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Prairie Plaster

 

Settlers of the Great Plains, as we commonly think, had to make do with what they had. This meant, in the absence of timber, building houses from the earth – from cut sod. Such homes were temporary, of course, until more proper building materials could be acquired.

Or maybe not. The more we find out about the building traditions of the various peoples of the plains, the more we realize that earth was not just a material of last resort. Many plains folk considered houses of earth – cut sod, earth brick, or other forms of earth construction – to be perfectly proper residences and suited to the country.

Not only that – it gets even more earthy than earth. I mean, large groups of settlers considered cow manure an essential building material.

German Mennonite settlers in Kansas, Manitoba, and elsewhere on the prairies laid up house walls of earth brick commonly known as batsa. This was rather similar to the Hispanic tradition of adobe. The Mennonite builders wet-mixed clay, straw, and manure and packed it into wooden forms. After sun-drying, the bricks were laid up three courses thick, making a strong, well-insulated wall. The manure not only acted as a binder in the mix but also provided an insulating factor. Think about the texture of a dried cowpie, and you’ll realize how it would help retain energy that would pass right through a hard, clay brick.

Other Germans from Russia, as well as Ukrainians, brought their own traditions of building, and particularly plastering, with manure. From personal examination, I would say that the Ukrainians were the masters of manure plastering. It’s possible they added some lime or wheat paste to mix, I’m not sure, but I do know that their manure-plaster finishes were creamy-smooth. In house interiors they were painted or papered. It seems oil-based paints adhered nicely.

The past few years I’ve been involved with a group that is restoring a German-Russian farm site, the historic Hutmacher farm, in Dunn County, North Dakota. I’ve been insisting all along that we need to make more use of manure. We had a paid consultant who didn’t like the idea. Anyway, a couple of weeks ago we had Eleanor Hutmacher, who grew up on the place, out to visit with our restoration crew, and I took the opportunity to ask her specifically about this matter.

Eleanor described in detail how she and her sister were required to mix, with bare feet, the plaster mix her father smeared on the house and outbuildings. It was a combination of clay, straw, and cow manure.

So, we gave it a try, although we did the mixing in wheelbarrows, with hoes. Fortunately we had access to high-quality smart manure from a university ranch nearby, stuff already mingled with pulverized hay by the cattle hooves. It mixed up nicely with clay we mined from the pit out back of the buildings we are restoring. And you know, it went on the walls just fine, a successful experiment. Here’s a shout out to Christi and Emily for being such great sports about working with this material!

The experiment presented us with a naming opportunity. At first there were various coarse phrases used to describe our material, until “poo-plaster” emerged as the accepted term. Then, in a stroke of promotional genius, someone coined the phrase, “prairie plaster.” So prairie plaster it is, in public utterances. As with so many matters of public relations, when you get right down to it, it’s still cow manure.

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