Prairie Homes from Prairie Earth
A few weeks ago I spent an afternoon with a young fellow named Johnny Howling Wolf, who showed me around the complex of earthlodges constructed on the reservation of the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara) west of Fort Berthold, North Dakota. His pride and satisfaction were evident as we entered the massive meeting hall built in the style of an earth lodgeand then looked around the collection of traditional, clan-size earthlodges grouped nearby.
A day or so later I was talking with a rancher from Billings County, and he said, come look at a building I have in a pasture I’ve bought, maybe you can tell me what it is. I met him there, and it tickled me that I knew exactly what sort of building it was: a Ukrainian homestead house built with earth-fill walls.
Growing up as I did in western Kansas, and teaching and writing for years there, I acquired the central-plains view of pioneer dwellings made of earth. A sod house, as we saw it, was a temporary expedient. It was something pioneers built in order to prove up a claim, that is, satisfy the requirements of the Homestead Act. A house built of earth wasn’t a proper house for the long term.
At the time I was aware of another earth-building tradition, that of the German-Russian Mennonites. They built permanent residences of homemade clay bricks they called Erdziegeln or Batsa or Kohlsteine. Later I would learn that Mennonites in Manitoba and other parts of the plains did the same.
Still, fixed in my mind was the image of the sod house formed by the classic book, The Sod House Frontier, published by historian Everett Dick in 1937. The sod house was a temporary dwelling, and an uncomfortable one. It let in the rain and harbored bedbugs and vermin. People on the central plains sometimes got nostalgic about sod houses-folks in Nebraska even formed a sort of sod-house alumni group for people who wanted to share their sod-house memories-but the memories were those of a frontier of hardship.
Moving eventually to the northern plains I became aware that there were all sorts of prairie houses built of prairie earth, and that people were still living in them. Some of these were cut-sod houses.
A master’s thesis written by a South Dakota native, Molly Rozum, helped me learn a different way of thinking about the sod houses of the northern plains. It seems that on the northern prairies, those who built sod houses were regarded as stickers, settlers here for the long term, making the effort to build a weather-tight home of sod. More transient people, on the other hand, just hauled milled lumber out from the railroad town and threw up an 8×10 shanty.
Besides the houses of cut sod, the northern plains boasted, and still boast, countless earth houses built according to ethnic tradition by Germans from Russia and by Ukrainians. The German-Russians built like their ethnic kin, the Mennonites, of clay brick or rammed earth. The Ukrainians build commodious houses with walls filled with earth packed between a post-and-lath frame.
These were all good houses for the northern plains-more comfortable, not less, than houses built of milled lumber.
This summer my Suzzanne and I are hosting a celebration of historic earth buildings on the prairies. It’s a field school. People can do it for college credit, or for a learning vacation. We’ll take people to see little-known earth houses of all traditional types, and we’ll spend a few days restoring a German-Russian farmstead, the Hutmacher farmstead, in Dunn County, North Dakota.
For more about historic earth buildings, and our field school, go here – www.ndsu.edu/instruct/isern/earth