My Story As Told By Houses– Part 1, The Soddy
“We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills and winding streams with tangled growth as wild. Only to the white man was nature a wilderness, and only to him was the land infested with wild animals and savage people. To us it was tame. Earth was beautiful and we were surrounded with blessings of the Great Mystery.”
—Luther Standing Bear, Sioux Chief
Not everyone lives in a wood-frame house warmed with a central heating system and containing double-glazed windows, Hardi-plank siding, and solar panels for electricity. There are other ways to build our homes. Nipa huts, for example, are ideal for the Pacific islanders living near the equator. Made of bamboo and covered with thatched roofs, they allow breezes to pass through and ease life lived in heat that can be oppressive.
Tepee structures made of long poles and covered with hides meant that the Native peoples of our Great Plains could take their home with them as they followed the migrating bison. Mongolians too have a mobile home. The yurt has a lattice structure made of wood pieces brought from the lowlands. The traditional felt cover comes from sheep wool. A yurt can be taken apart and carried on the backs of yaks as these nomadic people follow their herds to different feeding grounds.
Chimney Rock in western Nebraska was a major land mark for pioneers headed west to Oregon and California.
The Qero people live in the high Andean mountains of Peru far above the timberline. These descendents of the Incas build their homes out of rocks. Further south in the lowlands of Chile, the Mapuche live in rukas, round buildings made from the plentiful wood in their part of the world. Many people in El Salvador still live in their traditional earth-pole homes.
People need a place to live and love, a shelter where they can eat, sleep, and carry on their family activities.
Throughout history and in places throughout the world, their buzzwords were not “Build locally and sustainably,” but that is what they were doing. They couldn’t bring in lumber from Oregon, siding from Australia, drywall from China, and tile from Italy. The materials they used—earth, snow, bamboo, and grass—came back year after year. They were green builders of the first order.
And so it was with the birth house of my mother, Elizabeth Brennan. She was born in 1897 in a one-room sod house. It was located not far from the North Platte River (“too thin to plow, too thick to drink”) near a small town named Lisco in western Nebraska. Lisco was named after Rube Lisco, an early cattle rancher in the area and employer of my grandfather. Not far downriver is located Chimney Rock (photo), that landmark sandstone spire that let pioneers on the trail to California and Oregon know their location.
This vast inland sea of grassland was the traditional home of the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne peoples. Can any of us feel how painful and frightening it must have been for those who had lived on these plains for hundreds of years to suddenly be seen as trespassers? One day they rode freely in search of good water, good hunting, and a place to camp and care for their children. The next day the prairie was being invaded by settlers who were putting up houses and fences saying this land is mine! Native people knew that they belonged to the land. They saw the land as the source of life, not of profit. How could the land belong to them or someone else?
It has always seemed strange to me how we can think that a plot of this earth we live on could actually be owned by anyone. It’s sort of like owning air. But really, can a piece of this isolated planet that exists in a galaxy of 100 billion stars be owned by me? This sounds sort of like an offer from someone who wants to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge. The earth has been in existence for 4 billion years, or so I am told. We as a people have been around for 250,000 years, maybe more. So who owns whom?
Earth has given us clear notice that it doesn’t need us, but that it will allow us to be renters here as long as we behave ourselves. If we misbehave, we will receive an eviction notice and forfeit our cleaning deposit. As temporary residents, we have left quite a mess in our wake: foul air, denuded mountains, toxic-waste dumps, clogged salmon streams, and melting icecaps, not to mention poverty and hunger. A pretty impressive list that may not make our landlord happy!
The Homestead Act, passed by Congress in 1862, opened up huge, virgin tracts of Native land to immigrants hungry for a place to live and put down roots. If you were 21 or over, you could settle on 160 acres, live there for five years, and be granted full ownership. This was the reason for the huge migration of people in our country. By 1900, 600,000 homestead claims had been filed. Staking a claim meant that every settler had to build some type of home on “their” land and survive through some difficult times before they became the owner. The majority of these settlers “starved out” and didn’t make it beyond two years before moving on. An uncle told me that there would come a day when some just gave up either from hunger, discouragement, or loneliness. When that day came, they hitched up a team to a wagon, loaded a few possessions, and left everything else behind—house, chickens, hogs, and horses—and went “back home” or headed further west.
The early takers were from all walks of life: businessmen, farmers, tradespeople, and women with their children. All were hungry for land and a new life. They had first choice of the rich, flat, bottom lands along the Platte and other rivers that are abundant in Nebraska mainly in the eastern part of the state. This ideal farmland was great for raising what is now its signature crop: corn. There were some trees in those parts for log-house construction, especially along the waterways.
Family roadtrips were a lot different in the 19th century. This is part of my Mother’s family on the move from Missouri to Nebraska.
The later folks, like my mothers’ parents, who arrived in 1891, had to push on farther and farther north and west, to the rolling hills covered by the prairie grasses on the high plains. They made the long trip out of Missouri with their children, a few possessions, and lots of dreams, all hauled by team and wagon. Once there, they staked out their claim; unloaded their farming tools, cooking utensils, a few clothes, and bedding; and readied themselves for hard work and tough times.
Even today, when you drive through those grasslands, you will notice the scarcity of trees. Many people called it the Great American Desert. My grandmother said that there was not one tree in sight either on the prairie or along the river. As the saying goes, there were miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles. It’s hard to be a tree-hugger in that part of the world. It was easy, especially at night, to become disoriented and lost without these landmarks to guide you home.
We have forgotten what it means to be out in the dark of night. Most of us live in the city, where night has been turned into day. Even in the country, we are never far from an electric light bulb. But stand in the middle of the Great Plains far from a farmhouse on a moonless and starless night and try to see your hand in front of your face. “It’s as dark as a stack of black cats” was a common saying. On those nights, the only directions you can know for sure are up and down.
So without trees, these early settlers had few poles or sawn wood to work with. The only building material readily available was the earth lying underneath their feet. Pachamama, as they say in Peru—Mother Earth. This high plains earth was solidly held together by roots produced by hardy winter-tested grasses like the little blue stem, Indian grass, and buffalo grass, named after the millions of bison that had been grazing this land for thousands of years.
The first settlers used shovels to cut out sections of earth, called sod. Gathering sod strips, planting fields and gardens, and caring for themselves, their children, and their farm animals was hard work, to say the least. In the 1880s, the breaking plow with a curved steel cutting blade, called the “sod-buster,” became more common. This plow laid long strips of sod, 12 in. wide and 4 in. thick, over flat. My mother’s father harnessed this plow to his team of workhorses and cut pieces for his own sod house. Technology came to the rescue.
This is what I sometimes hear today—that technology will get us out of the earth-warming, poverty-ridden, overpopulated mess we find across our small planet. What is it that makes me doubt that statement? Maybe it is my feeling that the changes we need today will come not from the head, but from the heart. I sometimes think of what Lily Tomlin once said: “Things will most likely get worse before they get worse.” That seems to be the trend.
The earthen sod strips, called “Nebraska marble” by some, were cut into lengths about 3 ft. long, measured out by a notch on the handle of a shovel or axe. Each strip weighed about 50 lb. These were loaded onto a wagon and hauled by a team of horses or oxen to the chosen building site. People tried to pick a site that was on the lee side of a hill, if that was available, to offer some protection from the winter winds. The actual building size was laid out by “stepping off” the dimensions. Ten full steps on one side measured around 30 ft. Corners were marked with stakes, and the diagonal was stepped off to square the building.
Like laying brick, only dirtier — litterally. This Nebraska marnble is also quite a bit heavier than brick. As with masonry or log construction, pay attention to the corner details.
Once the sod strips arrived at the site, they were laid grass side down, two strips wide, which made a solid barrier to the cold wind and winter snow. The second course started with half a sod strip to lock the courses together (dwg). Special attention was given to the corners, making sure the sod strips interlocked. Every three or four courses, a row of sod was laid in the opposite direction to tie the two layers together and to stabilize the walls that were built up to around 6 ft. or so on the low side to 7 ft. on the high side (dwg). Walls of different heights gave the shed roof a minimum of pitch or slope.
Holes were left for a single door, often to the south, and two or three small windows to the east and west. Windows were the most expensive part of a “soddy” and were often hard to come by. For further protection from the icy winds that blew across those treeless plains, no openings were put in the north side. The sides of the layered sod were smoothed and evened out with a shovel. Any crack that could let in the wind was filled with mud. At times, after the sod had settled for a year or so, the walls were plastered with a mixture of water, clay, and ashes from the stove. Kalsomine, or whitewash, made of lime, chalk, and water all mixed together, could be used to brighten up the interior.
My mother reckoned that her one-room house was around 16 ft. by 30 ft. These, of course, were the outside dimensions. With walls 2 ft. thick, inside dimensions were 12 ft. by 26 ft.—312 sq. ft. of living, sleeping, eating, and cooking space. This is about the size of a living room by today’s standards. Some privacy was offered by closing off sections with a quilt or other cloth hanging from a rope stretched from wall to wall and attached to the ceiling. My mother’s family consisted of her parents, five brothers, a sister, and herself. These were crowded quarters for nine people, especially since baths and underarm deodorants were hard to come by.
A simple soddy door.
The door and windows were held in their openings by wooden pegs driven into the sod through holes drilled in the frames. Actual doors were often nothing other than a piece of canvas secured over the opening. A space of 4 or 5 in. was left at the top of the frames to allow for the sod to settle. These spaces were filled with rags or grass to keep out the wind and snow. People could only dream about a wood floor. They lived on floors made from compacted earth. These floors were periodically wet down with water to keep them hard and dust free. At least you didn’t have to mop the floor if you spilled a cup of coffee. Wooden floors were added in time when the settlers made enough money to buy the materials.
At times I wonder where our obsession over superclean houses and superclean bodies comes from. Is it that “cleanliness is next to godliness”? Is it because advertisers are constantly urging us to buy more of their soap and clean up our act? All of our recent ancestors, maybe not by choice but by the fact that they lived next to the earth, often had well-earned body odors and lived in dwellings that were not easy to keep clean.
Lumber for door and window headers, rafters, and roof sheathing was not readily available before the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. When there was lumber, headers were a 2×8 laid flat, roofs were built with a 2×6 ridge and rafters sheathed with 1×12 stock. Before that, people who had a few dollars made the long roundtrip with a team of horses pulling a wagon to the Black Hills in South Dakota for sawn wood or poles from the Lodgepole pine tree. These lightweight trees grow straight and tall, which made them easy to transport by Native people who used them in their tepees.
Building materials were paid for by slowly collecting the profits gained from selling chicken eggs and shipping cream to a dairy in eastern Nebraska. These dollars were taken from money that had been carefully stashed away in a quart Mason jar. No bankers were around in those days receiving huge bonuses.
Trade in the early days was mainly on a barter system, as few people had ready cash to pay for services. People exchanged help when building homes, preparing and harvesting fields, working with livestock, and having babies. Real money was scarce. The coming of the Union Pacific railroad, built along the river, helped. This allowed people to ship their cans of cream and crates of eggs to larger population centers in the East. The first large building to process cream into butter and cheese opened in Fremont, Nebraska, near Omaha, in the early 1880s. Many a settler survived to stay another year because he or she had some chickens, a cow or two, and a cream separator.
A cream separator in a Minnesota kitchen, around 1937.
The cream separator, a pioneer family’s treasure, was used to separate cream from milk. These ingenious devices were still in common use when I was working on farms and ranches in the 1940s. Raw milk was poured into the top container. A crank was then turned, forcing the heavy milk to the outside and leaving the lighter cream in the center. Spigots were opened, allowing the skim milk to go into one container and the rich, thick cream into another. Some cream was saved for hand-churned butter. Part of the skim milk was used for cooking and drinking. The rest was fed as “slop” to the hogs.
Once the walls of the soddy were up, it was ready for a roof. Early settlers had to make do with what was at hand. They often made a roof framework from willows growing near the river or from branches of cottonwood trees further to the east. If tar paper was available, a layer was put down before being covered with a grass thatch and then with strips of sod laid down with the grass side up. It was a living roof that blossomed with wildflowers in the spring, sunflowers, goldenrod, larkspur, sweet peas, and Indian paintbrush were among the many. Roof sod was cut 2 in. thick to lesson the weight. Eventually, most settlers could afford shingles or corrugated tin for their roofs. The problem they faced then was keeping these materials in place. The constant wind that often blew with savage ferocity would carry their roofing materials into the next county.
It was primitive living for sure, but in many ways, the sod house was ideal for the plains. Inside they were actually warm and cozy in the winter and cool on hot summer days. It is difficult to explain how long and bitter were the winters. If you have never experienced a wind-driven blizzard of snow howling across the plains with temperatures way below freezing for days and even weeks at a time, what can I write to make you feel chilled to the bone? Carelessness in those extreme conditions often meant being caught outside and freezing to death.
Even as a teenager in the 1940s, I recall hearing tales of the “blizzard of ’88” from old-timers. It was often called the “children’s blizzard” because it came on a school day in March, trapping many students in their schoolrooms. Those that ventured out, trying to get home, were soon disoriented by whiteout conditions. Some bodies were not found until the spring thaw. Families were often so devastated by the loss of their children that they gave up and moved elsewhere.
The soddies were fireproof. Fires used to roar across the prairie in the fall. Dry grass, a lightning strike, and a gale wind coming down out of Wyoming were all it took to burn thousands of acres. An old Texas cowboy once told me that the fires often traveled faster than a horse could run at a full gallop.
Once the house was in livable condition, a water well along with a cellar had to be dug and other structures built. Until the residents had a well, water often had to be hauled from the river or a distant spring by team and wagon. Fortunately, wells sometimes could be dug by hand with a shovel, as the water table near the river was only from 6 ft. to 25 ft. down. Deeper wells existed, but the danger increased the farther down you got. Water was absolutely essential, though, so people were willing to take the chance. They had to work in a confined place with little or no light, filling a bucket with earth that could be hauled by rope to the surface. This was a risky business, because the sides could cave in, especially in sandy soil, and take the life of the person down in the hole. It was next to impossible to extract a buried dead man, so blessings were said, and the hole became the man’s grave.
I recall hearing a story about one of my mother’s brothers, who once was buried up to his neck down in a well. Rescuers were able to get him out alive, but fear kept him on terra firma from then on.
Cellars were dug with a shovel and, like the house, covered over with a structure that would support a thick layer of sod. These underground storehouses were necessary for survival. They were used to store potatoes, carrots, turnips, and other root crops for winter use. Settlers had to raise and then dry or preserve most all the food they would eat during the winter. Items like green beans, tomatoes, corn, garden relish, and even chickens were cut up, cleaned, and preserved in mason jars. Cabbage was sliced or grated, placed in 10-gal. crocks, covered, and left to ferment into sauerkraut. In good years, prairie fruit like chokecherries, sandcherries, wild plums, currants, and buffalo berries could be picked in the fall, made into jams and jellies, or dried in the sun and eaten like raisins. All were carefully stored in the cellar to keep them from freezing during the winter months.
Turn of the century treadle sewing machine. A singer, in this case, my Mother’s was a Free. But it was a lot like this machine. Durable and depandable.
Now and then, settlers had fresh meat from a butchered cow, pig, or prairie animal like a deer or an antelope. They often shared the meat with neighbors because no one had refrigeration for storage. When money was available, they could buy a supply of corn meal, wheat flour, sugar, and salt if these were available at a market in the small towns that sprung up along the railroad. Sourdough bread and corn-meal mush were staples. They couldn’t send their children over to the supermarket to bring home processed food, and fast-food places were still way in the future.
One of the first necessities was, of course, to build an outhouse. Then came a chicken house, followed by a stable for the horses and harnesses. An amenity my mother spoke of was a lean-to attached to the southern, sunny side of the main house. This was used as a kitchen in the summer months. A sod wall was put up on the windward side, and the rest of the structure was built from poles and covered with grass thatch. When the weather allowed, the family cooked and ate outside, free from the crowded conditions they lived in for most of the year. Women would take out their ever-present sewing machine (photo) for the good light needed to sew and patch worn clothing.
These amazing, treadle-operated sewing machines were highly valued by immigrants. The machine my grandmother had was a “Free,” which was very similar to the more common Singer. Everyone knew how to sew. Her Free machine is the one my mother taught me how to use when I was seven. I taught my children how to use it, and now it is with my daughter, who is passing on sewing knowledge to her children. We have had to replace the round, leather belt that goes from treadle to machine several times. Other than that, it seems as if the machine will last forever, unlike many of the “throwaway” items on the market today.
I asked my mother one day before she died what living in a soddy was like. She said she got used to living in close quarters. Her main dislike was that they could never control the bedbugs and fleas that hid between the sod layers and came out at night to feed on them, leaving itchy welts on their bodies. Her mother would give them a chicken feather or a willow stick dipped in kerosene, which did little to dislodge these critters from their hiding places between the strips of prairie earth. Rodents, too, liked to burrow into the sod and look for scraps of food in the dark. She said it was not uncommon to feel little feet scampering across the bed covers at night.
Sleeping space was limited. Mattresses—really, cloth bags stuffed with grasses—had to be piled in a corner during the day. Boys slept in one bed and girls in another. At least other bodies helped you to stay warm at night.
Because of the small windows, the interior light was always poor. With only two kerosene lamps, my mother’s family lived and worked inside in half darkness even on a sunny day. They could only dream about picture windows and skylights or an electric bulb that would bring light to a dark room.
It doesn’t rain much in western Nebraska. The average precipitation, including snow, runs around 18 in. a year or so—not a lot, unless you have a roof that leaks. Every time it rained or the snow on the roof melted, settlers had to rescue their sleeping mats, bedding, pillows, and clothes and move everything to a dry spot. Rain would wash the dirt out of the roof sod and drip mud on everything on the inside. Storms in the western part of the state can arise suddenly and come at you with a fury that is awesome and fearful. Wind-driven rain meant that the sod walls could be damaged.
My mother did not like snakes. There are snakes aplenty in the upper plains, the most numerous being rattlers and bull snakes. Now and then a bull snake would find its way to the roof and drop down into the living area. My mother passed her dislike, especially of venomous rattlers, on to me and my siblings. I know now that these snakes do more good than harm by keeping rodents under control. But if your mother teaches you differently from early on, gut reaction overcomes intellectual knowledge. I tolerate snakes, but I don’t like them.
The most difficult part about living in a soddy, my mother told me, was the isolation and constant work faced by immigrant women. They often lived far from neighbors and other women with whom they could share their lives. And their lives were often filled with an aching loneliness.
Then consider their workload. They not only were responsible for all the work inside the house, but there was agriculture work as well: planting a garden, milking cows, feeding calves, and caring for chickens. Then consider what it took a wife and mother to make and mend clothing for her family, see that they had food daily, and were somewhat clean. Consider what it is like to have to live in a one-room house with seven children, no electricity or running water, and only an outside, two-hole toilet. Disposable diapers were unheard of in those days. Night waste stored in a bucket was carried out each morning, even in the dead of winter when temperatures could drop well below zero.
Water for bathing had to be pumped by hand and hauled in from a well. Once inside, it was heated on a stove that burned willow branches, twists of grass, sunflower stalks, or dried cow chips (manure) picked up off the prairie. Washing clothes was a monumental task for women, which involved scrubbing items on a washboard until the knuckles of their hands were raw and bleeding. Let us sing praise for the automatic washing machine. Hanging clothes out to dry was no picnic either. Hung out on the line in the winter, the cold, dry weather would take much of the moisture from wet clothes and chill fingers to the bone. Frozen stiff, pants, shirts, dresses, and other items were brought back inside and placed around the room to finish the drying process.
If you look at the old photos, you will often see a birdcage hanging outside the soddy. Many women kept a bright yellow canary in a cage for its precious, uplifting song. This brought a little beauty into their lives and helped them maintain their sanity. It is not hard to understand how some settlers succumbed to this harsh, isolated, and often lonely life and literally went insane or took their own life. Mental illness was not a known affliction in those days. I recall hearing stories of people who went mad and had to be shipped off to the East to an “insane asylum” in Hastings. Those that made it through were definitely strong men and women! Those that survived the best had a sense of humor, allowing them to laugh when many of us today would have cried. My mother was one of those strong women, gentle yet firm, who could see the humor in events.
She went to school in a soddy (photo). Unlike most women in those days, she was able to attend classes at a normal college in central Nebraska (Kearney) and became a teacher. She went on to teach in a school made from straw bales out in the nearby vast, almost roadless, grass-covered Sandhills. In 1920, she moved farther north to Harrisburg, Neb., to teach in a wood-frame school. It was there where she met my father and where I was born.
The sod houses played an important role in rural Nebraska. Most are gone now, but I recall seeing them around the town of Harrisburg during the 1930s when I was a child. In 1946 when I was fifteen years old, I worked all summer in the far northwest corner of Nebraska for a rancher. I recall it well because the water there was strongly alkaline, which made me go to the bathroom much more often than normal. The rancher’s original homestead was a soddy that had been added on to with frame structures as the family grew. The soddy itself was used as the kitchen—cool in the hot summer and with the good smell of homemade bread drifting out the open door. That smell became ingrained deep in my system as a hardworking, hungry teenager, and it marked those times as good.
So when I hear people longing for “the good old days,” what are they saying? Are they remembering the smell of freshly baked bread? No one I know wants to return to those hardscrabble days when their very survival was threatened on an almost daily basis. Even at best, life was tenuous. Most immigrants didn’t make it and either had to move on or were laid to rest in a forgotten grave covered once again by prairie sod.
I think what we miss, what we long for, especially if we take time to listen to our hearts, is to reconnect with the earth. Our ancestors trusted the earth. Even if they woke up fearful in the middle of the night, they knew the earth was still there, supporting them, giving them life. Yes, the work was hard, but after a day you could see what you had accomplished: a field plowed, grain harvested, bread made, chicken eggs collected, a cow milked, a garden planted. You knew that it was the earth that gave you food that allowed you to live.
Our longing, our restlessness, comes because for the last 100 years or so we have been crowded into huge, sprawling, often smog-choked cities. In some of these cities you can literally walk miles and never see an open piece of ground. We are stuck in these concrete jungles because that’s where the work is and because there is no longer any “West” calling us to move on. Our ancestors were hunters and gatherers for 250,000 years or more and lived on a prairie either here or there. A few generations have given us tremendous technological advances: TVs, iPods, cell phones, frozen dinners, and processed food. What hasn’t changed is our earth-based DNA passed down to us by a thousand generations of mothers and fathers who came before us.
We miss touching the land, the smell of turned-over sod, the coming of springtime, and seeing the bounty and beauty of wildflowers. Deep inside we remember the smell of the air in the total stillness as the storm approaches from the west, a stillness that allows us to listen to the low rumble of thunder heralded by strikes of awesome lightning. And then, after the storm, we wake to see the startling brilliance of a double rainbow stretching across the western sky.
We want to once again speak the names of the wildflowers and the grasses and to know where the meadowlark hides its nest. We long to pick and taste the wild currants, plums, grapes, and chokecherries that grew along the watercourses. We yearn to see the sudden, pale blush of the prairie rose that blooms for a day or two and is gone. We miss the sight of the Milky Way, that river of stars that was part of everyone’s life. We want to slow down and have time to be with and cherish our loved ones. We long to feel, sometimes in the evening, that gentle breeze that comes, touches our faces, and tells us who we are.
Read more of My Story As told By Houses:
Library of Congress detail drawings:
A typical sod house found all across the high, treeless plains.
The sod school house that my mother attended. She is one of the children in this photo.
Part of my mother's family on the move from Missouri to their Western Nebraska homestead.
Construction detail for laying a sod wall
How to make a door 19th century edition
Chimney Rock in 1887
Chimney Rock in 2002
A Creme separator in a Minnesota kitchen, circa 1937.
Treadle Singer sewing machine