Plains Folk

The Hutmacher Ell


Late in the fall I spent a weekend with a company of more-guts-than-brains volunteers who went out to complete the process of getting a roof over the historic Hutmacher house in Dunn County. This is a German-Russian farmhouse constructed of local materials – sandstone, timbers, clay, brush, and straw. Its most distinctive feature is its earthen roof, some eight inches thick.

This working weekend was hard duty – cold drizzle, chill breeze, gray days. Hard, too, because we had a difficult time accessing the earth roof sections we were working on, even using the Bobcat to deliver materials. We were working at the point where an ell, added to the house a half-century ago, extended south from the main body of the long house, which runs east-west.

The long house is a traditional form of German-Russian folk architecture. It’s like a shotgun house – all the rooms in a line. Anyway, the hard work got me thinking about the physical possibilities and constraints of this historic house form.

The more you work on vernacular buildings, folk buildings – and I mean work on them, not just look at them – the more you see the logic in them. But you also recognize limitations and mistakes. The people who built them worked hard, they did great things, and sometimes they made mistakes. So you come to like them, and their works, more and more.

An earthen roof imposes a certain logic on the design of a German-Russian long house. The roof was constructed and maintained by applying earth with a shovel. Thus both the height and the width of the house were limited to the height and distance a person (and remember German-Russians generally were small in stature) could throw earth with a shovel, likely standing on a wagon.

There came a time when the Hutmachers needed more working room in the house and wanted to make another addition to it. It couldn’t go on the east end, because that was a bedroom section. It couldn’t go on the west end, because there the ground dropped off in a slope. So, they constructed an ell, stretching south from the long house.

Not a good idea. In the first place, earth roofs take yearly maintenance, mining more clay, pitching and patching. Increase the roof area, and you increase your annual required labor. An ell, too, creates a vulnerable seam in the roof where water may penetrate. Most of all, though, the ell makes it hard to reach the roof face where it joins the long house, making it much more difficult to do the annual maintenance.

There are two ways we commonly explain why people ceased living in houses of earth or sod and moved into modern homes of manufactured materials. The first is that the earth buildings eventually failed and fell apart. Well, my study and experience says that if you are diligent in maintenance, earth or sod buildings are quite durable. The second explanation, then, is that in modern times, the old earth houses were considered not fit to live in. Maybe so; people don’t like to be considered quaint or old-fashioned.

My reflection atop the Hutmacher ell, though, suggests another explanation. This house failed on account of its very success. The Hutmachers lived well in the house, because it was well adapted for life on the plains. They liked it, and kept expanding it – to the point that the roof area was so large, and its design (I mean that ill-advised ell addition) was so difficult, that the house no longer could be maintained. So I’m thinking that besides the technical knowledge, there is something sort of philosophical, something almost biblical, we might learn from this house that collapsed from its own success.

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