Sod Houses

Laura's Dugout on Plum Creek
One of the biggest attractions of the prairie land for those planning to file on a a homestead was the lack of trees, resulting in no roots, stumps, and seedlings on the land. The disadvantage was the lack of material to build a house. Lumber could be brought in by wagon or train, but that was expensive. The only cheap material on hand was the earth itself. Even if a settler did build a house of logs or boards, very often their animals would live in one made of earth.

Ploughing the grass produced a mat of grass roots and earth up to 4 inches thick and 18 inches wide. This was cut by axe into manageable lengths of sod, and used in the same way as bricks to build a house. So that the wall of earth would not be too high and unstable, settlers sometimes dug into the earth and laid the floor 4 feet below the ground.

Laura's sod house or "dugout" was made by removing earth from a creek bank and then building just the front wall and roof. Gaps were left for doors and windows in the same way as for an ordinary house. It was easy enough to build a door into a door frame and to put window frames into place but getting glass could be difficult and expensive. As in Laura's case, oiled paper was sometimes used instead. The roof wwas usually made of twigs and thin branches from any available trees. Straw was piled on top of these branches and then finished off by laying more sod sections on top.

Conditions inside the house largely depended on how well it had been built. Poorly built sod houses would let rain in through the roof. Care had to be taken that the walls were built straight and that each layer was secure. It was not unknown for poorly built sod house walls to collapse! Inside, the walls could be smoothed with an axe. A layer of mud and clay could be applied to give a more pleasing finish. The walls could then be white-washed or covered with newspaper.

Another alternative was to build a cubic frame inside the house and cover this with paper. In this case one had to be careful not to put a foot through it! The earth would be very moist at first, leading to rather damp conditions inside the house. Very heavy rain would cause high humidity inside. In summer the sod house was an excellent cool shade from the fierce sun. In the winter it kept the heat in and the cold out. During exceptionally bad winters, often the only people to survive where those in sod houses.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frontier Girl

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Rebecca Brammer & Phil Greetham
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