Life in a Sod House1860-1890
Making Do on the PlainsOn the almost treeless plains of the West, where wood and rocks were almost non-existent, the homesteaders had to make do with whatever solid material they could find in order to build a house. A surprisingly sturdy dwelling evolved out of their use of the heavy, grass-matted plains earth, or sod. Using a plow especially designed for this task, the farmer turned over a strip of sod from three to six inches (7.6 cm.-1S cm.) thick and a foot (30 cm.) or more wide. He then cut the strips into three-foot (90-cm.) lengths and piled up these slabs like oversized bricks to form the walls of a one-room house. Later, the builder might scrape up enough money to buy a door and perhaps one or two glass windows. A stand of spindly willows supplied roof poles, which were criss-crossed and covered with a layer of sod to make a roof. During the warm months, it was not unusual to witness a variety of colorful wild flowers growing on top of these sod homes. Inside, the sod house was warm in the winter and cool in the summer, because of the earth's natural insulation. It was also fireproof and windproof throughout the year, and even resisted tornadoes. Unfortunately, it was dark and damp, too, and the hammered earth floor was naturally dirty and bug-infested. The sod roof, after being soaked by a heavy rain, dripped water for days, forcing the housewife to hold an umbrella over the stove while she cooked her meals. For fuel, the settlers used dried cow or buffalo dung ("buffalo chips"), twists of hay ("cats") or cornhusks. A double bed for the parents and bunk beds for the children their mattresses were filled with cornhusks or hay occupied one corner of the room. The family often ate fried cornmeal mush and buttermilk for breakfast; at supper, cornbread, venison, turnips, and coffee made of parched rye and flavored with sorghum sugar were served. Leftovers usually provided a lunch. More prosperous settlers built two room houses with frame roofs. The roofing boards were covered with tar paper topped with a layer of sod. This house might have wallpaper, curtains, carpeting, and a treasured piano or organ to remind the lonely housewife of the comforts and cultural advantages she had left behind in the East. By the 1880s, low-cost windmills became available, and gradually the homesteaders replaced their "soddies" with more comfortable homes. But sod houses served their purpose and played an important role in America's frontier life.
Illustration: Pioneer family in front of their sod house and dugout, Nebraska, 1892
(C) 1979. Panarizon Publishing Corp. USA
Photo: Nebraska State Historical Soc.
Printed in Italy 03.012.01.04