters that were to nailed the ridgepole. We had a wagonload of tree limbs that we weaved in among the Next, dry grass, from around the house was layered on, then sod blocks on the roof. We threw dirt back on the roof from the hole that was dug. Just another day or two and we’ll move in.  
April 25thWe saved the hard layer of sand from when we dug the well. This sand, and clay from the river bank, were mixed with water to plaster the walls of the dugout. It’s very crude, but it will have to do for our first winter. The dirt floor will get packed down in time. I’ll sprinkle my dishwater on it to help it harden. I wish we had rugs to cover the floor. It would make it warmer and easier to keep clean. I talked Carl into cutting up one board for a door. At least I’ll feel a little safer at night with it closed. The hungry howling of the wolves scares me.  
April 28th Our sparse belongings from the wagon have filled the dugout in a hurry. Carl made two chairs out of a log he sawed up. Another board was fashioned into a table. The crate that held our supplies will be my cupboard. A lean-to bed is braced on the right side of the dugout, half on the ledge for support. Christina’s cradle fits under our bed when the cradle is not being used. A crude mattress was fashioned out of ticking filled with “prairie feathers.” I’m glad we brought along the bedding from our house in Jacksonville.Carl found some old buffalo horns when he was out walking. He nailed them up to the wall to hang our clothes on.  
April 29th We hung the wagon sheet up as our ceiling for the dugout today. Last night there was a rattlesnake dangling from the rafters above Christina! Lord give me strength. I cannot get used to those things. Fear runs down my spine every time I see one. I’m tired of the snakes, mice and insects that drop down on us by surprise during a meal or during the night. Now that the weather has warmed up, the snakes are everywhere. I’m petrified one of us will get bitten and die on the spot. We were down at the creek yesterday for a few hours and came home to six vipers sunning themselves on the south side of the dugout. We’ve trampled down the grass around our “home,” but it does not seem to deter the snakes. I must carry a big stick wherever I go, so I can beat them out of our path. I can’t let Christina out of my sight now that she’s starting to walk.
We also have at least one pack rat that is stealing everything that I leave out. If I ever see it, I’m going to shoot it. I am almost as good a shot as Carl and I won’t hesitate at the trigger for the rat that stole my thimble.”
(Excerpts from Butter in the Well, © by Linda K. Hubalek)

Ready to build, and live in your home on the prairie now? Reading these passages makes me glad I'm living in the 21st century...
Thanks for stopping by to enjoy today's Sweethearts of the West blog.

Linda Hubalek


  1. I love these accounts of living in a dugout. There were plenty of dugouts in Texas, especially on the Staked Plains, the Llano Estacado. This area is near Lubbock and close to the New Mexico Border. I believe each settler got 40 acres of this vast region known as "the last free land in Texas." This is where I grew up, although my ancestors did not settle in that area. This huge area, in later years, more modern times, became the famous XIT ranch. Remnants of dugout can still be found.
    I love a book called Texas Tears and Texas Sunshine, and one woman helped her husband dig out the earth to make the dugout..their name was Blakenship, and later the family became extremely wealthy with a hand in settling Lubbock.
    Don't you cringe and shudder when reading these first hand accounts? I read the Blakenship account. I'm too finicky and picky and a sissy, and a fraidy cat to have endured this sort of thing. However, I know many of these women would not have chosen this route on their own...they followed their men.
    Thanks, Linda. Even though I wanted to cry when reading this account, I truly admire all our pioneers. They were special people.

  2. Great article. My mother lived in dugouts growing up and told me numerous stories about them. I used them in my book To Have and To Hold.

  3. I'm certain some of my ancestors lived in some mighty awful places, but these "digs" seem horrible even for some of my people--a hearty bunch of Scots.
    But in the heat of the open prairie, without the luxury of shade trees, that dugout home probably felt pretty dang good.
    I can't help but think about the creepy, crawly creatures that probably co-habited these places and all I can think is those Swedes must have been a mighty tough lot.
    Terrific blog, Linda. I wish you all good things. I have Butter In The Well, and I hope I can get to read sometime soon.

  4. An interesting post, Linda. Butter in The Well sounds like a fascinating read. I'm not sure what "Prairie Feathers" are. Will have to Google that!

  5. What a wonderful look at this part of our pioneer history. Thank you! They needed some pigs to keep the snakes away. I've read where people have bought snake-infested land, then turned loose pigs or donkeys to get rid of them.
    I wish I could build a dugout greenhouse for winter growing. But that won't happen, given my health situation. Darn it!

  6. I have so much admiration for those early pioneers. Not only hard workers but reading their journals, amazed at their determination and positive attitude to make a home for their family no matter the challenges.

  7. I have so much admiration for those early pioneers. Not only hard workers but reading their journals, amazed at their determination and positive attitude to make a home for their family no matter the challenges.


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