Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sod House at the 1901 Pan American Exposition

Sod houses, Nebraska cooking, and the indomitable Mrs. Bowser

In 1901, the Pan American Exhibition opened in Buffalo, New York. The fair was a huge and wonderful event celebrating the achievements and industries of America, the scientific frontiers of the new century, and the treasures of the world.

A sod house from Nebraska was among the hundreds of exhibits at the fair. It was located in the southeast quadrant of the fairgrounds, tucked between the Forestry building and the Indian stockade, (about halfway down the right side of this map.)

The Nebraska Sod House was a popular restaurant of the fair, and Mrs. L. Bowser, the restaurant's manager, was a former homesteader of the Newport, Nebraska, area. It was there that she lived in her first sod house. This bit of trivia is interesting to me because Newport is located in Rock County, Nebraska, where I grew up.

It seems that Mrs. Bowser and her husband homesteaded somewhere near Newport, Nebraska, in the 1880s. I am not sure how long they lived on their claim, but Mrs. Bowser stated that they sold the land for the sum of $300.

During the early 1890s, Mrs. Bowser was the editor of a Newport newspaper. In 1894, she purchased The Advocate, a newspaper in Bassett (the county seat, just a few miles west). She also operated a restaurant in Bassett. She was definitely an entrepreneur.

In the late 1890s, she obtained a contract to erect a sod house at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exhibition held at Omaha, Nebraska. The sod was harvested in Rock County near Newport and transported on four freight cars to Omaha.

A scrapbook compiled during the building of the Trans-Mississippi Exhibition contains a clipping that states that the four train cars of sod used for the house came from "Dodge County, not Rock County." (This may have been an erroneous report.) The house was erected by Ad. Morrison of Newport and Mrs. Bowser's son, and its dimensions were 24 feet x 16 feet x 8 feet.

At that time, Mrs. Bowser was living in Norfolk where she had been the matron of the insane asylum. She moved to Omaha to live in the sod house for the duration of the Exhibition.

At first, the sod house was intended to be an example of the prairie homes of homesteaders, but before long, Mrs. Bowser was selling food from the sod house. By the end of the exhibition, she was also operating a restaurant in the "Chinese Building on Bluffs Tract". (I believe the Bluffs Tract restaurant was also on the Exhibition grounds.)

When the fair closed, officials had some trouble getting Mrs. Bowser to move out. She continued living on the exhibition grounds in her sod house until she was finally evicted in early June of 1900. By then, it was time to start another sod house restaurant at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo.

I haven't discovered how Mrs. Bowser got her sod to the Pan-American grounds at Buffalo, or who erected the house for her. I don't even know if it was built of genuine Nebraska sod. However, one magazine writer deemed it authentic and was filled with nostalgia upon seeing it.

The sod-house, imported from Nebraska, furnished and reproduced exactly as it was in 1884, had to me a unique interest, for I have lived in one—on fried bacon and potatoes—with the prairie winds to lull me to sleep at night. Such cubes of earth as this have sheltered many a sturdy pioneer family. Inside there is often found a piano. On the walls are pictures, and books and papers are never wanting. They are cool and refreshing in summer, and cozily warm in winter. The sod house is quite as much a feature of prairie pioneering as the log house in the forest. (Source)

Mrs. Bowser stated that her Nebraska Sod House took up most of the 37 x 75 foot site on which it was built. Images of the sod house show a long extension (ell) on the back side.

Fairgoers could get a cheap meal there. For 30¢, Mrs. Bowser sold a plate of plain Nebraska food-- creamed chicken, baked beans, gingerbread, brown bread, butter, and coffee.

The McCook Tribune carried an article (image at left) in December, 1901, in which Mrs. Bowser reminisced about her experiences in Buffalo. She spoke of the great number of chickens slaughtered and the large number of people she employed. She forgot to say that the sod house restaurant was cited several times and finally closed for health violations, a full three months before the end of the Exhibition.

In the last mention I found of the indomitable Mrs. Bowser, she was trying to convince the governor to send a Nebraska sod-house exhibit to the 1903 St. Louis World's Fair. I don't know if she made it there or not, but if she did, I'm sure she opened a restaurant.


nebraska gal said...


Genevieve Netz said...

Yes, I agree that history is fun -- and sometimes funny, too!

Marathon Pundit said...

Sadly, the exposition is best remembered for the assasination of Pres. McKinley.

"Matron of an insane asylum?"

History can be funny.

Genevieve Netz said...

It is odd that Mrs. Bowser did not even mention the assassination in her reminiscences about the Pan American Exposition. However, McKinley was shot on Sept. 6, 1901, so maybe the Nebraska Sod House had already been shut down by then.

Runawayimagination said...

My Nebraska ancestors who homesteaded in the Sandhills in the late 1900s region built sod houses. It was interesting to read about the Exposition, when electricity was a somewhat of a novelty and only available in big cities. A century later, I'm working to bring high-speed Internet to rural areas of Tennessee.

Genevieve Netz said...

It's ironic that the Exposition had lightbulbs by the thousands on the exteriors of the buildings, but there was no electricity inside the emergency hospital/first-aid station on the grounds. The doctors who were treating President McKinley used a pan to reflect a bit of light into the operating room.

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