Pioneering homesteaders on the United States and Canadian prairies usually spent their first years in sod homes. Later, they graduated to wood framed farm houses.
When the earliest settlers came to the Dakota Territory’s Red River Valley they found land guarded by a sea of grass which stretched for miles. Not a single tree obstructed the view of the far off horizon.
The lucky first few claimed the small percentage of land along the few wooded rivers and streams. For them, timber was nearby and they could build log cabins. Such land was quickly taken and those who settled on the treeless prairie used the material at hand: sod.
A First Hand Account
Ollie M. Hoback of Grand Junction, Colorado, in a 1959 letter to his half sister, Mrs. Clay Jenkins, described watching his father build a sod house on the Nebraska prairie. Following is a section of his letter.
“In the fall of 1883, my father, Isaac Newton Hoback, built a sod house astride the section line, whereby one half of the house was on his homestead, and the other half on presumption land. The law said the homesteader had to make the homestead his home (and only home) for at least six months of the year.
“On a presumption, one had to live on it six months and pay $1.25 an acre. By this method, one could live in one end of the house for six months, and then move to the other end for six months, satisfying the law.”
Cutting the Sod
“Our land was about three miles from McCook, Nebraska. I watched Father plow the sod for his house. The Buffalo Grass roots held the sod together for great lengths—a mile if you wanted to plow that far. The sod would turn over just like a board.
“After the first furrow was turned, the second one would lay down and fit into the furrow space left by the first one. The field would just lie there like a smooth black expanse. Any fair team of horses could pull a twelve inch plow, so the sod strips were four inches thick, twelve inches wide and cut the length you wanted to use for the width of your house walls. Father used a sharp spade and a measuring stick for uniform size.”
Building the House
“He took the regular bed off the wagon and laid flat planks on to make a flat bed. He picked up the cut sods and hauled them to the house, building the house walls as he unloaded the wagon. He drove the wagon along side the sod strips, loaded, and pulled the wagon so near that the sod could be placed right in the proper wall location.
“When the walls were about five feet high, he started standing on the wagon bed to place the sods. There was no mortar or daubing for the sod house, nor was there a foundation.
“The first block of sod was laid grass side down on the grassy ground. Subsequent blocks were also laid grass side down and the grass acted as a sealant and a mortar to seal sod to sod.”
Accounts of other sod houses note that before sod was placed on the roof, tamarack beams and rails would be chinked together with filler, such as mud, moss, prairie grass or bison hair. Many had windows and stove pipes protruded through the grassy roofs.
Although holes were plugged, little visitors such as mice, snakes and bugs were common. Often six to eight family members lived in a 12 x 20 foot structure, including an ox or two during extreme winter weather!
Sod homes dotted the prairie landscape. They were cool during the hot summer and warm in the winter. Many families later added wooden lean-tos to sod houses as entry chambers or additional rooms. As soon as a farm family could afford it, they purchased lumber and built a frame house, leaving behind part of the pioneer era.
Sod House Bed and Breakfasts
Those who wish to have a sod house experience can choose between several sod house Bed and Breakfasts for lodging. Some are like miniature museums and have information on other aspects of pioneer life on the prairies. They can be located online by putting “sod house B & B” into a browser.
- Midwest Historical and Genealogical Register, p. 75 (Vol. 24, No. 2, 1989); Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, ND.