Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Sod Houses
Nature Bulletin No. 620   December 3, 1960
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

In the 1860's and 70's, when pioneer settlers came to homestead free land on the vast lonely prairies of Kansas and Nebraska, they found a country that, except for fringes of cottonwoods and willows along the streams, was treeless. There was no rock and mighty little timber for building houses and barns. Lumber was very expensive and scarce. So was money.

However, the prairies were thickly covered with short, drought- enduring buffalo and blue grama grasses. Some of the Indian tribes which not only hunted buffalo but also grew corn -- notably the Pawnee, Osage and Hidatsa -- had large earthlodges. They used sod in the walls and the conical or dome-like roofs had pole rafters covered with willow brush, slough hay, sod, and finally clay. So the homesteaders were inspired to build their homes with slabs of the remarkably thick and tough prairie sod: "Nebraska marble".

In the 80's, after railroads had been built into the Dakotas, those territories were settled mostly by German and Scandinavian immigrants. Some arrived with only a few dollars in their pockets. They, too, built primitive sod houses. They gathered the buffalo bones that whitened the prairies and sold them, at about $10.00 per ton, to buy food, implements and furnishings.

A sod house required about an acre of that material. It was turned over with a breaking plow or sodbuster, taking pains to keep the furrows straight and of uniform depth -- 3 or 4 inches. Then, with a spade, it was cut into rectangular slabs. Some used slabs measuring 2 feet by 3 feet, laid lengthwise, but the most common size was 12" x 24", laid crosswise to build a wall two feet thick.

All slabs were laid with the grass side down and the first layer rested directly upon the ground On the south side an opening was left for a door and, as the walls rose, openings for two or more windows. Frequently there was also a window on each end. The succeeding layers were laid as in a brick wall -- each slab straddling the joint between the two beneath it -- and every third or fourth course ran in the opposite direction to strengthen the wall. Each course was leveled by shaving off the high spots with a sharp spade. That dirt was tamped into the low spots and between all joints.

The roof was a serious problem. Although a gable roof was preferred, the simpler, sloping shed-type was commonly built at first. If lumber could be obtained and a man could afford it, the top plates and rafters -- also a ridge pole for the gabled type -- were purchased and covered with boards, followed by tar paper. Otherwise, cottonwood poles were used, covered with willow brush and slough hay. A layer of sod was placed over the tar paper or the hay and then, to shed water, a tamped layer of clay.

Those makeshift roofs inevitably leaked. As one old-timer says, "it rained two days longer inside than it did outside". The bare hard-packed earth floor became a muddy mess. The housewife demanded, and eventually got, a better roof, a wooden floor, and inside walls that were whitewashed after being plastered with n mixture of clay and ashes, or fine sand, with wheat chaff or manure as a binder The window and door frames, homemade, were fastened to the walls with long wooden pegs. The door and its hinges might be homemade but the barn sash windows were bought.

A sod house was warm in winter and very cool in summer. Prairie fires could not burn them. Indians could not burn or shoot through them.

Would you like a bulletin about the furnishings in an old-time sod house?

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