Imagine sitting at breakfast with your family some summer morning and suddenly hearing an awful tromping on the roof. Then, crash, scrunch, a long, loud Moooo, and a cow’s hoof plunges right through the ceiling, sending down a shower of dirt!
Or imagine standing next to your mother and holding an umbrella over her head to keep the rain that’s seeping through the roof from ruining your meal while she is cooking it.
Worse yet, imagine waking up in the morning and seeing a snake trying to crawl in through the wall at the foot of your bed!
Such strange and difficult things did happen to many families who migrated to the vast central plains of the United States and lived in sod houses. These westward-moving settlers were called homesteaders. From 1862 to the early 1900s, thousands of families traveled westward to farmland they could call their own.
After lurching and swaying in their covered wagons for weeks, how eager they must have been to stop and begin building a house that wouldn’t bump and roll from dawn to dusk.
But what were they to build their houses of once they stopped rolling? There were few trees to build a log home. There were only prairie grasses—big and little bluestem grass, buffalo grass, and wire grass—stretching to the horizon in every direction, flowing before the wind like the waves of the ocean. It was all they had seen for days.
“Pa,” a child might have asked, “what do we build our house out of?”
The father would have reached down and pulled up a clump of grass and black soil. “This is Nebraska marble,” he’d say, “the richest soil and the best building material on earth.”
Where did the homesteaders get the idea of building houses out of sod? Some of them may have heard of the thousands of Latter-day Saint men, women, and children who had passed that way several years before, and of the houses they had built.
When the Saints left Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1846, they inched their way through wheel-deep mud, crossed icy rivers, built bridges, and established way stations where those following them could replenish their supplies. In eastern Nebraska, the Saints stopped and established Winter Quarters. There they waited out the winter of 1847, organizing themselves and preparing to move farther west.
The place they had chosen to build Winter Quarters was the land of the Omaha and Otoe Indians. Brigham Young made a bargain with Chief Big Elk: The Saints could stay for two years in exchange for teaching the Indians how to farm.
The Saints established Winter Quarters in September 1846, and by winter, four thousand Saints lived there. They built at least 538 log homes, many of which had sod roofs and chimneys, and 83 sod houses. Since the Omahas built ceremonial lodges out of sod, the pioneers may have learned how to build with it from them.
Fifteen years later, when homesteaders started to move into the central plains, the technique for building a soddy was well known.
Often the house was built into the side of a hill. Then sod had to be cut into blocks small enough for a person to lift, but not so small that there would be too many seams for water, mice, bugs, and snakes to crawl through. A special implement called a “grasshopper plow” was used to cut the tough sod. The blocks were three to four inches deep, one to one and a half feet wide, and up to three feet long (8–10 cm x 30–45 cm x .9 m). These blocks were then laid close together, following the outline of the building site. When the first layer was finished, the next layer of sod was placed on top, like bricks, until the walls were finished.
The only timbers used were for the rafters of the roof. When they had been nailed in place, sod was carefully placed on top.
As a final touch, the inside walls were smoothed, then whitewashed or covered with plaster. If the family could afford it, glass windows were brought from far away, framed, and installed. Doors were often rough planks nailed together with crossbars. A stove was installed or built, and the family could move in!
A soddy had many advantages. As one family said, “It’s cheap, and it’s cool in summer, warm in winter.”
The greatest disadvantage was that they leaked. No amount of whitewash could stop heavy rains from dripping through. Neither was there any way to keep bugs and small animals out. A soddy built into a hillside had animals fall through the roof—they couldn’t tell where the grass on a hill ended and the grass on a house’s roof began.
Some families took canvas from their covered wagons and fastened it to the roof to try to keep out the rain. Others nailed muslin to the ceiling for extra protection. These efforts helped a little.
Homesteader families worked hard and helped one another. Like the Latter-day Saint families before them, they danced and sang, making up songs about the life they lived. They plowed the earth and planted corn and wheat, vegetable gardens, and trees.
They made dolls out of corn husks and small wagons out of scrap lumber for their children. They hung bird cages in their windows and threw wildflower seeds onto their roofs. In the spring, the seeds burst into bloom, matching the flowering prairie that stretched for miles under the vast, blue summer sky. The houses made of sod became well-loved homes.