Monday, June 26, 2017


Researching for the books I write leads me down interesting trails. I have to admit I'm guilty of meandering off the topic. I can’t resist learning more about the Old West. Today I’ve been looking at home photos for another book. I needed a nice one to put on Pinterest, but came across intriguing information on sod houses.

Victorian home in Pacific Grove, California
from Deposit Photo

Some things about modern houses are consistent: indoor plumbing, electricity, air-conditioning, central heating, windows, and doors that seal. This list is of things that are important to me and probably to you. Consider the pioneers moving west and making their home from whatever the land offered them. They were so eager for a fresh start and their own land that they endured many hardships. Entire families crowded into homes the size of a room. How hopeful of the future they must have been. 

Log cabin in the woods

Paintings usually show early settlers living in a log cabin. That wasn't necessarily accurate. Where I mostly lived growing up was Lubbock in West Texas. There were no trees. Well, now there are trees because residents have planted them, but the land was pretty bare when Anglos arrived—except in the canyons where there was water.


The first Anglos to settle in America’s massive Great Plains would have had to live in tents, covered wagons, or sod houses. I’ve seen sod houses, or soddies, in museums, but I’ve never seen one in which someone was living. They could be dug into a hill (called a "dugout"). Another style was partly dug and then built up from about three or feet (see photo above). This makes me think there would be trouble when it rained. One style was where the home was completely dug and then a roof was added as in the photo below. Another style was built on top of the ground from cut sod. From what I’ve researched, there were numerous problems with all of them.

Dugout with real roof
This one appears thoughtfully-constructed

Imagine eating dinner in a soddie and having a snake drop onto the table. Euww! I read of this happening while someone was visiting a family in a soddie. The matriarch speared the snake, dispatched, and continued the meal as if nothing had happened. I suppose she was used to this happening, but the visitor was shocked.

Some soddies were lined with cheesecloth to prevent that sort of uninvited guest. I’ve read tales of people watching bugs crawl inside the cheesecloth. Euww again!

Soddie in Kansas
There are six in the photo and
another sod home in the background. I wonder
how many live in that tiny house.
Folks occasionally whitewashed the inside of the soddie to limit falling dust and brighten the interior. Unfortunately, the whitewash was made primarily of slaked lime and chalk. Many people were allergic to the substance.

I suspect people with allergies didn’t last long in that environment. One of the stories from my ancestors includes that of a boy whose asthma turned into pneumonia and the family had to move him into a tent outside the sod house. He survived and the family eventually was able to afford a typical frame home.

Sod home taking advantage of the rolling prairie

The elaborateness of the sod home varied due to the builders. Some were made of sod formed into bricks and constructed into a fairly stable structure. Most were simple and—to my mind—unsatisfactory. However, I have read accounts stating they were cool in summer and snug in winter. Compared to the later hastily thrown up wooden homes, perhaps they were better.

In our family is the story of one of my relatives and his brother staying in a boarding house one winter. They weren’t that far from home but had stopped due to strong wind and a coming snowstorm in which they were afraid to travel at night. The sturdy female owner brought them the thickest duvet they’d ever seen. The brothers told her they really didn’t need that because of the blankets. The woman told them they would before morning. Sure enough, when they woke the next morning, they were dusted with snow that had blown through the cracks in the walls and around the windows. There was even snow on their eyelashes. Hmmm, maybe a soddie would have been warmer. ☺

Dugout on the Oklahoma PrairieDo you suppose all six and the baby live in that home?
(courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society)

A friend told of her great-grandmother Jane living in a soddie. While Jane’s sons and husband were working in the field out of sight, two bulls got into a fight on the roof. Dust drifted down into the home and she feared the animals would fall through. They didn’t but that must have been a terrifying event for a lone woman with two small girls to protect. In fact, being an early settler must have been an ordeal that required grit and resourcefulness every day.

Apparently, the sod bricks were durable

I don’t know how you feel, but I’m grateful for my mid-twentieth-century-built brick home. The weather outside is hot, but here at the computer in my little pink writing cave, I’m cool and comfortable. Electricity provides for the climate controlled interior, the computer, and the music playing while I write. Hero has brought me my favorite beverage, a Cherry Dr Pepper, in my favorite glass (you see why I call him Hero). 

I positively love writing and reading about the Old West, but I’m so glad I live today instead of then!

Caroline Clemmons is an award winning and Amazon bestselling author who lives in North Central Texas cowboy country with her Hero and their menagerie of rescued pets. Her latest release is LORRAINE, book 6 in the Bride Brigade series.

Coming July 15 is SNARE HIS HEART, book 5 of the Loving A Rancher series for Debra Holland’s Montana Sky Series at Kindle World.

Check out her Amazon author page and her website at Sign up for her newsletter and receive a FREE novella, HAPPY IS THE BRIDE.


  1. Caroline, thanks for another great article. Those pioneers living in the sod houses sure must have worn out a lot of brooms! Dust, dirt, snow! And snakes, yikes! All chuckling aside, I continue to be amazed and admire the determination and fortitude of our frontiermen, women & children back then.

    1. Cheri, I'm grateful to them. And have you noticed that a lot of the women wear white? Think of trying to keep clothes white under those conditions!

  2. You've given a very thorough description of sod houses--one of the best. The photos alone are worth the read.
    I know about sod houses to a certain extent. I tried to write a story with a family starting out in a soddie...but I became so distraught over their living conditions, I could not put a fictional family in one!!!
    Aren't we authors a bit goofy....thinking as though our characters were real.
    Thanks bunches.

    1. The characters are REAL in our heads, aren't they?

  3. My great grandparents who homesteaded in West Texas lived in a dugout for a time. They had 10 kids, one of who succumbed to something as a small child. Somewhere in my family is a picture of that dugout with all those kids, barefooted and ragged, standing in front of it. .... The house they eventually built wasn't, as you say, much better than the dugout. It still stands today, but barely. It had wood walls, wood floors, wood roof. No insulation. ... Eventually, as their fortune improved, they built a real house, hauling the lumber by wagon from Abilene. The wood floors were covered with linoleum, the 1 x 10 boards that were both exterior and interior walls were covered with wallpaper inside the house and only paint on the outside. ... In that house, when I was a kid, I do remember seeing newspapers under the wallpaper. The newspaper pages were glued somehow to the wood walls. ... Once, when my mother and aunt were re-wallpapering the living room, one of the things they had to contend with were the layers of old wallpaper falling off while they tried to apply the wet, new wallpaper. The wallpaper always sagged somewhere as the walls were nowhere near straight, the floors nowhere near level. The house was a large house, but in the winter, only the dining room was heated. It adjoined the kitchen and wasn't used as a dining room. Instead it was the "gathering room" were after supper, everyone sat and visited or listened to the radio. .... When I think back on it, I think about how uncomfortable everyone must have been. The only chairs were rocking chairs or dining table chairs they brought out from the kitchen. Adults got the chairs. All of us kids sat on the floor in front of the fire until time to go to bed and often listened to my great grandpa read the newspaper. ....Wow. I haven't thought about all of that in a long time.

    1. I remember there were 1 x 10 boards under my grandparents wallpaper when they lived on the farm. Once when we were there, the house was struck by lightning and it singed the nails behind the wallpaper on one wall.

  4. One more comment. I just remembered why my mother and aunt were re-wallpapering the living room. One of my wild great-uncles was secretly making wine in the upstairs room that was located over the living room. His wine bottles exploded and wine seeped down the walls, turned the wallpaper purple and caused it to bulge out around the bottom. The old layers of wallpaper had to be ripped off. That must be been why it was exposed all the way to the 1x10 boards. LOL I was so young, I barely remember that and I don't remember the details. Knowing my grandpa though, I suspect he was furious.

    1. Those 1 x 10 boards are at a premium. One of my escapades (because we had a pickup) was helping a friend rescue boards so she could panel her son's bedroom with them. A third woman named Helen went with us. The old house was being torn down and my friend Jean convinced the crew not to pull down the walls until we carted away enough for the boy's bedroom walls. When we pulled off the boards, a million cockroaches surfaced. Helen gagged and ran for the pickup cab. Jean and I carted all the boards she wanted to the pickup. The crew sat in their vehicles and bulldozer laughing at us. When we arrived at Jean's house, we laid the boards in the sun on her driveway where she sprayed them with raid. Then, she paneled her son's room with the boards on a 45 degree angle as they had been in the old house. Jean did all this with nothing but a hammer, nails, and a saber saw. Hero told her he would have loaned her a better saw or done the cutting for her. She wanted to do it herself and she did. Jean would have made a good pioneer.

  5. Caroline, I enjoyed reading your article. :) When I was a kid, my folks took us to Nebraska and we visited the sod house that my grandpa built. It was 50+ years old then, but straight as could be. It was stucco on the outside and had a shingle roof. A family was still living there. Gorgeous house. Made me rethink my whole concept of soddies. It's all in the skill of the builder. I don't know if that house is still standing.

    1. Wow, that must have been great to see. I, too, wonder if it's still standing.

  6. Thanks for sharing your research about soddies, Caroline. I'm keeping all the valuable information.

  7. Just when I thought I had all the horrors of the pioneer life fixed in my mind, I read this blog about sod houses. I would not have lasted a week in this pioneer life. Snakes, bugs, and melting wall of dirt in the rain. EEEK!
    All the best to you, Caroline.

  8. I don't think I would have liked those bulls fighting overhead! Yikes!!


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.