Looking back: Sod houses played significant role as temporary homes
Settlers and homesteaders often arrived in North Dakota at the end of winter to search for land that was high enough to avoid spring flooding and would begin plowing and planting as soon as possible. This left many farmers without the time or money to build a home until harvest was complete in the fall. Regardless of a profitable crop, lumber was still very expensive and difficult to find on the treeless prairie. With limited options, many settlers turned to constructing homes from the unplowed prairie sod that covered the landscape.
Farmers already had the basic tools necessary to build a sod house or "soddie" as they were often called. Sod was cut using a grasshopper plow in the late fall after roots had a chance to mature. The long strips of sod were cut into manageable pieces resulting in blocks that were about one foot wide, two or three feet long and about four to six inches deep. These blocks were stacked in an alternating fashion to provide strength, creating walls that were several feet thick which provided excellent insulation. A sixteen foot square house used approximately an acre of sod.
Any wood that was available was used as roof supports or to make door and window frames. Interior walls were often shaved smooth and coated with plaster made from ash and clay to deter insects and brighten the room. If extra bed sheets were available, they were hung to create a ceiling which caught falling dirt and insects. Floors were usually hard, packed dirt.
Sod houses were made to be temporary homes until enough money could be saved to build a more permanent structure. However, some soddies were sided with wood and used for decades.
Bonanzaville in West Fargo has built three sod homes over the last forty years. The last sod house was torn down in 2006 due to safety concerns. There is a growing interest in recreating another sod house at Bonanzaville using historical construction techniques to help the new structure last for several decades. Work has begun gathering names of interested volunteers and finding sponsors for the project. Anyone interested in the project can contact Andrew at Bonanzaville (701) 282-2822.
(Andrew Nielsen earned his bachelor of arts degree in history from Minnesota State University, Moorhead; and for the past six years has served as curator at Bonanzaville. Nielsen will be providing occasional columns featuring historical narratives as they relate to buildings and artifacts maintained at the Pioneer Village.)