Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Romance of a Sod House

        Recently, I’ve blogged quite a bit about dugouts to promote my new e-release, To Have And To Hold, because the heroine in my book lived in a dugout. But today I’m going to talk about another typical home for a frontier settler—the "soddy".
        Timber was scarce on the Great Plains. Early settlers built their first shelters from what was available, and for many that meant thick prairie sod. A typical sod house was about fourteen feet by sixteen feet in size, with a seven-and-one-half-foot high wall, a low-pitched roof, a central side door, and one or two windows. Interior walls were often finished with plaster or covered with newspapers. Canvas, suspended from the ceiling, made the room lighter and helped keep down the dust. Furnishings were sparse and simple, although prized lace curtains or an heirloom piece of furniture were not uncommon.
        To build a soddy the homesteader first chose a construction site, squared the interior dimensions of the house, and dampened and packed the floor area. Then an acre or so of unbroken ground was selected and a breaking plow used to cut the sod into long strips about twelve to eighteen inches wide and three to four inches thick. These were then cut with a sharp spade into two- to three-foot-long blocks and hauled to the house site on a wagon or sled. Only enough sod was broken and cut for use that day because the sod blocks were easier to handle when the moisture content was high.
Kitchen in sod house
Sod Palace
        Walls were constructed two to three staggered blocks deep (providing a wall depth of two or three feet), with the sod blocks grassy side down. Once the third or fourth layer of blocks were in place, a crosswise layer was installed to add strength to the wall. Wood-plank frames were propped in place at the desired locations for the door and windows, and the wall construction continued until it reached about half its final height. Completed walls were scraped on the inside for a smoother, more attractive surface. This also helped to insure a finished wall that was as vertical as possible. After the walls were finished, support poles were placed at each end of the soddy, and the ridgepole place across them. Then either planks or poles were attached to form rafters, and poles or brush, sometimes tar paper or canvas, was applied. On top of all this, layers (the number of layers varied) of sod blocks were positioned either with the grassy side down and coated with a thin plaster. Sometimes the grassy side was left up, and vegetation was allowed to grow. Finally, the gabble ends were filled with sod blocks, and a plank door was hung.
Dowse Sod House
        Windows were the most expensive part of a sod house and were difficult to install. After setting the frame into the wall, the builder continued to lay rows of sod around it. When the bricks reached the top of the window frame settlers left off two layers of brick and laid cedar poles over the gap. The resulting space, stuffed with grass or rags, protected the windows from breaking as
Dirt floors were found in the majority of the early sod homes. More prosperous families might fasten carpets to the dirt floor. In some cases, rough or planed split logs were used for flooring. But only a few could afford the luxury of wide, rough-cut planks from the sawmill. Many women detested the continual war with dirt, bugs, snakes, leaky roofs and poor lighting. Nothing ever seemed to be clean. Others took the conditions in stride. 

 Charlene Raddon's first serious writing attempt came in 1980 when she awoke one morning from an unusually vivid and compelling dream. Deciding that dream needed to be made into a book, she dug out an old portable typewriter and went to work. That book never sold, but her second one, Tender Touch, became a Golden Heart finalist and earned her an agent. Soon after, she signed a three book contract with Kensington Books. Five of Charlene's western historical romances were published between 1994 and 1999: Taming Jenna, Tender Touch (1994 Golden Heart Finalist under the title Brianna), Forever Mine (1996 Romantic Times Magazine Reviewer's Choice Award Nominee and Affaire de Coeur Reader/Writer Poll finalist), To Have and To Hold Affaire de Coeur Reader/Writer Poll finalist); and writing as Rachel Summers, The Scent of Roses. Forever Mine, Tender Touch, and To Have and To Hold are available as e-books and The Scent of Roses will be released in June 2013.


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Meg said...

Whoa! I don't think I'd wanna live in a soddy. I loathe bugs. More than dirt. LOL Great info!

Ciara Gold said...

Great post and I enjoyed reading To Have and To Hold. I had an opportunity to see a soddy house when touring Oklahoma. Also got to see a similar structure in the Rio Grande that was too tiny for words. Part sod and part wood but it was little more than a lean-to. Hard to imagine folks living like that. We're all so spoiled.

Anonymous said...

You're so right, Ciara. We are very spoiled. But I like to think that most of us would rise to the occasion if the need arose.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Meg. I'm with you on this. I like clean houses.

Ellen O'Connell said...

Sorry I didn't get to this post until today.... I did a lot of research on sod houses for my last book, and pictures like the ones you have here (great pics!) of the Sod Palace and Dowse house really surprised me. I expected them all to be like the first picture of the rougher model. Even more surprising I found one that's still in use and on the tax rolls here in Colorado. I suppose with enough plaster or other surface over the sod, they'd be like adobe and, if maintained, last forever.

Jacquie Rogers said...

My grandpa always liked the soddy they lived in and said it was the most comfortable house they'd ever had. Said it was cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Their soddy was fully finished. He said other than the thick walls, you wouldn't know it wasn't a "stick house."