Up from the Sod
The sod house stands as the foremost material symbol of pioneer life on the Great Plains of North America. It symbolizes both the humility and the aspirations of the pioneers. The old folksong, “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim,” bemoans the deprivations of sod house life-the lack of window-glass, the leaky roof, even the coyotes howling outside-but it also foretells better times to come. Soon, we are told, others will come, families will grow up with the country, and people will have proper, wood houses.
By the way, that song, “Little Old Sod Shanty,” seems to have one or more alleged authors in every state or province from Kansas to Saskatchewan. Some of this confusion comes from bogus claims by would-be authors, but much of it comes from the practices of frontier photographers. After photographing a sod-house family, photographers liked to print stanzas of “Little Old Sod Shanty” on the back of the photographic card, thereby prompting people to attribute authorship of the song.
We think, though, that we know what there is to know about sod houses. They were laid up with pieces of grass-bound sod cut with a grasshopper plow; they were temporary dwellings, used to prove up a homestead claim; and once that use was done, people abandoned their soddies for proper housing.
In fact, many thousands of prairie homes referred to as “sod” were not cut sod, but were constructed of earth using some other technique. Many of these, too, were quite substantial, and not considered temporary. And people still live in some of them.
A common type of earth house was one constructed of clay bricks something like adobe, although not of Hispanic tradition. Germans from Russia considered this a proper house from their old country experience, calling the homemade bricks “batsa.” The Black Sea Germans built thousands of them, and the Mennonites of Kansas and Manitoba built thousands more.
The same people also knew how to form up walls from wet clay with their hands, using the technique known as “puddled earth.” This was the same type of construction as what English or Irish folk called “cob.” It sounds simple, but it was all free-form, so that an artisan of this technique had to know what he was doing.
Somewhat simpler was the earth-fill form of house favored by Ukrainians, among some others. This began with a rectangle of standing posts set in the ground. The builders then nailed lath, or earlier, saplings, inside and outside the posts, forming a cavity that was filled with clay.
I hope it is not too indelicate to mention that all these builders commonly incorporated a little cow dung into the earth mix. It improved the binding and the insulation.
We should not forget, of course, that the Indians of the plains knew the virtues of earth housing long before whites arrived. The earth lodges of the Pawnee, the Arikara, the Mandan, or the Hidatsa were impressive in bulk and comfortable for occupants.
Earth houses were not necessarily temporary, however. They were not merely pioneer expedients. More on that in my next column.