It has been estimated that in the United States and Canada during the period 1903-1913 there were some 1,000,000 sod buildings in use.
Ira Watson House, Custer County, Nebraska 1886.
Without wood or stone, using sod was a matter of necessity. Thus, on the Plains it was used for all manner of structures, houses, schools, barns, and even forts, such as Fort Mitchell, 55 miles east of Ft. Laramie, built in 1864 to guard the Oregon Trail and the mail route.
Following the 1868 Treaty of Ft. Laramie, Ft. Mitchell was abandoned. As is typical of sod structures, all physical trace of the building has now disappeared.
Wyoming Soddie, approx. 1910
The Coad Brothers' ranch house, formerly a stage station, was 20 by 50 feet with walls 30 inches thick. Each layer of sod was 8 to 10 inches thick. The kitchen was 12 by 20. The house featured a large sod fireplace. The ceiling was of red cedar covered with a layer of sod. John Sparks' ranch house, north of the Platte River in Goshen County, was also of sod, designed with gun ports on each side to fight off expected Indian attacks. Sparks moved to Nevada where he was elected governor.
Sod houses, while inexpensive to construct, are difficult to maintain. The sod would be cut from the prairie into slabs approximately 2 feet long, one foot wide, and 6 inches thick, which would be stacked grass side down to form the walls. The roof would generally be made of boards covered with sod. In some instances, the window "glass" would be made of paper soaked in lard.
David Hilton Homestead, Custer County, Nebraska 1887
[The photographer is probably standing on the roof of the soddie. Note that the family has chosen to include its piano in the family photo.]
Soddie family gathering
Generally, on the roof, the sod would be placed grass side up, thus precluding erosion of the roof. However, if the sod was placed grass side down on the roof, there would be less problems with a constant drip of dirt and mud from the ceiling. In some instances, to catch the dirt dripping through the ceiling, muslin would be suspended to catch the dirt. In more modern versions of the sod house, this problem was solved, as noted below, by the use of either a conventional roof or placing of tar paper beneath the sod. Because of the weight of the sod, particularly after a rain, a center post was normally needed to help support the roof. The packed dirt floors would have to be watered down regularly. Beds would have to be placed on boards in order to prevent the legs from sinking into the dirt floor. In the spring, the sod roof, six to eight inches thick, would have to be replaced. Without constant maintenance, one's house was apt to erode away in the rain at a fairly rapid rate.
Ruins of Pratt & Ferris Ranch House, Goshen County, 1916, photo by A. E. Sheldon
The weight of the sod on the roof always presented a danger of roof collapse. The walls made a convenient place for vermin to den. The owner of one Colorado soddie complained of "mouse season," and others complained of rattlesnakes denning in the walls.
The roofs would leak as well. Heavy rains caused a drip of mud from the ceiling. Indeed, it has been said that if it rained outside for one day, it would rain inside for two. A few soddies, however, were improved and made permanent by plastering of outer walls and the addition of shingle roofs, thus protecting the house from melting away.
Others had the interiors improved, again by plastering, wall paper and wooden floors. An example of an easily accessible reconstructed soddie is located on U.S. Highway 26 near Lewellen, Neb. It is fairly accurate except for the roof.
The above soddie is protected by a fence to protect it from being destroyed by cattle who would otherwise rub their rear ends on it. Note that the roof is somewhat inaccurate, using tar paper underneath the sod.
Sod School, Wyoming, location unidentified
The cantilevering of the walls outward in the upper photograph is not necessarily from structural weakness. It protects the lower portion of the walls from erosion in rain.
A variation on the soddie was the dugout. The dugout would be excavated out of the side of a hill and would thus only require that a front wall be built. The primary advantage of the soddie dugout was the cost. One Nebraskan estimated that his 1872 dugout cost $2.78, which included lumber, $1.79; latch and hinges, $.50; stovepipe, $.30; and nails, $.39.
Other advantages included the fact that it was cool in the summer and easier to heat in the winter. On the Great Plains it also provided protection from cyclones and prairie fires. Due, however, to the disadvantages, the structures were generally intended strictly as temporary quarters until after the farm or ranch could be established and a conventional home afforded. In the instance of the dugout, another disadvantage was that being underground, cattle might wander on to the roof, or a passing traveller might pass right over it. One Vernon, Texas livery owner told a writer for Scribner's that he drove over one, wondering why the ground was so uneven, until the owner confronted him with a Winchester.
Nebraska Dugout, 1870, Solomon D. Butcher, photographer.
Dugouts in Wyoming might also be constructed of stone. One example, constructed by Jack Thornburgh in the early 1920's and pictured below, is to be found 15 miles southeast of Wright in Campbell County.
Examples constructed of stone may continue to exist, often used as root cellars. Soddies, however, because of being eroded away by rain, would rarely last more than seven years, unless protected by a shingled roof and plaster much in the same manner as a Southwestern adobe.
Girls in front of dug-out soddie
In Wyoming, however, the primary use of sod in building construction was in the roofs. Thus, log and stone cabins would often have a sod roof. Governor Milward Simpson, as an example, was born near Jackson in a log cabin with a sod roof.
David Frances. Log cabin with five white men and three white girls, wearing pioneer clothing,
unidentified, full length.
CREATED/PUBLISHED [188-?]. Log cabin with sod roof and additional log buildings with five men
and three children (girls) in front of cabin; barren slope behind cabin; Premean[sic] Ranch penciled
on glass plate. Source: Library of Congress, The American Memory at http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/