Sod House

Ramshackle Sod House

What was a Sod House?
Native American Indians living on the grass covered plains and prairies of the mid-west, where there was a scarcity of trees, utilized sod or turf to construct Earth Lodges. American Homesteaders moved to the prairies and also used earthen material to build the rectangular shaped Sod House.

The settlers sod house was built using 'bricks' of sod (turf). The process of making the earth bricks was made easier by the use of a lightweight steel "breaking" or "grasshopper" plow.

Sod House Definition
What does the term Sod House mean? Definition: A Sod House is a rectangular dwelling with walls built of sod or turf bricks, laid in horizontal layers with small windows, and a roof covered with earthen sods or thatch. Sod houses were a common type of home built by Homesteaders in the grass covered prairies of the western plains of the United States, where wood and stone were scarce.

Sod Definition
What does the word 'Sod' mean? Sod is the top layer of earth, or turf, that includes grass, its roots, and the dirt clinging to the roots.

Who lived in Sod Houses and why were they built?
The Homestead Act of 1862, fuelled by the belief in the Manifest Destiny of America and the drive for Westward Expansion, encouraged 600,000 poor families to travel westwards by giving them 160 acres of almost free land. One of the requirements for fulfilling the claim for free land was to build a home to live in within six months. Life was hard for the 'Homesteaders'. The land was practically treeless and there were few rocks and stones. The lack of natural resources of wood and stone forced the Homesteaders to live in makeshift accommodation, called sod houses (soddies), using turf, or sod, to build their houses. The Homesteaders were unfamiliar with earthen construction and initially experienced great difficulty in building good-quality houses. The sod house became symbolic of the pioneering spirit of Americans.

The Earth Lodge vs the Sod House - The 'Sodbusters'
In the absence of wood and stone the homesteading settlers turned to the Native American Indian technique of building using earthen material. Many Native Indian Tribes, such as the Omaha, Mandan, Arikara, Pawnee, Otoe, Ponca, Hidatsa and the Osage lived in Earth Lodges and had developed a building style using turf or sod. The Homesteaders adapted the method for their own use, creating a westernized house style. The pioneering settlers overcame the difficulties of building with earthen material and were given the nickname of "sodbusters." The settlers tended to use less wood than the Native Indian tribes as they were often forced to settle further away from forested areas.

Where were the Sod Houses Built?
The Sod Houses were built across the grass covered prairies of the Great Plains region mainly extended across states of Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Materials used to build a Sod House
To build a sod house required grass with densely packed roots. Buffalo grass, Indian grass, big and little blue stem, wiregrass, prairie cord grass, wheat grass and brush from chokecherry and wild plum were ideal materials for creating the 'bricks' for building this type of earthen dwelling. A sod house required about an acre of sod. Roofs were made with rafters of cedar or willow, cedar, or other woods and covered with sod or thatch that were held up by poles of cedar or cottonwood. Window frames of wood were positioned into the wall and fitted with glass panes. Doors were commonly made of three or four planks joined by several crossbars. Walls were hewed smooth with a spade and were often plastered with clay and ashes and whitewashed. A white muslin sheet, canvas, heavy brown paper or tar paper was tacked to the ceiling beams as a covering.

How long did it take to build a Sod House, and how much did it cost?
A simple, basic sod house could be built in about a week. It would have taken a lot longer using a just a spade to laboriously dig the earth and cut the bricks, but in 1838 John Deere revolutionized American agriculture by developing and manufacturing a lightweight cast steel plow that greatly improved the process. A simple sod house could be built for a cost of less than five dollars.

The Steel Plow
Originally the process was to cut sod bricks using a spade or wooden plow, which a difficult and laborious task. In 1838 John Deere (1804 - 1886) invented a lightweight, durable, steel plow that improved the process tremendously. The steel plow was called a "breaking" or "grasshopper" plow and it cut the sod or turf into strips measuring one foot wide and 4 inches thick.  The sod, turned by the plow and held together by roots, was lifted in strips. Sod bricks quickly dried, cracked, and crumbled if not used immediately.

How was a Sod House built?
The method for building a sod house was as follows:
  • The location was carefully selected near a creek or stream and near small rolling hills which served as windbreaks
  • The turf was cut near the location of where the house was to be built, clearing the surface, creating a good foundation and allowing the 'bricks' to be used quickly before they dried
  • The freshly cut sod bricks were laid root-side up to enable the roots to continue to grow into the brick above it, making the dwelling strong
  • The bricks were laid alternately lengthwise and crosswise to bind the walls
  • Wooden door frames were set in place as the construction of the wall began
  • Window frames were positioned and turf was laid around the sides and on top of the frame. A gap at the top of the frame was filled with rags or grass, allowed the sod to settle without crushing the glass panes
  • Pegs held the window frames in place. Glass panes were then added to the sod house
  • Roof rafters were built and added to the construction and covered with bundles of thatch or sod
  • The size of the sod house varied but a rectangular shaped dwelling, measuring 16 feet by 20 feet with only one room,  was a common size. Divisions were made by hanging blankets as dividers
  • The walls were hewn smooth with a spade and the interior was whitewashed and the ceiling covered with a muslin sheet

Life in a Sod House
Life in a Sod House was hard, many Homesteaders could not adjust to their new lifestyle on the prairies and nearly 50% returned home or travelled even further west. However, many were determined to settle and make the most of their free land. The "soddie" did have some beneficial aspects. The thick walls and insulating ability of the material provided good insulation so that it was easy to keep a sod house warm in the winter and cool in summer. The sod houses were virtually fireproof, an extremely important advantage for those living in areas where prairies fires were common. The scarcity of wood posed a problem for the homesteaders in the winter. The early settlers used buffalo and cow-droppings, referred to as "chips," for fuel. It kept the sod house warm but also made the home smell. Water was essential and if a well had not been built the water had to be collected, perhaps several miles, from the nearest streams. The water was stored in a large barrel, near the front of the sod house. Dirt was the biggest problem and the women found the sod house difficult to keep clean. The dirt fell from the walls and the ceilings carrying with it insects, bugs, mice and snakes. Canopies were erected over the stove to prevent the dirt, and creatures, falling into the stew. Women tried their best, whitewashing the walls and even planting flowers on the roofs of their sod house, but life was hard. The nearest neighbors were miles away so loneliness was a problem. If a person fell sick, access to a doctor and medical care was limited. But for the homesteaders who stuck it out eventually raised crops that enabled them to build better timber homes and the sod house was used as a barn.

Native American Houses
Native Indian Tribes Index

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