Pioneers found solution to shelter needs right under their feet

Sod houses provided pioneers protection from the elements on American prairie.

| May 2009

When the settlers arrived on the American prairie, lured by the Homestead Act of 1862 and the promise of free land, a major challenge faced them – the need to find shelter. They found the solution by turning to the earth itself.

The fur traders who had preceded them had lived in dugouts, creating shelter by digging into the sides of hills, steep banks or gullies. Dugouts had a major disadvantage, though, in that they tended to buckle or collapse. The settlers needed a better, safer solution.

It was under their own feet. They could build using the top layer of earth on the prairie, the sod consisting of grass, roots and dirt. It was a wonderful building material; the prairie buffalo, bluestem and gamma grasses proved incredibly tough.

Getting building

The settlers began a new dwelling by cutting away the sod where a home was to stand, creating a flat surface to build upon. Mules, oxen or horses struggled to pull a curved steel plow through the untouched earth, and with a loud rip, its blade slowly sliced through the dense sod roots.

The blocks of sod measured some 24 inches long by 20 inches wide by 6 inches thick, and it took two men to heft the 50-pound blocks onto a wagon. If more sod was cut than could be used in a day, the leftover material would crumble and be useless.

To create walls, freshly­ cut sod was laid root side up, and roots grew into the bricks above. This created a thick, strong wall of sod bricks (jokingly called “Nebraska Marble”).

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