In 1862, America was in full expansion and Congress passed the Homestead Act, opening up millions of acres for the pioneers. It was a helping hand for the settlers who were encouraged to conquer the Western frontier. All you needed to do to make the land yours was to build a sod house on it. You were supposed to grow crops on it and fight against the old bad luck for five years.
Life wasn’t easy back then and many of the homesteaders of the late 1800s had to face a totally different environment. It was a complete change from anything they had seen back East or in their native land in Europe. The North American plains were a vast mass of land that went on for miles on gently rolling terrain. Even the grass that fed the buffalo and other forms of wildlife often grew three to five feet high. Not to mention the weather, which could become extreme. There wasn’t anything that could protect you from the bitter cold wind that blows down from Canada.
The land was for the most part barren of trees and larger vegetation. The temperatures in the summer would range above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and winters would drop below freezing. Drought, storms and tornadoes were other obstacles thrown at them by Mother Nature. To top it all, there were times when swarms of grasshoppers would wipe out entire crops in just one day. Snow wasn’t a delight and a time of joy as it is now and it could cover your sod house and trap your there until the thaw in the spring.
With medicine and medical or veterinary care being miles away, they had to take care of their livestock and family members as good as they could. Getting ill during that time was a real survival challenge. More than half of those who set out to live there didn’t make it past the five years.
Even with all these challenges, life on the prairie wasn’t all a series of misfortunes. Life was rewarding enough for those who fought and worked hard. The land held abundant game and it was a paradise for those who knew how to hunt. The soil was rich and perfect for farming, once you manage to turn the ground over. It was all about having the right survival skills and the determination to make it. Those who managed to ride out the five years ended up thriving in a new environment.
Building a Sod House
The homesteaders or sodbusters as they were called needed a constant in their life in order to make it through the day. This life saving anchor was their soddie or sod house. Lacking building materials such as lumber and stone they had to make do with what they had. Since there weren’t trees that would help them build a log cabin, they had to rely on what was available. And the most available material for making a home was the ground they walked on.
The top layer of soil on the prairie contained strong grasses that sank their roots down into the soil in a tangled mess that held onto the dirt well. By cutting blocks out of this sod they could make long rectangular building blocks from which they could build their homes. Similar to what a stonemason or brickmason today might build a wall with heavy pavers or narrow cinder blocks.
Since weather was harsh, the homesteaders had to find some protection against the elements, until their sod house was built. Since Conestoga wagons and tents were useless in the fight against the cold and they couldn’t provide enough heat, they had to rely on dugouts. A dugout was basically a cave dug out of the ground or into the side of a low hill at the sod house site. They made it large enough for the entire family. However, they didn’t put too much effort into building it much bigger since it was just a temporary shelter.
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The dugout was built six feet below ground level in order to keep a standard 65 degrees temperature. Once the sod house was completed they would reuse the dugout for storage or stock. Records of that time showed that the most ingenious settlers would build the sod house so that the dugout became an extra room in the house. The average time to build a sod house was between two and three weeks. Most times, things would develop much faster if they had neighbors in the area. Everyone used to give a helping hand as it would strengthen the relationship between neighbors. Building a sod house would also help to develop a community.
Most of the records from that period describe the typical sod house as being a single room approximately 16 feet wide by 20 feet long and eight feet high. Every sod house was built following seven basic steps, as you will see in the following lines.
Building a sod house – pick a good location
Back then, like today, location was crucial for the new homesteader. They had to pick a place that was close to water, but not so close that a flood overflowing the banks of the steam might affect their life. Being sheltered from the elements was another important aspect when choosing the location. They tried to pick a location on the southern side of a copse of trees or a hill. The last condition for picking a location for the sod house was that it needed to be close enough to a town or the railroad. This was crucial in order to get to the town and back for supplies within a day. Seeking for medical aid or lawful help wasn’t easy when you were miles away from the nearest town. You had to make sure it can come in time to save your life.
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Building a sod house – Cut in the floor
Once the location of the sod house was picked you had to start with the first step in the actual building of the sod house. This step would require cutting out the floor. It was done by cutting down into the earth about six to twelve inches, leveling the ground out. It was required for the ground to be hardened. One would have to wet it and tamping it down with a post or any other flat and heavy object so that the dirt would compact.
Cutting out the floor provided many advantages for the settlers. Besides showing the dimensions of the sod house for when they started laying the walls, it would also reduce the insects and small animals that came into the sod house. Having a bare floor was also a precaution or safety measure. It would help reduce the chances of a fire inside the sod house.
Building a sod house – Cut the sod bricks
This was the second required step for building the sod house. Once the floor was cut and the settlers decided on the dimensions of their new house. The less fortunate ones had to cut the sod by hand with a shovel and it was really an intense labor. The fortunate ones would benefit from the invention of a special plow designed for this purpose called a grasshopper plow. It would cut a long swath of sod which the pioneers could then cut to length. Each piece was required to be 18 inches wide X 20 inches long by six inches thick. It is important to mention that each piece of brick weighted in at around 50 pounds. When they had to cut the sod bricks it was important to work smart and save time.
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This meant they would have to cut the sod from the ground around the house. It was important to do so because it provided two major advantages: first, they didn’t have to carry the bricks over long distances and second, this left a free vegetation zone around the sod house and would prevent wildfires from getting to it. The average sod house required between 2500 and 3000 sod bricks and time was of the essence when building it. After many trial and errors, the settlers learned that they need to cut out only the bricks that they would use in one day. Otherwise the sod would dry out and crumble if left out and you had to start the cutting work all over again.
Building a sod house – Building the walls
The walls of the sod house were somewhere between 18 to 25 inches thick, depending on how the sod bricks were cut. They were built two bricks deep at the bottom and sometimes narrowing to one brick deep as it got toward the top. You were required to have a wider base for the sod house in order to have a strong and solid foundation. The sod house would settle significantly over time as the sod dried out.
Without such solid base there was the risk of the walls settling inward and the entire structure would collapse. Even for the walls they had to think “out of the box” and they decided that laying the sod bricks with the root side up would make the roots grow upward into the brick above and make the wall stronger. Every third row, they had to lay the sod bricks crosswise to tie the inner and outer rows together.
Building a sod house – Dealing with doors and windows
When they reached the point where the doors and windows would go, they added wooden frames they brought with them or made from whatever wood was available, they were using even the ones from their wagons. Those who had windows with them would put those in place while others would fill the opening with thin cloth to allow sunlight into the sod house. This was a temporary solution until they managed to get glass to put in the frames. To fit them in place they would cut small sod bricks, to fit around the windows and door frames.
An important step was to let a gap above the frame so that the bricks could settle over time without putting pressure on the window or door. You can imagine that if they didn’t leave this space, the pressure might have broken the window or jam the door in place. In order to support the sod above the gap, one would use sticks laid crosswise, grass or any other material that would provide good insulation.
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Building a sod house – Putting on the roof, the most difficult task
This was one of the most challenging parts of building the sod house. Adding the roof the right way required patience and experience, but also help from neighbors. The roof was made by laying poles or beams across the walls which were then covered by bundles of brush tied together, then by mud to bind them together and finally by a layer of sod laid grass side up. They had to pay attention and ensure the roof slanted a bit so that it would not get soggy when it rained.
If you were building a sod house for the first time, chances were you wouldn’t get the roof right from the first try. Here is where neighbors used to help the most. Their know-how and life experience was the decisive factor for building a sturdy roof. If there were those who brought a stove with them, a holes was cut for a chimney.
Building a sod house – Interior works
As with any new home, once the construction is ready, the last part you need to take care is the finish work. One of the first steps would require stretching a light colored sheet across the ceiling. This ingenious method had two advantages: first, it would reflect the light into the room and second, it would keep dirt, bugs and other small animals from dropping out of the ceiling into your dinner or bed. The next step was to finish off the walls by scrapping them smooth.
This was a labor done mostly by the women. Once the walls were scraped, a layer of mud or plaster was added. This extra layer was acting like a drywall compound to give the wall a smooth and water-resistant coating. Sometimes, the settlers used to cover the walls with fabrics, canvas or animal skins, especially the area where they slept. The main rule was to always use a light color material to reflect any light that made its way into the sod house.
If the pioneers followed these steps, the resulting sod house was a sturdy construction, a good place to live in. It was strong enough to withstand heavy rains and winds. The thick earthen walls were able to insulate the living space and the temperature inside was around 60 degrees.
Living in a sod house
You can imagine that living in a one room building wasn’t easy and privacy was a rare commodity. In order to deal with this issue, the settlers used to hang sheets from the ceiling. It helped them separate sleeping areas from the public spaces. Furniture was a luxury for many of them and everything from closets to shelving was mainly built on the spot, right into the walls. In order to save space, most of the sleeping materials like pillows, bed sheets and covers were stored out during the day. It kept them fresh and it also kept the bugs from making a next inside the nighttime materials. The same rule applied for everything that wasn’t needed on the spot. Things like sewing machine or butter churns were stored outside or in the dugout until needed and used there.
Things were usually brought inside when the weather was bad. When it came to entertainment and relaxation, things were kept simple. A few handmade toys and dolls for the kids and a few special items for the grown-ups was all they had. A pocket knife or books were more valuable than gold and these items managed to keep boredom at bay. Women used to plant flowers in the grass on the roof. It would brighten up the sod house and make it look like a real home.
Living in a sod house wasn’t easy but it was a necessary life experience for the first pioneers. Without them we wouldn’t be here today. A sod house is not easy to build, but it’s a sturdy solution that can provide a comfortable living environment. It is a lesson we should keep in mind, as we never know what the future may bring.
Stay Safe and God Bless!
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