Thursday, February 21, 2013

Memories of a Homesteader's Dugout

One underground room, a dirt floor and roof, and fleas

An Oklahoma dugout photographed c. 1909.
The family is probably sitting in the only available shade.
From a picture postcard series by J. V. Dedrick
James Barton came to Republic County, Kansas, in 1871, from Marshall County, Iowa, as a young child. His parents homesteaded near modern-day Cuba, Kansas. Looking back on the family's trip by covered wagon, Mr. Barton remembered that it "was a mighty long and hard walk from Iowa to Kansas for a seven year old, barefoot boy!"

The following paragraphs are excerpted from an account of homestead days that Mr. Barton wrote in 1936.

In the spring [of 1872] father built our dug-out. Now you young folks, who think your pretty homes are not comfortable enough, you should have seen our first Kansas home -- one underground room, dirt floor, dirt roof, and fleas and snakes for company. You never saw so many fleas-- we always blamed the buffalo and buffalo grass for these fleas, for all sod-house and dug-out families had them.

Our first crop was cut by father and a Mr. Zavodsky with a "cradle" scythe, -- a hard beginning for our parents, but how we children enjoyed the pretty country-- miles and miles of "Blue-Stem" in places three and four feet high, and just a lot of fun to play and hide in! There were no roads -- no towns -- no churches -- no schools -- no doctors -- and no railroads... When father went for provisions, it took him about a week to drive it with oxen, where you young folks now could motor it in an hour and a half...

While herding cattle we would see lots of buffalo heads and bones, undoubtedly left behind by Indians. Wild game was plentiful, including countless prairie chickens and quail everywhere. That first fall, we saw several deer and antelope grazing on our rye, but our nearest buffaloes were west of the Republican River. However, we often had buffalo steak brought back by other pioneer hunters. My father never owned a gun. I don't know what we would have done, had some of our Indian scares developed into reality.

Source: James Barton's pioneer memories of Republic County, Kansas.

My great-great-grandparents Ashbel and Martha Mapes were among the earliest settlers of Republic County, arriving in 1869, so this account is very interesting to me.

I have heard people say that in the Nebraska Sandhills, a quick "dugout" was sometimes made by simply laying a board roof across a wind-eroded "blowout" in a hill.

Here are three more photographs of dugouts from the Library of Congress. I think all of these are more elaborate in construction than most of the initial underground shelters that pioneer familes dug. If you have time, you might enjoy visiting the links in the picture captions -- they contain additional photos and more information.

This dugout in Humboldt, Nevada, appears to have a rock front.
Photographed by Larry Kingsbury, October 1994

A thatched dugout in Minnesota, about 1900-1910.
Photograph by the Detroit Publishing Company 
A homesteader's stone dugout in Campbell County, Wyoming.
Probably constructed between 1917 and 1936. "Unusually well crafted."
The associated data pages at this link are full of info about dugouts. 


Collagemama said...

Fleas! Ack. Where is Cuba from Concordia?

Genevieve said...

Cuba is in Republic County and Concordia is in Cloud County, which is the next county south. I think Cuba is maybe 20 miles NE of Concordia as the crow flies.

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