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8 Feb
2016

True Life on the Prairie Was Living in a Hole in the Ground

My maternal great-grandparents homestead, Custer County, Nebraska in a photo taken by Samuel Butcher.

This is the third and final in a series about poverty and homesteading on the Midwestern prairie…background from my research for the novel I am writing inspired by the lives of my grandparents.

“They most likely lived in a dugout like everyone else who settled here. Most couldn’t afford to buy materials to build a house.”

A dugout! Really! I could imagine what a dugout was…a hole in the ground. This was totally new information.

I was visiting Tucumcari, New Mexico as part of my genealogy research to learn more about my grandfather who died there in 1911. He moved his pregnant wife and four boys from Oklahoma to Tucumcari in hopes of finding a better climate for his health. When I asked the Tucumcari Museum staff about finding where they had lived in the area, she not only told me they probably lived in a dugout, but that it would be hard to find since very few dugouts if any of them survived except in old photographs.

I knew about sod houses on the Midwestern prairie, especially Nebraska. Initially when covered wagons headed west, pioneers were not interested in the empty Nebraska prairie. They were more interested in the West. They just rolled across the flat plains of waving grass following the wagon tracks of others who had ventured out before them. Their canvas covered wagons carried all their precious household belongings, food and tools. Family members walked beside the wagons and they drove valuable livestock needed to help them survive when they arrived at their distant destinations.

In 1863 during the Civil War President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. It offered free land to those who could “prove up” their claims by living on the land for five years and building a dwelling.  Thousands of settlers, most of them poor returning veterans, immigrants and others without land of their own, loaded their possessions into a wagon and headed west. These settlers discovered that the empty land on the Great Plains was now available for settling but only spindly cotton woods or wild plum bushes grew there. There was not enough wood to build the familiar log cabin or other wooden shelters.

“Soddies”

The resourcefulness of the frontier settler is admirable. He, or occasionally she, could use a tool brought in the wagon, the iron plow, and the team of oxen or horses that had pulled the wagon. The plow could turn up strips of virgin prairie sod about six inches thick. The settler had almost perfect building blocks when these strips were cut into approximately two-foot sections. Walls were built to seven or eight feet high with holes left for windows and doors to be purchased in town or at a railroad siding. The roof might be made with a few poles from available trees such as cottonwoods and covered with a thick layer of grass and then two layers of sod blocks. Despite the layer of grass intended to keep out the dirt and moisture, many settlers were plagued with dirt, mud when it rained, and small rodents seeking shelter and food coming down through the roof. How unpleasant! Others who built their home solidly found their “soddie”, as they were called, could last a few years.

Both my maternal and paternal great grandparents homesteaded in Nebraska in the 1870’s and built sod houses that they lived in for several years. Sod houses were amazingly comfortable. The thick sod walls provided excellent insulation; they stayed warm and cozy in the freezing Nebraska blizzards and cool under the hot summer sun.

Nebraska Dugout

 

Dugouts

As I explored the information on the dugout, I learned it had some of the same insulation advantages since it was usually dug out of a hillside. However, it usually had no windows. It was just a hole in the ground and it was dark, cramped and difficult to keep clean. If the roof was made of sod, roaming livestock might fall through the roof. Imagine that surprise arriving for dinner! The floors in both the “soddie” and the dugout were often treated as the Native Americans might treat the floors in their tipis: sprinkled with water and swept daily until the surface was hard and smooth. Carpets or wooden planks might eventually be laid if the family could afford it. Walls might be coated with a plaster made from sand and limestone if available or covered with tacked up newspapers to keep the dirt from drifting into the house.

Russell Homestead

My paternal great -grandparents in front of their homestead, Thomas County, Nebraska.

In Nebraska, the rich soil produced bumper crops. Farmers were success after a few years. Within about ten years, many families eventually moved out of their soddies and into a real home. Both sets of my great grandparents did so. Real homes indicated the success and status of their owners, but they were much colder in the winter and unbearably hotter in the summer than the soddie or the dugout.

However, in New Mexico in 1910, when my grandparents arrived, much of the land for cattle ranching had been claimed either by Spain, Mexico, or the earlier U.S. homesteaders. Looking for a warmer climate and tantalized by the railroad flyers describing a farming paradise near Tucumcari, my grandparents arrived during a dry spell in an area with little access to water in normal times. Given their circumstances of poverty, a large family and my grandfather’s ill health, I think it was a good guess that they lived in a dugout. They probably had no other choice.

You may have seen or heard of rammed earth homes. These are among the many “sustainable” style homes that are growing in popularity in the United States and around the world. Consider them an upscale and sustainable version of the utilitarian prairie-style dugout.

Do you have ancestors who lived in “soddies” or dugouts? Do you know anything about their lives? I would love to hear your stories.

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8 Comments

  • Fscinating.

    • Thanks for your comment Robin. What did you find fascinating?

  • Well written and well researched – thank you

    My great grandparents did not come to California from Vivi Indiana until after the railroad was completed. The miners in California had told stories about the San Joaquin Valley and how rich the wildflowers were every spring so they settled in Fresno.

    • Wild Flowers. That is a good argument of where to settle. Beauty and probably fertile soil.

  • Loved this post Bev. So interesting, learning more about homesteading life in the prairie. I grew up in Massachusetts, and it seems like our history programs were always very local. I can tell you everything about early settlers in New England, the Revolutionary War, etc. But I never read of post-Civil War life among homesteaders. Very interesting!! I can’t wait for your book!

  • Thanks Erin. Love your comment. I am glad I could fill in a missing piece of history for you. Since my family on both sides, homesteaded, it is a significant part of my personal history. I am having a great time with both the research and the creative writing.

  • Can you imagine? winters here used to have weeks on end of -60 to 0 degrees with snow.

  • Patricia,
    I missed your comment. No I can’t imagine that cold for so long. Certainly required stamina and resourcefulness to survive. I have great admiration for these pioneers.

So, what do you think?

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