The sod houses were forever dirty with their earthen walls, crudely shaved to semi-smoothness. The bare, dirt floor defied sweeping. Even the ceiling dripped dirt from stringy roots that dangled from the sod squares spread over wooden-pole rafters. A heavy downpour brought fresh trials for a housewife as the roof became saturated and rivulets ran down the roots, dripping on bedding, clothing, and family. How did a woman cope with keeping a soddy clean?
Pauline discovered that problems sometimes have a way of revealing solutions for other problems. As she swept rainwater from her floor she noticed that the earth underfoot had become as hard as cement. She learned that if she sprinkled the floor with water then swept it, the earth remained smooth, hard, and nearly dust free.
Eliminating the dirt, which dripped from the ceiling, and making the roof watertight were matters not so easily solved. There was no cash to purchase boards to nail over the pole rafters. Finishing lumber had to be brought in by rail that made it expensive. But by using the pennies and nickels Pauline had saved for a dress, Orlando bought tarpaper. He rebuilt the soddy's roof so that the paper lay between pole rafters and the sod squares that served as shingles. Inside, Pauline stretched muslin across the rafters for a cloudlike-ceiling.
A prairie wife learned to appreciate the protection her soddy provided. On the open plains the wind seemed to swish and moan all the way from Kansas to Dakota one day and from Dakota to Kansas the next. The summer wind fanned the sun's rays, parching plants and drying skin. The winter wind chilled a person, even through a wool overcoat, and it piled snow as high as a soddy's roof. But the soddy's crude wall, nearly two feet thick and chinked with mud, insulated against summer heat and winter cold, and offered an escape from the constant winds.
But what the house provided in protection from the elements it lacked in charm. Because its walls were so thick the sun's rays shone but little past the windowsills, and the rooms seemed dark and cave-like. Some women plastered the walls with a mixture of clay and ashes, and then whitewashed them for an illusion of light. A red geranium added a splash of color to the soddy when the plant burst into bloom on a south windowsill.
The wide sills provided another decorating feature to a soddy. Planks laid on the sills became window seats. The children sat there to watch the undulating sea of grasses or to trace the early morning artistry of Jack Frost on the window pans.
Food preparation also taxed a soddy homemaker's imagination. Because her house was so different from the one in which she had learned homemaking tasks from her mother, a soddy wife devised her own way of doing things. She found that the same planked sills that served as window seats for the children could hold her rising bread dough. There on a south sill the midday sun encouraged the dough to rise and the soddy wife transformed it into golden loaves of bread.
Like others, Gertrude Young learned her cooking skills peculiar to soddy living. When her bread baked in the oven a pot of beans simmered on the back of her cook stove and, on Mondays, a boiler of wash water was heated for scrub-boarding the laundry. Gertrude learned to judge just how much straw, cow chips, or cornhusks to stoke into the four-hole, cast-iron stove to accomplish a particular job.
Figuring out when to place a lemon pie into the stove oven was difficult to calculate. But Gertrude's neighbor gave her good advice - just spit on your finger and when the stove sizzles - now is it's time to pop in the pie. Summer canning, however, required three hours of even heat to hot-water-pack garden stuff. Gertrude once ran out of the stove wood while canning. Since her little boys were not old enough to fetch more, Gertrude found a fence post and stuck it into the stove. She propped the post on a chair and kept shoving it into the fire as it burned down.
Gertrude adopted a widely accepted method of keeping the family's milk and butter cool without benefit of refrigeration. The dairy products were lowered, in a wooden box, into the cool recesses of the well. The children of the family knew it was their job to fetch the cooler box and to return it.
Mrs. Huckfeldt had another method of storing her dairy products. She improvised a cooler for milk and butter by burying a large crock in a hole dug into the kitchen floor. She found that the large crockery jars were a soddy cook's mainstay. She used them for storing sauerkraut and home-butchered meat in brine, and to store the pickles which she had processed from her garden.
Mr. And Mrs. Huckfeldt worked long backbreaking hours to cultivate their quarter section. Their hard work paid off, for the summer crops of 1874 looked prosperous: young corn stood knee-high on sturdy stalks: wheat and oats, responding to warm rains and bright sun, had been scythed and stood in shock.
(Continued next week)