The Sod House Helped Settle The Western Frontier
Sod houses were first built when homesteaders began settling towards the western United States. Starting in 1862, people could pay a fee to homestead on a parcel of land, and after five years of work, the land would be theirs.
But settlers were traveling west before the railroads, and had no way to get large quantities of building materials to their land. They usually had to build a house within six months of claiming the land. By the year 1900, more than 600,000 claims for land had been filed.
Going through the 1870's and from then on, you could see both inadequate and adequate sod houses. The sturdiness of the building depended on the skill of the people who made it and the time and effort that were expended. Some more extravagant homes were built as two stories, and it took a lot of skill to be sure that they would stand. One rather shoddy "soddy" was still standing in 1967, when it was vacant and torn down.
The Roots of the Sod House ...
Grasses with dense root systems worked best for sod houses, but the pieces of sod were very difficult to cut into bricks. By the middle of the 1880's, grasshopper and breaking plows were developed, and they greatly simplified the cutting of sod for use in homes. The average house of the day was only about 16 x 20 feet, and took roughly 3000 bricks of sod to build.
Some settlers started their homes by doing dugouts, or small spaces that were dug into the sides of hills. These offered them some protection from the wild weather of the prairie. They worked better than tents, especially against the wind, and they were drier and warmer than the tents of the day. Often, settlers would make a dugout and then build their sod home in front of it, and use the original dugout as a separate room.
There were no motorized tractors available to the average farmers in the 1800's, so they used horses, oxen or mules to cut the roots in the sod they would use as bricks. If they didn't use sod bricks the same day they were cut, they often crumbled or cracked. It was common practice to cut the sod from the ground that would become the floor of the house. This would give them a flat area to build on, and removing the grasses made the houses safer from prairie fires.
Roofs of sod houses were dangerous to build, and difficult to construct. Not having access to slate tiles or wood shingles, the farmers used the natural materials that were readily available. They used cedar poles to hold up tied bundles of brush, with sod, grass and mud added. The roofs dropped water or dirt into the house at times, and many farmers hung sheets made from muslin under the roofs, to keep things from falling into the rooms.
Some people loathed living in sod houses, and other people bloomed in them. The home life would certainly be harder, by the standards of today. Dirt floors were common, and wood was sometimes used for floors, as well. Some of the settlers would look back with fondness at the years they spend in their "soddies", and some of the houses stood well into the 1900's.