The Sod House

Kathie Bell
Special to the Globe
A dugout style sod house. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Today, we think of them as the settler's last ditch alternative to wood and brick structures, but 140 or 150 years ago that was not necessarily the case.

Of, course wood was scarce and brick factories were not yet in place. So sod, or soil held together by the roots of native grass, was mainly what they had to work with when building their living quarters. However, these sod houses had other advantages than merely being constructed out of available material

Soddies, as the pioneers called them, were well insulated. They stayed cool in the summer and retained warmth in the winter. They kept out moisture and wind. They rarely caught fire. Furthermore, they were inexpensive and easy to construct.

As a result, most early settlers in the Great Plains built their first homes out of sod.

Even when lumber became more plentiful, settlers found wood frame houses were drafty and difficult to heat.

The military and some early settlers opted for a type of soddie called a dugout. The builders carved soil out of a bank or hillside creating a cave which formed three walls and the roof.

Occupants built a front wall out of sod, stones or wood.

People also created entire houses out of sod. They dug up mud from nearby creeks and rivers, using the mud as mortar to hold the square blocks of dirt and grass, cut from the earth, together.

Often the builders shipped in wood frames and glass to create doors and windows.

Alternatively, they created doors by using buffalo hides, wool blankets or wooden poles tied together. Small windows let out less heat in the winter. The settlers who did not have glass windowpanes, substituted animal skins, greased paper or wooden shudders as a means to keep out the cold.

Settlers crafted a wood frame, which they placed on top of the sod walls to create roof. They then placed hay on top of the frame and covered the hay sod bricks. Floors were usually dirt. They threw rugs on the floor to keep down the dust.

Fireplaces were build from native stone with their interiors coated with mud or clay, to prevent burning.

At first, the houses’ interiors were typically plain and simple. The first settlers brought just a few pieces of furniture with them. After their arrival, they made furniture by hand and used natural materials to heat and decorate their homes.

The fireplace or stove provided the main source of heat and light for the family.

The Plains offered very little wood to burn, so the settlers burned grass, hay, scrub brushes and, most notably, dried bison dung - buffalo chips.

They built shelves for storage, pegs to hang their clothing and rope beds with straw mattresses.

In order to keep out the rain and cold air, many homesteaders pasted newspapers on the inside of sod homes. Sometimes they invested in plaster to cover the inside wall as a more aesthetic way to achieve the same ends.

A disadvantage of soddies were they were not indestructible. When it rained, soddies and dugouts tended to leak or cave in.

Many times animals invaded the mud homes. Settlers had to look out for rattlesnakes coiled up under their beds, worry about mice digging into their walls, and had make sure no scorpions or tarantulas had crawled inside their boots.

Additionally, they usually hung cloth or a sheet over the living space to prevent insects from dropping down onto the occupants.