Living in a house made of dirt doesn't sound like the an ideal situation, but some of Iowa's early European settlers did just that. They lived in houses made of sod! They were usually temporary homes, and sod house dwellers made the most of their unusual situation. The arrival of the railroads brought about changes in many areas and housing was one area that saw improvements. For those who lived in sod houses, the changes were welcomed with anticipation.
Learning to Adapt
The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged people to go west. European-American pioneers who settled in northwestern Iowa found that the land offered few trees to build log cabins and frame houses, and lumber was too expensive.
Determined settlers adapted to their environment. They built inexpensive sod houses. They cleared and cut the prairie sod into long strips. They laid the strips on top of each other, leaving space for windows and a door. They made roofs out of sticks, boards and sod. Some sod houses, called dugouts, were dug into the side of a hill.
Most sod homes were small and no matter how often families cleaned, the insides were damp and dirty. When it rained and the roof leaked, the floor became muddy. Pioneers shared their "soddies" with rodents, bedbugs and other creatures. Families tried to make their temporary homes pleasant. They plastered walls and hung curtains.
Furnishings were sparse. The pioneers used wood to make all their furniture, including stools, tables, beds and cupboards. Beds were often made from poles and ropes. Another common piece of furniture was the prairie bunk. It was made by taking a tree limb with a fork in it and using that as the corner piece. In a corner of the room, two pieces of logs or two tree limbs were rested on the forked piece and then each was attached to a different outside wall. That formed the bed frame. Slats were carved and placed on the top of the long limb and then attached to the wall. This formed the spring for the mattress. The mattresses were large sacks filled with goose feathers, hay or sometimes even corn husks. Then quilts were placed on the mattresses.
Boxes or trunks, originally used to transport a family's belongings, made tables and chairs. Puncheon stools were very common and easy to make. The pioneer farmer started by chopping a log in half, and hewing the flat side as smooth as possible. Then he cut the log into several pieces so he could have several stools. The next step was to carve four short legs and attach them to the round part of the log.
Cast iron stoves provided heat and a place to cook. Since there was little wood on the plains, pioneers burned prairie hay, cow chips and corncobs.
Railroads Bring Change
After the railroads came to Iowa, lumber was more affordable and settlers abandoned their soddies for sturdier frame houses.
While the idea of living in a house made of dirt doesn't appeal to most people, early settlers in the Iowa country were used to sacrifices. Unusual housing conditions were just one of many problems faced by early settlers. Along with the hardships they faced came hope for a better future. Soddies were viewed as a temporary inconvenience. And as with many of the problems faced by early pioneers in Iowa, new technologies and scientific advances helped to make life better.
- Mary T. Brauch Petersen, “Build a Sod House,” The Goldfinch 17, no. 3 (Spring 1996): 16.