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A Carpenter's View

A Carpenter's View

My Story As Told By Houses-- Part 1, The Soddy

comments (16) October 12th, 2010 in Blogs
redwing44 redwing44, Legendary author

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 mothers 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
Treadle Singer sewing machine
A Creme separator in a Minnesota kitchen, circa 1937.
A typical sod house found all across the high, treeless plains.Click To Enlarge

A typical sod house found all across the high, treeless plains.

Photo: Courtesy of Larry Haun

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“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.

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Comments (16)

Brentwood Brentwood writes: Well, you've gone and dun it again, Larry: I am, again, inspired by your thoughtful words of wisdom!
You left one thing out when you talked about the Europeans thinking that they could own the earth and take what they wanted from the original native caretakers. I believe you said anybody could have the land, but I think that only applied to white males. That was the American policy of manifest destiny, which, I believe meant that it was God's will that they should take the land for their own purposes by any means necessary, including genocide and complete decimation of native culture. Sorry if this doesn't sound patriotic, but I think we, as Americans should be honest about our history.
Posted: 4:33 am on December 6th

SaKoohdo SaKoohdo writes: Larry,
Wonderful writing and pictures. Hats off to you and thanks for preserving one of the finest eras in Plains history.
I'm fortunate at age 58 to know a bit about sod houses and buffalo roaming the plains of Nebr. My grandparents built their soddy in 1917, which was very late compared to most with the notion that soddies were of the 1860's to 1890's. Western Nebraska was late to settle as the land could be inhospitable with little rain, never ending wind, sandy ground and long cold winters. I'm fortunate to have had 13 sets of grandparents and their brothers and sisters tough enough to try and eek out a living. They hand built their homes with few tools and a lot of grit.
My grandparent's soddy was warm in the winter, cool in the summer and a mansion, as it had 2 rooms. I slept and played in this house. I will find an interview with my father who explained how they cut the sod and built the soddy and share in another comment, if anyone is interested.
WritersCramps comment made me smile as thinking the buffalo flattened the plains. My mother has a prehistoric camel jaw bone that was found in the sandhills of the plains. We have museums full of perhistoric animal bones who once roamed this desert land so it was probably worked on by others too. The buffalo followed the best grass to graze. The short grass prairie plants provided the most nutrition and their wallows are still seen today. Pioneer accounts of the 1850's said Nebraska looked like a brown moving carpet with herds 5 to 10 miles wide and never ending in length.
Thank you Larry for talking about sod houses. Humans are resourceful and adaptable using the materials at hand to make a home. I'd be happy to share what my father wrote about their soddy, which still stands today. If you're interested I could send a picture of a sod house window frame that I have at my home.
Posted: 10:53 am on November 19th

lowfiron lowfiron writes: Well maybe the heat of the SFV was not such a big deal to you after reading this essay.
I do recall and feel that the best of the carpenters or at least a lot of them were farm boys.
I got into framing because of two brothers one which was a carpenter. That would be the Klocows, Bill and Joe, from Minnesota. Bill was the carpenter. Both were hard and fast workers, fast because they just did not stop, had focus and were pretty systematic at what ever the task was.
Joe, though not a carpenter was willing to analyze any task or problem with you and I had a lot of conversations with him. It was a part of daily conversation and working things out and planning for the next day-week- month.
When I was raised the conversation might of been about chores and school work but it did not get into the nitty gritty details like having a conversation with a farm raised person!!
So my observation of farm raised carpenters- workers and businessmen. This was a like going to University for me!!
I have a ton of stories about these guys.
Posted: 8:38 pm on November 8th

lizardo5150 lizardo5150 writes: Hi Uncle Larry, I love the blog. It's beautifully written; I especially like how you weave in and out of past and present, sustainable and "modern". I remember reading in a book called Custer and Crazy Horse: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors by Stephen Ambrose about how when the Native Americans were first forced to live on the Reservations, they were given wooden houses to live in. What was interesting to me was that the majority of them ended up building and living in tepees in the yard and abandoning the house claiming that they were dirty and couldn't keep them clean. The white folks couldn't understand how the the Natives lived in the dirty tepees. As it turns out, when the tepee area got too dirty, they would just pack it up and move to a new spot thereby letting nature clean up the old spot. The houses they couldn't move and they also couldn't figure out how to use the brooms and other cleaning tools that they were given to keep them clean. Talk about a big misunderstanding.

I have grown up hearing about granma's sod house and seen the large pictures in my dad's house, but I had never heard about it in it's historical context with such detail, I love it. Maybe that's why I have spent my whole life figuring out how to get out of cities and stay out. No wonder I take pleasure in tending my chickens, horses, garden and wood pile, it's in my blood!

From your loving niece

Posted: 5:13 pm on November 2nd

WoodHarlot WoodHarlot writes: Larry -

Your visions have such depth and genuineness that I can savor and see what you describe, I always hear your heart in your writing.

It is refreshing to read about people who took responsibility for themselves, who didn't expect anyone to do things for them except as they traded labor or money. There wasn't any sense of entitlement. They either starved out, moved, or through their own enterprise, made it.

I liked what you said about wishing for the old days, I have struggled to put into words what it is I wish for, thank you for the answer.

This is the start of a great book, please, please continue.


Posted: 12:57 pm on November 1st

redwing44 redwing44 writes: Dear Matt,
Thanks for your kind words. Wish I could study with you and learn more about building with timber.
As a writer----about all I have to offer to the writing world is courage. By that I mean---courage to write as best I can and to put it out there for anyone to see.
As a student in our isolated rural high school, I went through those 4 years and never once was asked to write an entire paragraph. I have never taken a writing course in any Univ. or even advanced English courses.
I have learned to write because I had the courage to write. I try to write simply and from the heart. Over the years, many editors at Fine Homebuilding magazine and books have helped me to improve my writing skills. Much credit goes to them.
So---please write. If I can do it, you can also.
Larry Haun

Posted: 12:21 pm on October 29th

TheTimberTailor TheTimberTailor writes: Larry,

Nice piece of work! Fantastic writing, once again. Much of your writing is about how to build stuff. Can you offer any insight into how you got to be such an excellent author? Your talent is both inspiring and intimidating to this wanna-be writer.

With Respect,

Posted: 9:45 pm on October 28th

EKDesign EKDesign writes: Great writing, Larry! I could see this tale making a very interesting book. Where do I pre-order my copy!?
Posted: 3:07 pm on October 20th

huehue1010 huehue1010 writes: Larry,
I always knew we had a lot in common, we share a history of hard working honest ancestors, from different race and country yet with the same need to survival. Just like them we are still in the daily struggle to survive, different times and conditions in life, but the struggle is the same.
For some people these type of events are past history, for some others, specially in underdeveloped countries this is daily life reality. So much for technological advances humanity has achieved, when there is poverty, hunger, lack of education, decent affordable housing, and the irreparable environmental damage progress had brought upon earth. Do we still have hope of ever seen what really matters in life, before is too late for all of us?
Posted: 2:24 pm on October 20th

squattybody squattybody writes: Larry, I am in awe of your writing. My grandparents traveled in a covered wagon and homesteaded in Baca County, Colorado in a little town called Pritchett. It is still there. When I was 7 I took the adventurous ride on a freight train from Wichita, Kansas to Pritchett. I vaguely remember the two seater outhouse and grandma's bedside chamberpot. The canned goods were stored on shelves in a separate basement made of cinder block walls and a dirt floor. It was about 3 feet above ground so had windows. I was the fortunate one that always slept there with the spiders and an Aunt. It had a musty comforting smell. My aunts and uncles talked about living in dugouts as newlyweds and burning cowchips for fuel. Things got better for My younger newlywed parents who lived in new semicircular metal building they referred to as a chicken coop. Now you have me wanting to talk to my ancestors to get more details. Please tell us more.
Posted: 11:04 pm on October 18th

patrick_mccombe patrick_mccombe writes: Hi Larry,

I loved this glimpse into America's recent past. It's great writing and a very good story. I'm looking forwad to the next installment.

Patrick McCombe
Posted: 12:57 pm on October 18th

writerscramp writerscramp writes: Thank you for this wonderful perspective into our not too distant past.

I have long held a theory about the "plains" states that has thus far only seen limited exposure, so I'm happy to share my theory with the readers of Larry Haun's blog. The theory, to wit, is that the so called, "plains states" were once hilly states until the prolific and omnipresent buffalo, with many thousands of pounds of hoof pressure per square inch, roamed by the millions hither and yon and pounded the hills into plains.

Note that buffalo were never found in quantity in "non-plain" states that remained hilly or mountainous, therefore the theory holds true.

The work of British classical composer, George Friedrich Handel's, "Messiah", likely contains similar reference to the penchant of the buffalo to trample the earth into flat lands (albeit it is an oblique mention), in the oratorio, "And the valleys shall be exalted, and the mountains made plain..." which clearly is an unambiguous description of the "plains states", as described by Larry Haun. The buffalo likely had something to do with this flattening, so remember that you heard it here first!

In the early nineteen seventies, a couple of guys by the names of Art Boeriche and Barry Shapiro put together a couple of books, the first entitled, "Handmade Houses" published in 1973, and the second, "The Craftsman Builder" published in 1977, presenting photos and commentary of unusually built homes and structures made using recycled, reclaimed, or naturally existing materials, often constructed and arranged in novel methods (not always in accordance with accepted building standards of construction, he hastens to add).

The buildings seen in the "Handmade Houses" series were all unique and unusual. Mostly hidden away far off dirt roads in rural backwaters, these homes were the creations of love, ingenuity, and imagination, but not a one would likely meet the strict criterion of modern building codes, and they could not be legally built, except in those areas of the country where structural codes are not enforced and receiving a building permit only requires registering a location for a septic tank and drainfield, to ensure it is set far enough from natural water sources to prevent contamination (there are still many areas of the country where building inspectors do not roam, and neither do the buffalo).

The writers of "Handmade Houses" spoke of the home builders calling their structures, "potting sheds", "temporary pole barns", "the kid's tree house", or some other non-habitable appellation in order to throw off the machinations of the local building departments. Most of the structures were off the power grid, and far enough away from the highways and byways where no one knew or cared about their existence.

Where building code demands compliance, neither Larry Haun's mother's sod house, nor the "handmade houses" could be built. Today, modern construction methods and spreadsheets dictate the design, and as Lewis Mumford lamented in, "The Myth of the Machine", (paraphrasing), modern computer CAD renders every potential natural and evocative human design into a repetitious machine code that's only suitable for non-living machines.

As Larry mentions, is only modern Western man that assumes the burden of a thirty-year mortgage in order to live and work amongst his peers. Concomitant with that mortgage comes the marvels of our modern age with electrically energized appliances and utilities, running water, hygienically sound waste disposal, modern communications, and even the ability to magically enjoy reading a blog written and posted over digital internets. We trade one level of sophistication and awareness for another as the demands of time and place change, just as earlier builders used hand tools, while today we use power equipment.

Reading about "sod houses" and the environment and lifestyle from a bygone age is a great thrill, and describes a time and place that today only exists in our memories. Thanks to Larry's detailed descriptions, we can accurately picture the daily lives of those intrepid settlers and learn from their experience.

Besides, this is not strictly an academic treatment that's Larry's providing; there is no saying that our level of technological progress, utilities, and social services will continue into the future. War, plague, economic collapse, and you and I may very well be building our own sod houses, complete with root cellar and kerosene lamps for light.

So read the techniques carefully, and thanks again to one of my favorite teachers, Larry Haun. And watch out for buffalo.
Posted: 6:31 pm on October 17th

acesark acesark writes: This is really intresting article.
Posted: 1:51 pm on October 17th

redwing44 redwing44 writes: Bob Y,
Thanks for the kind words. Coming from you, I take it as a real complement. Larry Haun
Posted: 12:52 pm on October 17th

ATponch ATponch writes: Larry,
I agree with my friend here and have enjoyed your thoughts and words. I could see every image you gave at the end, picturig all those things with loved ones by my side. Thank you.
Posted: 12:19 am on October 14th

RYagid RYagid writes: Larry,
I feel compelled to say that this is some of the finest writing I’ve had the privilege to read in quite some time. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in the West—Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska. My fiancé is from a little town in southeastern South Dakota, a place we travel often to visit her family. As a born and bred Easterner, the vastness of the prairie is both new to me and profoundly moving. It is your words, though, that have changed the memory of my experiences there. They have enriched them. It won’t be long before I head West again, and as I travel through the grasslands I’ll think of this piece. I look forward to reading more.

Thank You.

Posted: 4:07 pm on October 13th

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