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|
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.