Little sod houses on the prairie
It was hard work to build a sod house. Ripping up an acre or more of sod, cutting it into large building-block chunks, and stacking it to form walls was dirty, back-breaking labor.
Then a ridgepole was laid across the top and a wooden framework was built to support the roof -- a sod roof if the builder couldn't afford lumber.
Sod roofs often leaked, and sod houses tended to be dark and dirty. It's easy to imagine why a frame house was preferred.
Sometimes the walls were plastered or stuccoed, inside and out, if suitable materials could be found. This made the house more durable, brightened the interior, helped keep out insects, and decreased the dustiness. Interior walls were often covered with newspaper, if it wasn't possible to plaster them.
A sod house in the family tree
My father was born in a sod house in Brown County, Nebraska. I didn't learn this until I was in my early 40's.
When Daddy passed away a few years later, I helped write a eulogy. I suggested that we mention his birth in a sod house. To my surprise, my mother said she didn't know if my father would want that included. She relented when I said that descendents of the family would like to know that interesting fact.
I think my parents felt that sod houses were lower-class dwellings. By the time they were born in 1923, I suppose that many of the sod houses the homesteaders built had been replaced with frame buildings. Only poor folks lived in sod houses -- like my father's young parents who were struggling to get a start.
Who knows? Maybe the kids at school teased my dad about being born in a soddy.
I don't know when my grandparents became owners of land adjoining Moon Lake (south of Johnstown, NE), but that was the setting of all the stories I know of my father's childhood. The ranch had a two-story frame house that burned to the ground when my father was 12 or so. Fortunately, they had insurance and they were able to rebuild.
A South Dakota soddy
A few sod houses were still being built when my parents were children (the 1920s and 1930s). In a book of South Dakota homesteader history, the following account is given:
Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Tuttle and family came to Mellette County from Tripp County in 1929. Upon arrival they lived for two years on what was known as the Ivan Nelson ranch, just two miles from where the Tuttles live now. Later they moved onto their own place and lived in a schoolhouse while Mr. Tuttle built a sod house.
He said it was difficult to find good sod in this territory [northwest of Valentine, Nebraska] as it washed so easily one could hardly hold a house together. Mr. Tuttle is rather an expert at building sod houses.
In 1932 the family moved into their new dwelling. It was a comfortable sixteen by thirty-six inside and the walls were two feet thick. Mrs. Tuttle recalls that they kept the house warm the first winter with just a kitchen range.
Source: Mellette County: 1911-1961 published August 15, 1961 by the Mellette County Centennial Committee, White River, South Dakota
I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. I don't remember any ruins of sod houses, though there surely had been some in that area at one time. I do remember hearing that one of our neighbors (south of Bassett, Nebraska,) had a sod house enclosed within their frame house.
Here in Kentucky, when a log house has been enclosed within a frame house, they call it a "log room." You could say our Nebraska neighbors had a "sod room."
Nebraska Studies: Building a Sod House
Sod House Photograph Collection
Related Prairie Bluestem article:
Sod House Construction