How did a woman make a dirt house a home? Author Ellen Austin assembled oral histories from stories of women who did just that.
"Man's inventiveness in providing shelter as he advanced to new frontiers can be matched only by woman's ability to adapt and to survive rude hardships. Homesteaders to the grassy plains of American's midsection, at first dismayed by the absence of timber and stone, found that the root-tangled earth made adequate bricks for home building.
From the mid-1850s through the beginning of the 20th century, from Kansas north through the territories of Nebraska and Dakota, prairie settlers taught each other to drive teams of oxen as they pulled butterfly plows to break sod. The sod was broken in long, straight furrows the depth of the roots of bluestem and buffalo grasses. Using spades men first measured, with notched handles, then cut with blades, chunks of the sod which were then carted by wagon or stone-boat (a kind of sled) to a building site.
Stacking the chunks, row upon row like bricks, inserted simple frames for a door and windows, laying sod over pole-rafters, men soon had durable quarters while they tamed a raw land.
It was the homesteader's wife however, who was challenged to make the dirt house a home even though she may have wept bitter tears at thoughts of the lace-curtained frame house she had left back East.
Many wives must have reacted like Mrs. George Shafer when she first saw her husband's offering of a Kansas dugout home, merely a room scooped out to the side of a ill and walled up with sod bricks at the open end. According to Everett Dick's account in 'The Sod House Frontier,' Mrs. Shafer likened the dwelling to a prairie dog hole and heartily objected to living in it. But she staved, as did thousands of other pioneer women.
They were women of such diverse backgrounds that, under ordinary circumstances, they would have had little in common with which to start a conversation. Yet they shared housekeeping tips and innermost feelings as they created comfortable homes that their children would remember.
Pauline Wognt learned that the dirt-brick houses were called soddies. Pauline was thirty-nine when she accompanied Orlando, her Civil War Veteran husband, to the grasslands of Nebraska in October of 1873, in his quest for a homestead.
Neither the railroad's advertising poster displayed in the Iowa general store, nor the tongue-wagging of land-hungry neighbors had prepared Pauline for the expanse of grassland that was to become her front yard.
Both Mrs. Joseph Huckfeldt, a bride of seventeen, and her eighteen-year-old-husband spoke only German when they arrived on the Nebraska prairie in 1873. Joseph had fled conscription into the German army and, with the blessings of their families, had brought his bride to the New World. Swindled out of their meager savings in New York, the couple began a new life with no more than the clothes on their backs and their washtub. Using that tub, Mrs. Huckfeldt earned enough to provide the filing-fee for the homestead where they built their sod house.
Gertrude Huribut was offered the opportunity of studying voice in Europe, but a proper young lady did not travel unchaperoned in the late 1800s, and it was impossible for her mother to accompany her. So Gertrude stayed in Dakota, sang in the Presbyterian Church choir, and married Lewis Young, a young storekeeper.
When in 1806 Lewis hungered for grassland, Gertrude moved with him to a 160-acre homestead near the Cheyenne River in Pennington County, South Dakota. She carefully packed her silk dresses and her blue velvet opera cape into a trunk. Such garments hardly suited the rough structure that she was to call home.
(Continued next week)