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SOD HOUSE

As elsewhere on the Great Plains, timber was scarce in central and western Oklahoma Territory. Early settlers built their first shelters from what was available, thick prairie sod. A typical sod house (soddy) was about fourteen feet by sixteen feet in size with a seven-and-one-half-foot high wall, a low-pitched roof, a central side door, and one or two windows. Interior walls were often finished with plaster or covered with newspapers, and canvas was often suspended from the ceiling to make the space lighter and to improve cleanliness. Furnishings were sparse and simple, but prized lace curtains or an heirloom piece of furniture were not uncommon in these humble dwellings.

Sod House at Aline (Exterior)

To build a soddy the homesteader first chose a construction site, squared the interior dimensions of the house, and dampened and packed the floor area. Then the builder selected an acre or so of unbroken ground and used a breaking plow to cut the sod into long strips about twelve to eighteen inches wide and three to four inches thick. These were then cut with a sharp spade into two- to three-foot-long blocks that were hauled to the house site on a wagon or sled. Each morning just enough sod was broken and cut into blocks for use that day because the sod blocks were easier to handle when the moisture content was high.

Sod house dugout, ca 1900

Then construction of the walls began. Typically the soddy's walls were two to three staggered blocks deep (providing a wall depth of two or three feet), and the sod blocks were laid grassy side down. With the third or fourth layer of blocks in place, a crosswise layer was installed to add strength to the wall. Wood-plank frames were propped in place at the desired locations for the door and windows, and the wall construction continued until it reached about half its final height. Then the interior wall surface was scraped to provide a more attractive surface and to help insure a finished wall that was as vertical as possible. When the walls were finished, support poles were placed at each end of the soddy, and the ridgepole was layed across them. Then either planks or poles were attached to form rafters, and roof decking of poles or brush, sometimes covered with tar paper or canvas, was applied. To complete the roof, layers (the number of layers varied) of sod blocks were positioned either with the grassy side down and coated with a thin plaster or with the grassy side up, and vegetation was allowed to grow. Finally, the builder filled the gabble ends with sod blocks, hung a plank door, and the enclosed the window openings, often with oiled paper.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century the Sod House Museum in Alfalfa County, four miles north of Cleo Springs, protected a soddy that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 (NR 70000526).

SEE ALSO: ARCHITECTURE, FOLK ARCHITECTURE, FOLKLIFE, DUGOUT, LAND OPENINGS, SETTLEMENT PATTERNS.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Everett Dick, The Sod House Frontier, 1854-1890 (New York: D. Appleton Century Co., 1937). Melvena Thurman Heisch, "The Soddy," in Of the Earth: Oklahoma Architectural History, ed. Howard L. Meredith and Mary Ellen Meredith (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1980). Roger L. Welsch and Solomon D. Butcher, Sod Walls: The Story of the Nebraska Sod House (Broken Bow, Neb.: Purcells, Inc., 1968).

Melvena Thurman Heisch

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