Sod Houses & Furnishings
I have not yet found a way to prove it, but the family story is, that my Great-Grandfather, Jacob Sayler, a homesteader, built a sod house for his family when he arrived in America. They settled just outside of Artus, South Dakota in 1899.
When Jacob Sayler arrived in Artus, his family of 7 lived in that small sod house, possibly for years, until they could afford to build a real home.
These articles are reprinted from the Forest Preserve District of Cook County Nature Bulletin.
Nature Bulletin No. 620 December 3, 1960
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
In the 1860’s and 70’s, when pioneer settlers came to homestead free land on the vast lonely prairies of Kansas and Nebraska, they found a country that, except for fringes of cottonwoods and willows along the streams, was treeless. There was no rock and mighty little timber for building houses and barns. Lumber was very expensive and scarce. So was money.
However, the prairies were thickly covered with short, drought- enduring buffalo and blue grama grasses. Some of the Indian tribes which not only hunted buffalo but also grew corn — notably the Pawnee, Osage and Hidatsa — had large earthlodges. They used sod in the walls and the conical or dome-like roofs had pole rafters covered with willow brush, slough hay, sod, and finally clay. So the homesteaders were inspired to build their homes with slabs of the remarkably thick and tough prairie sod: “Nebraska marble”.
In the 80’s, after railroads had been built into the Dakotas, those territories were settled mostly by German and Scandinavian immigrants. Some arrived with only a few dollars in their pockets. They, too, built primitive sod houses. They gathered the buffalo bones that whitened the prairies and sold them, at about $10.00 per ton, to buy food, implements and furnishings.
A sod house required about an acre of that material. It was turned over with a breaking plow or sodbuster, taking pains to keep the furrows straight and of uniform depth — 3 or 4 inches. Then, with a spade, it was cut into rectangular slabs. Some used slabs measuring 2 feet by 3 feet, laid lengthwise, but the most common size was 12″ x 24″, laid crosswise to build a wall two feet thick.
All slabs were laid with the grass side down and the first layer rested directly upon the ground. On the south side an opening was left for a door and, as the walls rose, openings for two or more windows. Frequently there was also a window on each end. The succeeding layers were laid as in a brick wall — each slab straddling the joint between the two beneath it — and every third or fourth course ran in the opposite direction to strengthen the wall. Each course was leveled by shaving off the high spots with a sharp spade. That dirt was tamped into the low spots and between all joints.
The roof was a serious problem. Although a gable roof was preferred, the simpler, sloping shed-type was commonly built at first. If lumber could be obtained and a man could afford it, the top plates and rafters — also a ridge pole for the gabled type — were purchased and covered with boards, followed by tar paper. Otherwise, cottonwood poles were used, covered with willow brush and slough hay. A layer of sod was placed over the tar paper or the hay and then, to shed water, a tamped layer of clay.
Those makeshift roofs inevitably leaked. As one old-timer says, “it rained two days longer inside than it did outside”. The bare hard-packed earth floor became a muddy mess. The housewife demanded, and eventually got, a better roof, a wooden floor, and inside walls that were whitewashed after being plastered with a mixture of clay and ashes, or fine sand, with wheat chaff or manure as a binder The window and door frames, homemade, were fastened to the walls with long wooden pegs. The door and its hinges might be homemade but the barn sash windows were bought.
A sod house was warm in winter and very cool in summer. Prairie fires could not burn them. Indians could not burn or shoot through them.
Copyright by “Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois”
Sod House Furnishings
Nature Bulletin No. 666 February 10, 1962
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
SOD HOUSE FURNISHINGS
Last year, after we issued Bulletin No. 620-A about the sod houses built by early settlers on the Great Plains, there were numerous requests for this one about the furnishings in those unique dwellings. If they seem meager and inadequate, bear in mind that, with rare exceptions, the pioneers were so poor that some had nothing but iron determination and courage.
After the Civil War, ex-soldiers from both armies “pulled up stakes and lit out” for Nebraska, Kansas, or Texas. Under the Homestead Act of 1862, anyone who had not been a Rebel could “file” on and obtain, free, a quarter-section (160 acres) of “government land” — public domain — and, by paying $200, claim and pre-empt another. There were no restrictions on purchases from land companies, nor from the railroads that had been granted millions of acres.
Some of the settlers were lonely bachelors, on horseback, with what they could carry in saddlebags and a bedroll, but most of them had families and traveled in covered wagons drawn by plodding oxen that an Indian would not steal. For the first few years the furnishings in their sod houses were only what could be brought in those wagons, plus what was made if a man could buy any lumber and was handy with his few tools. There was no timber other than fringes of cottonwoods and willows along the streams — usable only for poles and fuel.
Naturally, the first arrivals glommed onto all choice locations where water and wood were available. Late-comers bravely settled out on the vast treeless prairies. They lived in their wagons, or a dugout in a slope, until a “soddy” was completed. Its furnishings commonly included some bedding and extra clothing; a cooking pot and a skillet; some knives, forks, tin plates, cups and wooden spoons; a coffee grinder; a wooden tub, bucket, washboard, clothesline, and flat iron; perhaps a few dishes buried in a barrel of flour; and occasionally a cherished chest of drawers or a rocking chair lashed underneath the wagon.
Until the house was built, with a fireplace at one end, they cooked outdoors over an open fire, or over a pit, unless they had a Dutch oven or a little portable stove. Where stones were scarce, the fireplace was built of sod slabs, thickly covered with mud, and had a “cat-and-claw” chimney of split sticks and clay. For fuel they used slough hay and manure — dry buffalo “chips” and, later, cow chips.
Those sod houses often stood miles apart and far from any would-be town. At first they had clay floors, and greased paper instead of glass in the windows. They had no carpets or rugs, no curtains, no beds, no clock, no newspapers or magazines, no books other than a Bible. Some pioneers, especially women, went crazy from loneliness and despair.
In the 80s and 90s the prairies of North and South Dakota became dotted with sod houses built by land-hungry immigrants lured from parts of Europe by the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads. Those soddies were commonly about 16 feet wide, 36 feet long, and had two rooms. Sometimes a shelter for livestock was attached. Extending into both rooms through the partition wall of sod slabs was a stove, built of stones and clay, used for cooking and to heat both rooms.
While a man built the house and plowed, his family collected buffalo bones that whitened the prairies. Hauled as much as 50 miles to a railroad town, they were exchanged at from $8 to $10 per ton for provisions and for lumber to make a table, cupboard, benches and beds. Until then a box was their table and they sat on the floor where they also slept on hay-filled ticks. Tin cans, picked up in town, might serve as cups and a broken crock, filled with lard, as a lamp.
Those, you softies, were the kind of people who settled America.
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Neither of these articles included photographs. Photos were included to add to the content.
Permission to print granted with attribution.
Copyright held by “Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois”
By Spencer, David L, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Solomon D. Butcher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Attribution not legally required
By Ammodramus (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Attribution not legally required