Thursday, August 16, 2012

Earthen Prairie Homes

Isaac described the sandy loam soil of his claims as "light blow-sand," a description that would seem to indicate soil incapable of holding together in the rectangles of sod used to build homes or of supporting cave-like dugout walls and roof, yet these structures are well documented in his community.  It was obviously the mat of prairie grasses with their strong, dense roots that held the soil together for use in construction of the rude homes built by settlers.  The sod having been stripped from the soil long ago, we find it hard today to imagine the sturdy earthen structures of our ancestors.
When Isaac resumed writing in his diary in 1884, he had lived on the Kansas prairie for six years.  By then he had built a wooden house of two stories with a basement room and a cellar for storing his potatoes, grains, and garden produce like melons, turnips, and peanuts.  However, in his early years on the prairie he lived in dugouts.  His journal mentions two different dugouts, abandoned by 1884.
His wooden house was atypical among his nearest neighbors.  Brothers Will and Felix Goodwin living just to the south of him across the Stafford-Pratt County line lived in a dugout.  Will had a small dugout, and when Felix joined him in 1884, Isaac "staked off Will Goodwin's new residence" and commenced fitting on Will Goodwin's side boards...hanging door, making table..." and finally "set roof on Will Goodwin's new dugout," completing the larger dugout to accomodate both brothers.  In 1885 when Jesse Green's family moved to the claim just to the east of Isaac, they built a soddy, and Isaac went to Larned with Jesse to buy the Iron Board Roofing Paper to finish the soddy's roof.  That same year Isabel Ross staked her claim just east of Isaac's timber claim.  Isaac met with her to discuss building her soddy, but "so much advising and different architecture about, I glad to escape the job."  Tousley became her contractor, but Isaac worked on building her soddy, from top to bottom--staking the dimensions, making the door and window frames, shingling the roof, and digging her well.  George and Nancy Henn lived in a soddy just to the north of Isaac's timber claim, and Persis Vosburgh, another single woman whose homestead was just to the west of Isaac's claim, lived in a dugout. 
There were wooden houses in the community, but Isaac's closest neighbors, as well as many other early homesteaders who arrived on the treeless prairie, took advantage of the materials at hand to build their earthen homes. 

The images used in this post are from the collection of Old Stafford County Pictures at the Stafford County Historical and Genealogy Society, available on CD at the museum.

The Santa Fe Trail Center near Larned, Kansas, has recreated both a dugout and a sod house for visitors to experience what living in these prairie homes was like.  Visit the Santa Fe Trail Center on facebook or see

Remember to click on the images for larger viewing.


1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

My grandfather and his two brothers built a sod shack when they began homesteading. One of the brothers and his family even built and lived in a sod house in the 1930s as they couldn't afford a house. The bottom picture is pretty fancy for a soddy.
I had to look up information on a dugout as it was not something I was familiar with. This is a good site: