While I was researching information on the construction of a sod house, I discovered this delightful account that is very informative. I hope you gain as much as I have from it. This was published in the Ladies Repository in 1876.
THE gold fever of 1859-60, and the consequent rush across the Plains, established a line of sod-houses from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains, which have developed one of the most important sections of our country, and opened the door of thousands of comfortable and substantial homes to the honest homesteaders of the West. Fifteen years ago, the belt of country lying between the Rocky Mountains, on the west, and the Missouri River, on the east, and stretching indefinitely north and south, was considered as a worthless waste, a treeless, uninhabitable section, without soil, building material, water, or protection against the biting, blinding storms of Winter, which swept furiously down from the mountain fastnessess of the great unexplored, uninvaded home of the storm king of North America. Today the sod-house, the advance-guard of civilization and enterprise in the extreme West, has developed the agricultural adaptability of the Western Desert, invaded and made public the secret domain of the vEolus of our continent, furnished homes and fortunes to hundreds of thousands of God's children, and developed, by its own peculiar adaptability, the resources and wealth of an important section of our country, the great grain and stock producing region of the Missouri Valley. What the log-hut was to the early settlers of New England, the sod
house, "doby," or "dug-out," has been to the pioneer on the prairies of the Missouri Valley. The same force of circumstances which gave the log-house an important position in the history of the eastern half of our great country, has made the sod dwelling an equally important factor in the development of the western portion, and entitled it to a place beside its earlier, but scarcely less substantial or respectable, brother at the Centennial Exposition, and in the history of the great country of countries, the home of the honest toiler, of whatever race or condition.
Strange as it may appear to those unacquainted with the fact, there are tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people in the Missouri Valley, living to-day in houses of sod, turf taken from God's green sward of the great West, laid up with mortar which nature kindly furnishes prepared, and plastered inside with the sandy loam which underlies the black alluvium from which the varied vegetation springs. Within these homes, comfortable beyond the log or frame house of the timbered regions, and equally cleanly and healthful, families are reared, the elements of education dispensed, seeds of piety sown, and the foundation of future fame and fortune successfully laid. Beneath their fostering influence the great fertile but treeless plains have been brought under cultivation, the elements have been made subject to the wants of mankind, towns have sprung up in the uninhabited waste, the iron horse has been called to his duty in their domain, the great agricultural wealth of the country developed, and the desert made to blossom as the rose. To the sod-house of the West belongs honors innumerable, belongs the credit of the thrift and prosperity with which the Missouri Valley is to-day graced and made happy.
It was my fortune, in 1859, to visit the then uninhabited and almost unknown section west of the Missouri, and to witness the construction and practical test of the then novelty, a dwelling composed of turf from the surrounding prairies. It has been my fortune since to watch, with a considerable degree of interest, the development of this to be great grain and stock belt of the Union, and to note, with the care which its novelty and peculiarities suggested, the influence which this great factor, the sod-house, has had in determining the growth and importance of the country. The cry of gold in the Pike's Peak region drew, at the date mentioned, large numbers of people thither, to supply whom with food became the business of the settlers then scattered along the Missouri River, within a few miles of its waters, and in reach of the scanty forests with which its banks are fringed. All provisions, clothing, and mining accouterments were freighted across this then uninhabited section, nearly a thousand miles in width, by teams of horses and cattle. Along the roads which these freighters had laid out, and which all the travel followed, enterprising "ranchemen," bent upon securing a portion of the profits of the season, established themselves for the sale of needed articles to the freighters, whose trips then occupied months instead of, as now, days, and for furnishing meals to the passengers on the stage-coaches, a line of which had been early established. The tents and temporary shelters, which these caterers had provided themselves, soon becoming insufficient, they cast
about for some more commodious and substantial shelters for themselves and guests, the numbers of which were rapidly increasing. In the earlier days of military rule in that region, many of the buildings at Forts Kearney, Leavenworth, and other military posts, had, for want of timber, been constructed of adobe, or sun-dried bricks, the art of making which had been learned from the Mexicans, with whom the military on the western plains had been brought in contact. These were used in some instances by the ranchemen, until the idea of using sods instead suggested itself to the inventive genius of the necessitated housebuilder, and the sod-house became a success. The method, source, and result of the two were so nearly related that the name of adobe, or "doby," as it was every-where known, which properly belonged to the sun-dried bricks, was also given the sod; and henceforth the sod, or "doby," house became an important element of life in the Missouri Valley.
Constant association or familiarity with "doby" failed, in this instance, to breed contempt; and the Missouri Valley settler, who, in freighting his farm products across the plains (and nearly everyone did so), became more thoroughly acquainted with and accustomed to the sod-house, came to recognize its value, and to look upon it as a valuable aid in the economy of prairie life. Those who had substantial wooden homes on the Missouri so far recognized the practical value of "doby" as to make immediate use of the principle on their farms, in the construction of sod out-houses, and various buildings which they might chance to need; and thus the sod-house took another step in advance, and demonstrated its practical utility and durability beside its more pretentious wooden prototype. From this point the transition was easy. The son, who had grown up familiar with the "doby," and been thoroughly convinced of its use and durability, becoming of age, and desirous of erecting a claim shanty on government land, and making a homestead his own by a temporary residence a few days of each year thereon, readily adopted the sod-house as a visible habitation, the material for which was convenient, and the practicabihty thoroughly tested. Later, when the want for a permanent home came about, with the fashion already inaugurated, and the practicability and cheapness especially apparent, there was little difficulty in the adoption of doby as the material for a dwelling, and the home to which the willing, true - hearted, devoted bride was borne. Of the hundreds of thousands of young couples who have made their homes on the prairies of the Missouri Valley, probably more than half owe their first home together, and much of their success, to doby.
The method of construction is not unlike that of the brick dwelling, except that mortar is not always used in laying the sods. A "breaking" plow, such as is used in subduing prairie-grass, and preparing the soil for cultivation, turns the sod in strips, perhaps a foot in width, and of indefinite length. They are then cut in pieces about two and a half feet long, by means of a spade, and are ready for the wall. They are laid up with as much care and nicety as the native skill of the builder can produce, and the edges carefully trimmed with a sharp spade, so that the wall, when completed, is as smooth, and, after being thoroughly dried, is also equally as solid as a brick wall. Window and door frames are set in as in the construction of brick buildings, and the houses are covered sometimes with shingles, sometimes with a thatch of the long prairie grass from the low grounds, and sometimes with several layers of sod cut to turn the rain and make tight joints. Frequently they are divided into several rooms by walls of sod, and occasionally they are two or more stones in height; but usually they are built but one story in height, and with only one room, which is subdivided by light wooden partitions, or in some cases by blankets. The walls, when completed, are plastered smoothly inside, and, being thoroughly whitewashed, present a neat and eminently
healthful and cleanly appearance. The "best room" is papered and carpeted, the walls adorned with pictures, while the vines trained about the door and windows lend their cheerful and refining influence, and the whole, when once inside and the idea of "sod-house" forgotten, has a homelike and cultivated appearance scarcely warranted by the exterior. In Winter, the sod-dwellings are easily warmed and but little affected through the thick non-conducting walls by the furious gales which sweep down from the north-west, bringing snow and ice and wintery desolation; while in Summer, they are, with proper ventilation, probably the coolest and most healthful habitation that could be devised.
Frequently, in order to save time in the construction, a location is chosen on an abrupt hill-side, and an excavation made which, with the wall built up around it, forms the house on the same plan that "side-hill basements," with stone walls and "cellar-kitchens" are constructed. This, while securing ease in construction, precludes proper ventilation and light, and is usually only resorted to temporarily by those with whom time or assistance are lacking, and, after a year or more of useful existence, these "dugouts," as they are termed, give way to the more pretentious and comfortable "doby."
As for the dwellers in these curious homes, the devotees of " doby," they are in all respects the same as humanity elsewhere. The farmer, and they are mostly farmers, rises at early dawn and labors throughout the day at the plow or in the harvest-field, and at night, with a prayer for divine protection and guidance, seeks that rest which honest toil affords. The children grow up strong and vigorous on the homely, healthful fare; they obtain the rudiments of an education in the doby school-house, and learn the story of the cross at the Sabbath-school and Church. During the Summer season, they wander over the prairies gathering flowers or hunting the eggs of the prairie-chicken, and in Winter, with the parents, after the crops are secured and the Autumn's tasks completed, they gather at the fireside of evenings, and, while the corn, the principal fuel in this prairie region, crackles and burns brightly in the fire, they peruse the weekly paper published at the county town, discuss neighborhood gossip, feast upon pop-corn and molasses-candy, or join in singing familiar hymns from their Sunday-school tune books or Church melodies. Spelling - bees, singing - schools, Grange and Good Templar " lodges" are as numerous with them as in the sections further east, and there are the same society heart-burnings, the same striving after dress and dignity, and the same marrying and giving in marriage that characterize society every-where, whether in dwellings of sod or brick or marble.
To the West the sod-house has been the means of unparalleled development and usefulness; to those who have adopted it, it has been a means of wealth and contentment, for a home and a means of support are both. To the treeless but fertile prairies it has brought settlers innumerable, who could not have come but for it; to the settlers it has given homes and the means of making their own the lands which may be had by a residence and cultivation. Many there are who,
had they been obliged to purchase building material and transport it hundreds of miles by wagon, must have waited many a weary year, but who, through the aid of "doby," not only made themselves a shelter and a home, but secured for themselves the fertile acres which may be had for the taking in this asylum for the persecuted, poverty-stricken sons of men every-where.
All over the western country, from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains, and from Dakota to the Rio Grande, doby reigns supreme. Not that all the residences are thus built, for there are in places many wooden dwellings; and in the towns and along the railroads and rivers, houses of wood, and sometimes of brick and stone, have taken the place of the less pretentious sod-dwellings; but in the newly settled regions, the sections which God's poor seek out in which to struggle with fortune and build houses for the families he has given them, doby is the priceless treasure, the boon which enables them to obtain a foothold, the free gift of nature, which furnishes shelter, and the medium through which come the blessings of home and happiness, and a trust in God and his overshadowing providence.