Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Sod House Furnishings
Nature Bulletin No. 666   February 10, 1962
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Last year, after we issued Bulletin No. 620-A about the sod houses built by early settlers on the Great Plains, there were numerous requests for this one about the furnishings in those unique dwellings. If they seem meager and inadequate, bear in mind that, with rare exceptions, the pioneers were so poor that some had nothing but iron determination and courage.

After the Civil War, ex-soldiers from both armies "pulled up stakes and lit out" for Nebraska, Kansas, or Texas. Under the Homestead Act of 1862, anyone who had not been a Rebel could "file" on and obtain, free, a quarter-section (160 acres) of "government land" -- public domain -- and, by paying $200, claim and pre-empt another. There were no restrictions on purchases from land companies, nor from the railroads that had been granted millions of acres.

Some of the settlers were lonely bachelors, on horseback, with what they could carry in saddlebags and a bedroll, but most of them had families and traveled in covered wagons drawn by plodding oxen that an Indian would not steal. For the first few years the furnishings in their sod houses were only what could be brought in those wagons, plus what was made if a man could buy any lumber and was handy with his few tools. There was no timber other than fringes of cottonwoods and willows along the streams -- usable only for poles and fuel.

Naturally, the first arrivals glommed onto all choice locations where water and wood were available. Late-comers bravely settled out on the vast treeless prairies. They lived in their wagons, or a dugout in a slope, until a "soddy" was completed. Its furnishings commonly included some bedding and extra clothing; a cooking pot and a skillet; some knives, forks, tin plates, cups and wooden spoons; a coffee grinder; a wooden tub, bucket, washboard, clothesline, and flat iron; perhaps a few dishes buried in a barrel of flour; and occasionally a cherished chest of drawers or a rocking chair lashed underneath the wagon.

Until the house was built, with a fireplace at one end, they cooked outdoors over an open fire, or over a pit, unless they had a Dutch oven or a little portable stove. Where stones were scarce, the fireplace was built of sod slabs, thickly covered with mud, and had a "cat-and-claw" chimney of split sticks and clay. For fuel they used slough hay and manure -- dry buffalo "chips" and, later, cow chips.

Those sod houses often stood miles apart and far from any would-be town. At first they had clay floors, and greased paper instead of glass in the windows. They had no carpets or rugs, no curtains, no beds, no clock, no newspapers or magazines, no books other than a Bible. Some pioneers, especially women, went crazy from loneliness and despair.

In the 80s and 90s the prairies of North and South Dakota became dotted with sod houses built by land-hungry immigrants lured from parts of Europe by the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads. Those soddies were commonly about 16 feet wide, 36 feet long, and had two rooms. Sometimes a shelter for livestock was attached. Extending into both rooms through the partition wall of sod slabs was a stove, built of stones and clay, used for cooking and to heat both rooms.

While a man built the house and plowed, his family collected buffalo bones that whitened the prairies. Hauled as much as 50 miles to a railroad town, they were exchanged at from $8 to $10 per ton for provisions and for lumber to make a table, cupboard, benches and beds. Until then a box was their table and they sat on the floor where they also slept on hay-filled ticks. Tin cans, picked up in town, might serve as cups and a broken crock, filled with lard, as a lamp.

Those, you softies, were the kind of people who settled America.

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