Living in Sod Houses

Saskatchewan_sod_housePeople who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. People who lived in sod houses, however, could throw just about anything.

I happen to really like sod houses. I think my first brush with this particularly ingenious form of architecture was through reading the Little House on the Prairie series. I thought it was just awesome that people could make houses out of the dirt itself and could build them right into hills if they wanted to. I guess I’ve always been a hobbit at heart.

My appreciation for sod houses, however, grew as I learned more about the settling of the American frontier. In the early days of the Old West, settlers moving into the vast new lands opened by the explorations after the Louisiana Purchase had only the most basic materials to work with. In areas with forests, this wasn’t a problem. Cut the trees down, build log cabins and other wood frame houses, end of story. But across the prairie, were trees were scarce but the land was ripe for farming, a different kind of house was needed.

Detail of sod house construction - courtesy of Greg Willis, Wikicommons

Detail of sod house construction – courtesy of Greg Willis, Wikicommons

Sod houses were surprisingly strong. They were the ideal form of shelter in areas where the winds whipped and fires could spread like, well, wildfire. Sod “bricks” were cut from the virgin soil as part of the process of cultivating the land for planting. These bricks would be built into walls, like clay bricks, and a roof would be put on top. It sounds so simple. It was simple. It was also genius.

The sod was still living when it was first built into walls, and the roots of the grass had just enough time to grow the bricks together before it dried. The result was a fortress of a house…complete with insects and other “wildlife” growing in it. We are so deeply concerned about building “green” houses now, but these sod houses put our modern green architecture to shame.

Of course, with a sod house came sod problems. The walls living in more ways than one. Bugs, mice, and other little critters were just as cozy and happy within the walls as people were. If you lived in a sod house, you were never truly alone! Constant dirt was another problem. Unlike fired bricks, dried sod tended to “shed” over time. That’s not to say that the walls would crumble. The roots of the grass that had grown in the sod before it was made into bricks saw to that. But dirt and dust was a problem.

Dowse sod house, Comstock, NE - built in 1900

Dowse sod house, Comstock, NE – built in 1900

For many frontiersmen, it was a problem worth having. The solidness of a sod house was perfect for keeping out the cold. The sharp winds of the prairie didn’t cut through the walls the way it did with wooden houses. Better still, sod houses were fireproof. In the era before electricity, when one upset lamp could burn through a family’s livelihood, sod houses were the best insurance you could have.

Interior of the Dowse sod house.  Not too shabby!

Interior of the Dowse sod house. Not too shabby!

Believe it or not, they were also incredibly durable. One book I read talked about a couple continuing to live in their two-story sod house that had been built in the 1850s well into the 20th century and their old age. These color photographs of the interior and exterior of a sod house, the Dowse sod house in Comstock, Nebraska, were taken in 2006 (thank you Wikicommons!), but the house was built in 1900. Still standing!

Yep, if I had lived in the mid-19th century and found myself settling on the prairie, I think I would have been happy to live in a sod house. And that’s about it, really. Just another interesting tidbit of life in the Old West that I find fascinating.

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