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A Carpenter's View

A Carpenter's View

My Story Through Houses: The Dugout

comments (4) December 13th, 2010 in Blogs
redwing44 redwing44, Legendary author

A dugout---primitive living, but a place to call home nonetheless.
Whats left of the old cafe where mother worked over a local Klan member with a rolled up newspaper.
A dugout---primitive living, but a place to call home nonetheless.Click To Enlarge

A dugout---primitive living, but a place to call home nonetheless.

“I’ve been havin’ some hard travelin’, I thought you knowed.”

Woody Guthrie


Dugouts were still around until I was in my teens. I used to visit an old man who lived in one when I was out riding my beloved pinto horse. I was working for a rancher, looking for some of his cows that might have strayed down along the White River. His name was Charley and he lived in a home dug back into a bank along this River up until the late 1940s. He lived alone and worked now and then for ranchers cleaning chicken coops, painting a shed, fixing fences. This gave him a little money for food. His rent was free!

I got to know him some over a period of several months always stopping by to say hello. One day he invited me in for a cup of coffee. In the west, you don’t refuse that kind of an offer no matter who it comes from. Once my eyes became used to the darkness, I saw that his place measured about 10 ft. x 10 ft. His table and chairs were tree rounds cut from a nearby cottonwood. His bed was a pile of rags in a corner. On the small, iron stove sat a tea kettle, a frying pan, and a coffee pot. The orange crate cabinet held a few dishes. He reached for a couple of cups, wiped them out with another rag, and poured us both a hot cup of coffee.

I could feel his loneliness as he told me part of his story. He used to be a painter living in San Francisco with a woman who “did him wrong.” I never had the chance to get the woman’s side of the story. Once she left, he drifted north living in Washington and then Montana for a time. And now here he was, heartbroken, living out his days in a place little better than a rabbit hole. He showed me a couple of figures, cowboys on horses, he had drawn with charcoal on butcher paper. I held them to the light and gave him praise. He died that fall when I was back in school. They buried him on the prairie far from any kin, another unknown resting in a different type of dugout.

I never told my mother I visited him in his place. If he had bed bugs, they must have preferred his blood to mine and, lucky for me, I didn’t bring any home.

Life in those ‘great depression’ times really was hard. Unlike today, class distinctions were practically non-existent. Everyone I knew was poor, struggling to keep food on their tables and clothes on their backs.

Hard times then and now seem to breed two types of people. Some become more generous, willing to share what little they have. Others seem obsessed to find someone to blame for their troubles. Sound familiar? It was during the 30s that there was a big resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activity all across the prairie states. What do you do when there are no Jews or Blacks around as the focal point for your frustration and hatred? That’s an easy one. We were the only catholic family in the entire county.


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Comments (4)

Steven_W Steven_W writes: What a wonderful story and insight into times past--and yourself. It speaks strongly of basic appreciation of life in and of itself. I could almost smell the prairie grass and feel the warm breezes, and sense the pulse of those times past. Good medicine.
Posted: 6:56 pm on January 8th

FHBdotcom FHBdotcom writes: robinkaren,

I'm glad you and other folks have been sharing similar stories about early American life. Larry described a sod home in one of his earlier posts that seems more like what your family must have built. I added a link to the post at the end of this article (entitled "The Soddy"). I believe he reserved the term "dugout" for the more primitive dwellings he had seen years ago.
Posted: 3:34 pm on January 7th

robinkaren robinkaren writes: A very nice story... the photo however is a poor example of what a dugouts could be. My great-grandfather and his wife moved from Quebec to Nebraska in 1870's; their only option (w/ little wood about) was a dugout on their homestead near Campbell, built with sod-walls. The only lumber was used for door and window frames (I presume local logs supported the ceiling).
My grandmother was born in that shelter, but would never admit to that humble beginning. We have a surviving family photo of the immigrant French-Canadian couple with a baby in arms (grandma) and her 2 older brothers. A horse stands on the creek bank above the house (possibly on the roof).
More children were born there and more still in the wood house that replaced that sod/dugout: 11 in all, 9 survived to adulthood, 8 that lived to beyond 90. Hardy pioneer stock from a humble but healthy heritage.
Posted: 12:18 pm on December 21st

Olitch Olitch writes: Larry, You are clearly one of the folks who emerged from those dark times with a generous soul. Or maybe it wasn't quite so dark because people knew they were all in the same boat. Your account is particularly important today because, I fear, blaming other people is a more common response to adversity. So thanks to you for a fine story and thanks to Fine Homebuilding for running it.
Posted: 5:20 pm on December 14th

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