Pioneers found solution to shelter needs right under their feet

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WALLS OF SOD: Settlers’ homes were made of “Nebraska Marble” – thick, strong walls of sod brick.
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COMFY: Sod houses could be quite cozy once furnished.
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USEFUL TOOL: Plows like this cut the sod for houses’ walls.

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”).

Wood beams for the roof had to be hauled miles from the nearest grove. The beams and tied bundles of brush, along with mud, grass and sod, created the roof. Dirt was thrown atop it, raked and patted smooth. A piece of canvas over the doorway made the structure ready for the family to move in.

A cozy, one-room sod home measured about 16 by 20 feet. It was cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and quite fireproof. After a rain, though, the ceiling dripped for days. A pioneer woman might have to cook under an umbrella.

Muslin sheets were attached to the ceiling to keep dirt from falling into food or the bed, while also catching the occasional tumbling snake, mouse or beetle.

Gussying up

The houses’ cramped living space caused the settlers to limit the furniture inside. Immediately, though, they began to make what improvements they could afford: tar paper for the roof, salvaged lumber for the door, glass windows and a raised wooden floor. Women brightened dark earth walls with plaster or wallpapered them with newspapers and magazine pictures. They made curtains, covered shelves, added flowers to windowsills, or brought joy to the household with a cat, dog or caged bird.

Perhaps one million of these homes once dotted the prairies of Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas. Nearly all have returned to the earth now, but for a time, each was Home, Sweet Home to a family.

Learn more

To find out more about sod houses, read our story about Stan McCone’s re-creation of the historical structures. The photographs accompanying this article were taken on his family’s property in Minnesota, where visitors can visit and get an up-close view of what the rustic prairie structures were like.