[Jamie will be at CGSSD this Saturday to present "Across the Prairie: Land Records in the Public Land States".]
Living on the Prairie
By Jamie Lee McManus Mayhew
Hot summers, cold winters, dirt, bugs, mice, and snakes were an everyday part of living on the prairie during the expansion of our United States. Pioneers moving to the Great Plains soon realized that a log cabin was not going to be built on their homestead. Buffalo grass, a thick grass with heavily matted roots was to the prairie as trees were to the forest. Buffalo grass was the raw material available to build shelters for the new settlers.
Many pioneers began their life on the prairie in a dugout cut into a hillside later to be expanded on several sides with sod to create a “cozy,” if not very clean, home. As time went on, the settlers would build an actual sod house with a door and windows. The laborious job of cutting sod with a spade was soon replaced with the use of the grasshopper plow which greatly eased the work of building a soddy. Strips cut approximately six inches deep and one foot wide by two feet long were used to build the walls. Laying the sod, grass side down and two to three rows wide, created a wall about three feet thick. A space was left for the door and windows were framed. Every few rows, the direction of the sod was changed to increase the strength of the wall. The roof was made in several ways most commonly by creating a wooden frame, sometimes covered with tar paper or straw, with a thinner layer of sod on top. Eventually, the roof might sprout a spring flower garden. Inside the house, the homeowner might hang cheese cloth from the ceiling to catch the bugs and grass that would drop down on the evening meal.
|Library of Congress photo|
The sod house was cool in the summer and warm in the winter although susceptible to heavy rain, they lasted a long time, frequently becoming a storage room or barn when a newer home was built. Wood was sparse so most of the soddies were heated with buffalo or cow chips. Eventually the family got used to the smell. Water was precious and hard to come by. Fortunate settlers settled near a spring or stream otherwise it was necessary to dig a well, a chancy and dangerous activity. Winter brought long days of loneliness with the nearest neighbor miles away.
We might think that this life was unimaginable and wonder why anyone would choose to live in this way but, although failure was high, the sodbusters brought settlement to the Great Plains by the early twentieth century thereby helping to expand the United States.
“There are no renters here,” Homesteading a Sod House. Women of the West Museum. http://theautry.org/explore/exhibit/sod/daily.html. (accessed 15 June 2014)
Vick Fite and Nancy Hendrickson, Frontier Traveler, The Kansas Soddy, http://www.frontiertraveler.com/kansas/the-kansas-soddy/. (accessed 15 June 014)
Sod house. n.d. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sod_house (accessed 15 June 2014)
Homestead Act: The Challenges of Living on the Plains. Nebraskastudies.org, , http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0500/frameset_reset.html?http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0500/stories/0501_0108.html (accessed 15 June 2014)
Homestead National Monument of America. National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/home/index.htm (accessed 15 June 2014)