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Cutting Sod for a House
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Letter from Uriah

Building a Sod House
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Oblinger Family

Interior of a Sod House
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Letter from Uriah

Dugout Sod House
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Letter from Uriah

Isadore Haumont's Two-Story Sod House
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Letter from Uriah

Collecting Buffalo and Cow Chips for Fuel
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Oblinger Family

Letter from Uriah to Mattie, April 27, 1873
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Letter from Uriah

Sod House Settlement by a Stream
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Letter from Uriah

Gathering Water
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Letter from Uriah

Letter from Uriah to Mattie describing a terrible winter storm, April 18, 1873
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Letter from Uriah

J.C. Cram Sod House
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Oblinger Family

Letter from Mattie to her Family, June 16, 1873
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Oblinger Family


DAILY LIFE

Building a Sod House | Keeping House | Heating a Sod House
Water on the Plains | Neighbors



Building a Sod House

Sod was a blessing to the pioneers. With no trees or stones in sight to build their houses from, the very earth they walked on was a perfect solution. The sod was cheap, easily accessible, and provided excellent insulation.

To cut the sod, settlers used a tool called a cutting plow, which had a set of adjustable rods to cut the sod into rows about three to six inches thick and at least a foot wide. The rows were then cut into bricks. New settlers who did not own plows had to borrow the equipment from a neighbor.

The sod was laid grass side down, like bricks, in side-by side rows. Three rows of sod would make a thick wall that could support the weight of the house. Seams between the sod bricks were staggered to keep the walls as tight as possible. Every third or fourth layer of sod was laid crosswise to bind the stacks together.

Male claim-holders, like Uriah Oblinger, probably did most of their work by themselves. However, many women did help with the construction of their new homes. Women's jobs usually included shaving the inside and outside walls with a sharp spade. The shaving had many purposes: to keep the walls balanced, to close bug and rodent holes, and to make the house look more finished. If the family planned to plaster the interior walls, they had to be shaved first.



Keeping House

Housekeeping and cooking were difficult in a sod house. Often families covered the sod house walls with muslin or whitewash to try and keep the dirt out of the living and cooking areas. Bugs, snakes, mice, and dirt falling from the ceiling and walls frustrated most efforts to keep the house clean. When Mattie arrived on the claim, she began to learn how cooking and cleaning in a sod house would be different than cooking in Indiana.

While many families who lived in sod houses at the turn of the century experienced constant poverty or subsistence living, others lived in relative elegance. A wide range of sod house construction meant that some lived in crude dugouts while others built two-story sod houses complete with glass windows and decorated in style.

Many of the sod house dwellers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were immigrants from Europe. These families brought recipes with them from their countries of origin and adapted them to life on the American prairie. The Nebraska State Historical Society has collected recipes such as "Kolaches," brought by Bohemian settlers, "Klejner," Danish fried cookies, German Russian Fruit Soup, and Swedish coffee bread.

On August 12, 1875, Nebraska's Seward Reporter printed this recipe for "Poverty Cake," illustrating the condition of many new settlers:


Two cups of thin cream, two cups of chopped raisins, two cups of sugar, four cups of flour, one teaspoon of soda, salt and spice




Heating a Sod House

Because wood was sparse and coal was expensive, early pioneers like the Oblingers used buffalo and cowdroppings, or "chips," for fuel. Because chips kept the house warm during the long winters, families managed to live with the smell, collecting the chips and burning them inside their small homes.

When Orval Lookhart of Holyoke, Colorado, wrote about her sod house experience for Nebraska Farmer, gathering cow chips was one of her clearest memories:


"Each picker would tie a rope to the handle of an old washtub and pull it around over the grass and pick up all the chips they could find. They would fill the tubs, then empty them into the wagon until it was full. Then it was unloaded in a pile. This operation was repeated till a pile of chips were built up to 10-12 feet long and as high as they could be piled....But oh the ashes that those chips left and that dust that settled over everything when they were taken up from the ash box.

We always said, 'it took one person to bring in the chips, one to keep the fire going, and another to carry the ashes out. Then mother with her broom and dust pan to brush up the dust.' Some job, but if we could find plenty of chips we were warm and comfortable.


As more and more homesteaders claimed the prairie land, however, the ranchers and their herds of cattle moved farther west. Without cattle or buffalo, the settlers had increasingly harder times finding fuel. They had to find other cheap and plentiful materials to heat their homes, including weeds, prairie grass, corn stalks, and sunflowers.

Settlers experimented with many different types of stoves that would burn the fuel they had available. While people in other regions of the country used coal and wood, homesteaders tried hay-burning stoves. These stoves created a very hot fire but demanded a great deal of attention, and the piles of hay inside the home created a fire hazard. Later innovations included burning corncobs in kitchen stoves or fireplaces. Whatever the fuel, settlers fought a constant battle to keep their houses warm during the fierce Plains winters.



Water on the Plains

If land was plentiful on the Plains, water was scarce and a precious necessity for families, livestock, and crops.


We will have water near the house for washing and watering stock, but for drinking and cooking I will have to haul a little over 1/4 of a mile till I get time to dig a well.
       --Uriah to Mattie, April 27, 1873
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Settlers who settled near springs or streams were the lucky ones. Knowing where to dig a well on the endless prairie required a magic touch. In some communities a person known as the "water witch" used seemingly magical powers to locate water beneath the acres and acres of dry land. Used by the right person, a "divining rod," or willow stick, waved over the land would twitch at the spot where the homesteader would find water. Because well-digging was difficult and dangerous, settlers often depended on the powers of these water locators.

Families tried to build wells as soon as possible, since water was so important for them and their livestock. Digging a well, however, was extremely dangerous work. Usually a job for men, well-digging could lead to cave-in or suffocation. Once the well was finished, the family could pull up water using a pulley and bucket. Many families eventually built a windmill, which used the power of the wind to operate a pump.

Girls and women often had the responsibility of finding water for the family if they had no well or if there was a problem with the well. Often they would carry water over several miles by foot, although many families could use a horse and wagon to carry the load. At home, the water would be stored in a cistern, or large barrel, near the front of the sod house.



Neighbors

Despite the distance between homesteads, people turned to their neighbors for support, and even survival. In a letter to his family, Uriah Oblinger describes the infamous Easter Storm of 1873:


Dear wife and baby, Now I can tell you of one of the most terrible storms I ever witnessed. Language fails to describe so that one may know just how it seemed.... The storm lasted from sunset Sunday evening till near midnight Wednesday night making near 80 hours storm.

There was a woman about a mile from here with 4 children. I concluded to make the effort to reach her... and I had to go right against the storm.... She was mighty glad to see me as they were out of wood and the ax burried [sic] under the snow. They had been in bed for 2 days only as she would break up something in the house to burn and cook something for the children to eat.
       --Uriah to Mattie, April 18, 1873
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Homesteading families turned to one another for support and companionship, creating networks of community both formal and informal. When family members migrated together they were able to help each other. But Mattie, like many other women, left her parents behind when she moved to Nebraska. Though she and Uriah were self-sufficient in many ways, they (like other homesteaders) relied on their neighbors during the settling-in period and during the inevitable hard times.


I have got acquainted with some here...They are not hard to get acquainted.
       --Mattie to her family, June 16, 1873
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I have just as good neighbors as I ever had any where. I was never in a neighborhood where all was as near on equality as they are here.... Everyone is on his own and doing the best he can.
       --Mattie to her family, June 16, 1873
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