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.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Sod House Stigma

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."

Related websites:
Nebraska Studies: Building a Sod House
Sod House Photograph Collection

Related Prairie Bluestem article:
Sod House Construction

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9 comments:

Collagemama said...

My dad was also born in '23.

In 1966 there was still a sod house on a family farm near Lincoln. It was within a schoolbus-field trip distance, so probably in Lancaster County. The sod house was contained within the log house, which was then contained in the frame house.

Genevieve said...

Sod houses may have been more common and/or durable in southern and eastern Nebraska than in the Sandhills. I'm thinking that maybe the loam sod held together better than the sandy soil did. In my South Dakota book, most of those homesteaders bought lumber and built a shack. Curiously enough, it's often mentioned that they put on a sod roof.

ptg said...

Don't let Al Gore hear about soddies. They are so green, he'd want to make all of us live in them.

If it weren't for the spread of zoning and building codes into rural America, a soddie might be a good option. I've thought about building one, but the rules make it impractical.

stephanie said...

Up until last summer, my family owned the one remaining sod house in Phelps County. We'd had a variety of hired-hands lived in it over the years, and about 5 years ago it became unlivable. It's sad, in a way, because they are so interesting (I especially love the windows and how you can see the thickness of the walls.) We sold it and the land around it last year. It doesn't look like the new owners have plans to fix it up. Might be more money than it's worth. But I still found it all very fascinating.

Genevieve said...

ptg, Even if they won't let you build a sod house, it would be a cheap way to build a little shed or barn. With a metal roof and some poles in the walls and stucco inside and out, it should be fairly durable.

Genevieve said...

Stephanie, that is really interesting about your family's sod house. Was the sod covered over with stucco or some sort of siding on either the inside or outside?

Anonymous said...

Both of my parents were born in sod houses. Dad's sod was by Arnold, Ne. which has a lot of clay in the soil but mom's was a two story sod house built south of Thedford in the sandhills. The meadows and draws between the sandhills have pretty heavy soil. Two story sod houses were unusual. It was still standing in the 50's. I was still able to go upstairs in it. I have read about the roof on the soddy caving in on the people who homesteaded here origionaly while they ate supper. I have also read about cows falling through the sod roof on some soddies. I imagine it was maybe built into a hill. They were very warm in the winter and cool in the summer. My grandma had beautiful flowers in a flower box on the wide window sill. Sammie

RunAwayImagination said...

My granddad's 2nd wife was born in a sod house near Gordon, NE. Not too many years ago several sod houses were still standing in that area, and some that were vacant. The ones that were lived in were clad on the outside with siding and inside with plaster. Only the depth of the windows gave away the secret that they were sod houses.

Genevieve said...

Sammie, I am sure you remember the Solomon Butcher photo of the 2-story sod house near Broken Bow, NE. It was a work of art.

You are right about the meadows having a heavier soil than the hills.

Runaway, your comments made me think about a couple of old houses here I've seen torn down. You would never have guessed from looking at them outside that they had log rooms in them.

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