From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Sod House Construction

How sod houses were built



The following description of sod house construction is from a 1916 journal for geography teachers. It includes some interesting details about how sod houses were made.

How is a sod house constructed? Nature furnishes the material at first hand. She also deals kindly with man's handiwork. The house is put together most simply. Sometimes, as in the case of a school house, all the neighborhood families gather and build it in one day.

No framework need be erected before the sod is laid. Any tough sod convenient to the building is used, such as blue-stem grass or hay meadow grass cut from a moist, compact land, a mile or less away. Autumn is the preferred time, when the roots are tougher and thicker.

A dry time is best for laying the sod, as the building settles less. The sod is cut in blocks two feet or more in length, a foot or more wide and two to four inches thick. It is laid block upon block like brick, with the grass side down. The length of the block determines the thickness of the wall.

It can easily be seen that window and door casings will be wide when set in a wall that is several feet thick. The frames for these are of lumber,and are in place when the walls are being built up.

The roof of the early sod house was of sod, where now shingles are often used. It is able to withstand the showers. From the "draws" or "canyons" the homesteader secures the long pine and the saplings...

The ridge-pole for the roof of the "soddy" is usually the long pine. Along the middle of each side of the roof a second long pole extends parallel to the ridge-pole. Rough slabs are laid across the poles. These may be covered with tar paper or straw before the sod is laid for the roof, grass side down.

The sod may be laid double, the second layer covering the openings in the first. The pitch, or slant, of the roof is slight. And invariably the stove pipe extends through the roof. The American homesteader seems not to have made a success of roof thatching...

A well-build sod house may be occupied for ten, twenty or thirty years, with the sod roof renewed occasionally. Cool in summer and warm in winter,it furnishes secure shelter when the winds howl over the plains bearing the blinding blizzard or the grating sand. Flowers bloom in the deep window recesses the year around.

Today many a family lives in the sod house as a matter of preference. In modified form, it is likely to remain in use for some time to come in the western counties of the Great Plains, where timber is scarce and transportation poor and towns are far apart.

Source: The Journal of Geography 1915-1916, Volume XIV, June 1916, pp. 387-388. Edited by Ray Hughes Whitbeck, and published by the Post Publishing Company of Appleton, Wisconsin. Digitized by Google Books.
Related website: How to Build a Sod House
Also on Prairie Bluestem: Sod House Stigma

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7 comments:

ptg said...

Early settlers might dig a 'potato hole' or root cellar first. I remember hearing stories of families that had to spend their first winter living in the tater hole because bad weather or some other problem delayed completion of the soddie.

Useful knowledge.

Genevieve said...

PT, I have read some sad anecdotes about city people who came out on the prairie to homestead, and they didn't have a clue how to farm, build a house, grow a garden, or even hunt and clean game animals. I don't know what happened with the folks who spent a winter in their tater hole, but it makes me wonder how prepared for prairie life they were.

In some of the parts of this that I left out, it mentioned that the floor was often excavated a couple of feet. I'm sure that also helped with being warm in the winter and cool in the summer. That would never work in Kentucky, because the hole would fill up with water every time it rained, even with a roof over it.

RunAwayImagination said...

The first generation of my Irish ancestors who homesteaded in northwestern Nebraska no doubt lived in sod houses. It was interesting to see how they were built. It was also interesting to read the cheerful tone in which the article was written.

John Ruberry said...

Will I see any in Kansas next week?

Genevieve said...

Ruanaway, I agree that the authors had a positive attitude about sod houses. The authors also talk about how the inside of the home can be made nice and they stress that the occupants should not be judged by the humble material their home is made from.

Genevieve said...

Ask (for a sod house) and ye shall receive, John.

http://www.kbba.com/brewster.shtml

Forsikringsskader said...

Very beautiful article. Thank you for sharing...

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

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